MOVIE LAND — Let’s face it fellow movie-lovers, there’s simply too much quality filmmaking going on to consume in a single lifetime.
Without calling on the “back in my day” lament, we’ll just say there was a time when films were bound by practical effects, most theaters only played Hollywood’s top 10 list and the home market was dictated by a Blockbuster membership card. But these days, quality visual storytelling is everywhere — ranging from enthusiastic Youtubers to Oscar worthy, multi-million dollar productions.
That’s why for, in addition to the Clyde Brothers and Curtis Linnell’s brilliant film reviews, and of course the always entertaining KSL Popcorn Report podcast, I’ve started looking at some of those smaller projects, the people behind them and the many unique ways to experience film here in the state of Utah for the KSL Indie Report.
To get things started, this week we’ll be looking at the Roger Ross Williams documentary “Life, Animated.” The Oscar-nominated film has been featured by both the Utah Film Center and Salt Lake Film Society, and is now streaming free for Amazon Prime Members.
Like always, let’s talk about the highlights:
The premise
“Life, Animated” explores the life of Owen Suskind, a young man who, up until the age of 3, seemed just like every other Disney-loving toddler. But as Owen’s ability to communicate begins to rapidly deteriorate, his parents find themselves looking for answers in a world just becoming acquainted with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As doctors inform and remind the Suskind family they may never connect with their son on any meaningful level, Owen’s dad discovers a key to reaching his son again through Disney animation.
Why you’ll love it
“Life, Animated” embraces its simple nature by celebrating Owen.
Yes, this is a movie that deals with the effects of ASD, and yes, there are real issues the Suskind family is forced to sort through, but these details are only explored as far as Owen is concerned.
Instead, “Life, Animated” examines the meaning of life through Owen’s eyes, which can only be done with a generous helping of Disney animation. The exaggerated facial expressions and catchy musical numbers of “Aladdin” and “Peter Pan” not only work to help Owen understand his surroundings, but they also provide audience members with a glimpse into a day in the life of Owen Suskind.
In the end, beautifully rendered cut scenes and a ridiculously likable sidekick go a long way in creating a movie that will make you think, smile and want to be a better person by the time the credits roll.
Will it win?
With the 2017 Oscars just a couple weeks away, the obvious question is, can “Life, Animated” win the gold trophy?
With “Life, Animated,” Williams’ commitment to simplicity makes it difficult to draw on emotional moments later in the film. It is true, when Gilbert Gottfried shows up you’ll probably find yourself wearing the same grin Owen dons, but when it comes to moving speeches or inevitable heartbreak, Williams decision to only touch on family grief or the enormous burden Owen’s brother feels ultimately tempers emotions throughout.
I suspect Williams knew emotional impact would be a casualty of the way he designed this narrative, and for the sake of his intended audience and commitment to Owen’s perspective, it was a price he was willing to pay. But that also makes the chore of standing out against fellow nominees, “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Fire at Sea,” a difficult one.
This is important to point out mostly because, while I definitely believe “Life, Animated” deserves its nomination and has a chance to win, if you’re looking for that traditionally heavy, award-bait kind of documentary, you should know this isn’t it. In fact, “Life, Animated” is, appropriately, kind of the Disney version of that movie.
If you’re getting ready for the 2017 Academy Awards by viewing all the nominees before Feb. 26, “Life, Animated” will be a bright spot in your movie marathoning ways. As a casual film, there are still plenty of reasons to add this to your must-see list, the biggest of course being the likable Owen Suskind. And for anyone interested in a family’s perspective on ASD, this is a film you should actively seek out.
If in general, however, you’re just not the kind of person who enjoys documentaries, “Life, Animated” probably isn’t a movie that’s going to change your mind.