Zoe and Owen are enthusiastic circus goers when they meet as children, and the circus is the background of their courtship growing up. But when Owen (John Krasinski) is ready to settle down with Zoe (Emily Blunt), he heeds her father’s advice, leaving the circus behind in favour of the family dog biscuit business. It’s not his passion, not even close, but it pays the bills and seems befitting of a family man. It takes a tragedy – the untimely death of Owen’s eccentric, long-lost uncle Buffalo Bob, who bequeaths to him his circus.Unfortunately, the circus is not at its best. With aging performers, absentee animals, and a ledger in the red, it’s definitely past its prime.
Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?
The good news is that Owen finds Buffalo Bob’s recipe for success, one that’ll guarantee amazing animal acts and paying butts in the seats. But he also remembers that he has not one but two long-lost uncles. Uncle Horatio (Ian McKellan) owns the largest chain of circuses in the world, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to let his dweeby nephew Owen threaten his empire.
Animal Crackers has an all-star voice cast, which is the entire list of things it has going for it. The script is clumsy, the story unremarkable, the songs subpar. It’s not going to knock the clown socks off anyone. But since we’re experiencing a movie drought due a certain global pandemic who shall remain nameless, this might just about fit the bill for a family film night. Hand out the Cracker Jack, or dare I suggest – animal crackers? – and I can promise you that young kids won’t hate it. Neither will you, of course. It’s completely harmless and completely forgettable. But it’s new and it’s available for streaming on Netflix, so step right up, put on your red nose, and prepare to be whelmed.
Jackie (Robert DeNiro) played a beloved sitcom character at the very beginning of his career, and it seems his fans only want to remember him for that one thing. He’s a stand-up comic now, desperate to rebrand himself, but audiences turn nasty the further he pulls away from his more iconic stuff. So in the style of hot-headed comedians, he allows a heckling fan to draw him into a fight, and of course it’s Jackie who winds up sentenced to community service (among other things).
At the soup kitchen, he meets fellow assaulter Harmony (Leslie Mann), an otherwise docile woman who is pushed to do violence when she finds her man in bed with another woman. This unlikely pair bonds over their mutual sentence, and agree to do each other a solid: she’ll attend his niece’s wedding with him – he owes money to his brother (Danny DeVito) and his sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) never quits breaking his balls – and he’ll attend a birthday dinner for her disapproving father (Harvey Keitel).
After decades as an insult comic, Jackie is looking to reinvent himself, but the people in his life keep him from doing so. DeNiro trained with real-life comic Jessica Kirson, who also appears in the movie. DeNiro adopts one of her signature moves, in which she whispers to herself while turned away from the audience. Lots of other comedians lend an air of authenticity to Jackie’s world: Brett Butler, Billy Crystal, Jim Norton, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, and more. Unfortunately, the comedy is just about all this movie gets right. I’m not even sure what kind of movie it’s supposed to be: some sort of May-December rom-com? Aging comedian comes of age? Light social commentary?
It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t work on any level. It feels dated, immediately. Cringe-worthy at times. It’s bloated, meandering, and has some pretty bizarre and inexplicable subplots over which I’m still scratching my head. It’s misguided. It’s tired. It has its charming moments but then there’s also a song about poop so I’m just not in a forgiving mood. DeNiro’s choices lately are a betrayal to his talent. Remember him as he was, not as he appears in this stinker.
When you get to see a movie like this, it’s kind of a privilege to get to talk about it.
Life, Animated is a documentary featuring the amazing Suskind family. Actually a fairly typical, loving American family who happen to have a son named Owen who’s autistic.
Owen, the youngest of two boys, was a happy and rambunctious little 3 year old when autism reared its head, and suddenly the Suskinds had a boy who wouldn’t talk and who’d lost many of his newly-acquired toddler abilities and motor skills. He remained quiet and withdrawn for many years until his mother recognized a pattern in his gibberish – it was actually a line of dialogue from The Little Mermaid.
Owen was a big fan of Disney cartoons and often watched them with his family. What they hadn’t realized until then was that Owen wasn’t just watching them, he was studying them. He’d already memorized the complete scripts of several movies, and was learning to equate emotions with the exaggerated facial features on his favourite cartoon characters. One day Owen’s father is able to hold his first conversation with him in years simply by pretending to be Iago, the talking parrot from Aladdin.
Fast forward to today, and Owen is a bright young adult. He’s learning skills to help him be more independent, and when he graduates, he’ll be moving into his own condo in a group home. Owen has flourished because his family was able to communicate with him through his beloved Disney movies. Disney canon became their family bible and Owen came out of the autism shell because of it. The Suskind family knows that Disney films won’t do it for all autistic kids, but they are encouraging families to find that one thing their child is passionate about, and to make it family culture. This is how they brought back their son and they only wish the same for others.
Owen’s dad Ron met the filmmaker, Roger Ross Williams (technically the first black Oscar-winning director, for a short he did in 2010), when both worked at Night Line. Ron had just written a book about his family’s experience and thought it might make an interesting documentary. Williams agreed. So do I.
I don’t know about this film’s potential to “save” other autistic kids. Owen is of course still autistic, but his parents and his brother can reach him now, they can express their love and see it reflected back, even if it’s a line originally quoted by Belle to the Beast. What I do know is that this film opens a lot of doors. This isn’t just a talking-head piece, we actually get to visit with Owen in his new situation, and his family as they continue to take on new challenges. We get to see autism in action, impacting a family and influencing a community. And we get to see that Owen is a guy with wants and needs like any other. He expresses them differently, and once you get the hang of his language, it’s not necessarily even worse, it’s just different.
Now as a young man, there’s still nothing Owen likes better than to chill with a Disney flick. When he’s feeling anxious, it’s 3 scenes of Dumbo. When he needs to overcome odds, Hercules will do the trick. When he grapples with growing up, it’s The Lion King to the rescue. It’s a code, but once deciphered, it’s actually pretty ingenious.
I do hope loads and loads of people will see this, and be encouraged to start a dialogue about what autism is and how we can all be part of a workable solution. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means not all are like Owen. Some will be more or less affected, but I think the takeaway is that perhaps all lives could be improved if only we were looking for the right kinds of answers.
This isn’t the first documentary to look at autism, but what makes this one so interesting and watchable is Owen himself, a very dynamic individual. He’s at his best at the helm of his Disney Club, where other learning-disabled young people gather to watch and discuss Disney animation. They may even run lines afterward, or play the score, and once in a while Jonathan Freeman, voice of Aladdin’s villain Jafar, drops in to lend a hand, and even Gilbert Gottfried, voice of Iago himself, has attended, but nobody knows the lines better than Owen himself.
Owen proved this at our screening at the Tribeca festival where he proudly put his skill on display, playing opposite Gilbert Gottfried, and even feeding him the lines. Many of the film’s crew were on hand, as well as the entire Suskind family, to launch this movie into orbit. There’s a lot of love and care gone into this work, and some of the best bits are when Owen’s own stories are beautifully animated (by Mac Guff). Owen identifies more with the sidekicks rather than the heroes of his beloved films, and he brings them to life in a very moving way.
They hope to take it to theatres this summer and I hope that you will all take the time to see it – it’s something special.