Disney characters are so beloved that it’s easy to forget they’re also commercial products, united by the marketing heft of a massive corporate entity. Their history is also riddled with culturally problematic representations, from the Middle Eastern stereotypes of “Aladdin” to the black crows of “Dumbo.” But such a skeptical reading is irrelevant to the appeal of “Life, Animated,” documentarian Roger Ross William’s straightforward but innately touching look at a young man with autism for whom Disney characters represent salvation from his condition. It’s the best Disney movie that Disney didn’t make.
Williams (who won an Oscar for his short “Music By Prudence”) follows up his look at homophobia in “God Loves Uganda” with a far more intimate project. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s book, “Life, Animated” revolves around the plight facing Suskind’s autistic son Owen, who spent several years of his life without speaking before learning to communicate on his own through Disney cartoons. This inadvertent breakthrough, which arrived for the family just as they were losing hope in their son’s ability to make progress, perfectly suits the visual medium. Blending interviews and verite footage with bountiful Disney clips and animated sequenced produced by the independent studio Mac Guff, “Life, Animated” dips in and out of real life and Owen’s fantasies, representing its subject’s delicate world in much the same way that he experiences it.
Williams cuts between Ron Suskind’s account of his son finally learning to communicate and images of brightly expressive Disney staples — “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” chief among them — to show how the movies’ expressive elements provide Owen with the ideal means of making the activity around him more tangible. It’s a fascinating psychological advancement that no amount of nineties-era brain science could have anticipated.
While Owen’s emergence from his internal life could fill an entire movie, it actually makes up just the first mesmerizing act of “Life, Animated,” which largely focuses on his young adulthood. It’s here that the college-aged Owen has emerged as a surprisingly eloquent, good-natured young man — still in throes of his disease but nevertheless figuring out methods of working through it. Williams’ camera watches as Owen leads thoughtful discussion groups with other autistic students (and cameos from “Aladdin” voice actors Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, who surface to help Owen restage a key scene). His assertiveness carries over into a romance with his girlfriend Emily, in an adorable subplot that ultimately snowballs into the tiniest semblance of drama during the movie’s final act.
With the majority of complimentary interviews coming from Owen’s parents, “Life, Animated” doesn’t make any sweeping attempts to explore the broader ramifications of Owen’s obsession or how it speaks to autism as a whole. Which is not to say that the narrative strains from that limited perspective. Owen’s sweet, innocent demeanor provides the movie with all the charm and touching qualities of the stories that he obsesses over.
“Life, Animated” mostly focuses on saluting its subject’s perseverance, but it also excels at clarifying how he sees his situation. Williams’ ace in the hole is the original animation, a mixture of black and white and lively colors that undulate with a dreamlike quality that speaks to Owen’s uneasy relationship to the world. These moments, which provide a recurring look at a story Owen wrote about Disney sidekicks, single-handedly outdo anything in Disney’s contemporary roster. (Cut together as a short on its own, the vibrant scenes might give Pixar a run for its money, too.)
While Owen finds his footing with Disney cartoons, his family does much of the heavy lifting. Aside from his parents, “Life, Animated” showcases the formidable efforts of Owen’s good-natured brother Walter, who speaks to some of the more unorthodox challenges involved in aiding his sibling (such as trying to explain sex to a man whose main reference points are children’s stories). For Owen, whom Williams constantly observes muttering cartoonish voices to himself, the Disney universe is an alphabet for interpreting human emotions. Williams hardly overstates the Disney connection by regularly cutting away to Bambi and the Hunchback of Notre Dame to illustrate Owen’s struggles as he perceives them.
But “Life, Animated” gets particularly engaging when Owen speaks up for his concerns with greater nuance than any Disney classic could. “Why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy?” he asks his mother, though in his gentle, unassuming way, he seems to understand that some questions have no easy answers — or clean happy endings. Whenever he expresses his individuality, the movie becomes more than just a sentimental look at learning to accept an irreversible condition. Disney is his life, but in his ability to apply it to broader ends, also a kind of prolonged art project. “Life, Animated” may be the best commercial Disney could ask for, but that’s only a side effect. The purity of Owen’s relationship to the material transforms it into something more powerful than the company itself could ever accomplish.
“Life, Animated” is now in limited release.