In discussing Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, David Foster Wallace once said that the typical characteristics of bad writing, like flat characters and an inhuman narrative world, become “an ingenious mimesis of a bad world” when all the author does is provide “mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.” His point reveals how art that seeks to affirm its maker’s preconceived notions about any given circumstance or state of things by holding a predetermined mirror up to itself may ultimately constitute an act of deceit that willfully rejects narrative or thematic complexity as a rule.
Life, Animated, a documentary focusing on a family who uses Disney animated features as a therapeutic tool for their autistic son, operates under such a rule by taking as its premise the notion that Disney films are inherently jubilant sources of warmth and useful information for children coming of age in a complex world. Accordingly, director Roger Ross Williams stages scenes and conversations to naturalize Disney films as an organismic component of human life and never once addresses the corporation’s wholly manufactured stranglehold on turning adolescent desire into a consumerist impulse.
Williams charts the ways Owen Suskind, now 23 years old, memorized Disney films as a child in order to make sense of the social conditions in his surroundings. The doc doesn’t argue that Owen did this consciously; rather, his developmental relationship with language halted through echolalia, a common autistic condition that causes the subject to repeat the words of others. Encouraged by his parents Ron and Cornelia, Owen used (and continues to use) the movies for what they retroactively term “Disney therapy,” which amounts to helping Owen funnel his lived experience through the narratives and characters of these animated tales.
The film repeatedly emphasizes that Owen uses mimesis as a clinical tool for coping with his emotions, but Williams merely accepts the assertion of Disney films as an empowering object by allowing Ron to advocate as much through a series of interviews in which he recalls breakthrough moments from Owen’s childhood, as when he utilized a stuffed toy to engage Owen in conversation. While such anecdotes are instructive for understanding Owen’s condition, their deployment as sources of encouragement reinforces the doc’s overarching belief that there’s a grandiose power to Disney films that cannot be immediately understood. If Williams stops short of literally bestowing them a religiosity, as much is implied through a deliberate staging of moments where the animated films provide a source of existential solace or comfort, as a religious text might. When Owen first moves into his own apartment, he lies in bed at night, alone, watching Bambi, so that that film’s early scene of parental loss flatly replicates Owen’s newfound solitude.
Life, Animated has a fundamental stake in affirming its undergirding premise. Since Williams never introduces a figure that asks whether Owen’s condition could see similar progress by memorizing, say, the plays of William Shakespeare or any number of millions of other potential sources for therapeutic use, the doc indulges a particularly deplorable form of brand allegiance, one which blankly replicates the tribulations of a Disney narrative as the very conditions informing Owen’s ongoing struggle. When Owen describes himself as “the protector of the sidekicks,” referring to his empathy for several of Disney’s supporting characters, it’s clear Owen has no protector. In the end, Williams stages a scene of Owen sitting in an empty auditorium as a Regal theater-chain employee, sporting a shirt with both a Regal logo and a Coca-Cola ad while watching a Disney film. Call it Life, Capitalized.