How A Trip To See Disney's Moana Became A Lesson In Success For My Son

A surprise preview screening to a non-conventional Disney movie had an unexpected impact on Heather Jones' kid

“And if I go, there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.”

These words from the impossibly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda are the message I hope my son took away from our outing to see Moana, both from the movie and from our host.

When I received an invitation from my friend David to see a special screening of Moana, I was so excited that I said yes before my usual, “People you haven’t seen in ages? People are scary! Abort! Abort!” flight response had a chance to kick in. David is an animator for Disney and had the pleasure and privilege of working on Moana. Between David’s frequent updates on the movie over the past year and my rather shameful social media obsession with Mr. Miranda, I have really been looking forward to seeing it. To have the opportunity to watch it with David and a group of his friends and family was amazing.

Before the movie started, David addressed the impressive crowd of people who had come to support him and enjoy his movie. As he spoke about the different people filling the theatre, from his former high school and college educators, to his first and last girlfriends, to people like me who met him while portraying a prostitute in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (but that’s another story,) he began to tear up, visibly moved by the people he feels have helped him on his journey to this moment.

David is incredibly successful in an elite profession, with countless blockbusters under his belt, but remains as humble as he was when we met 20 years ago. I looked over at my son as David showed his love to the people in the room, hoping he would take David’s message to heart. I hoped he would see that behind success is a lot of help, and that it is possible to hang onto that gratitude when you have reached your goal. David talked about many things, even handed out toys, but when I asked my son later what his favourite part of David’s talk was, he reiterated David’s message of love and gratitude.

David outlined his journey to become a Disney animator. He spoke about his childhood dream of working on a Disney princess musical, highlighting another value I have tried to instill in my children, that gender does not matter when it comes to things you like or aspire to. David revealed that a year’s worth of very hard and intensive work amounted to 1.5 minutes of his work on the screen. My son has recently taken a keen interest in drawing and has spent hours a day drawing characters and perfecting details.

"David’s explanation of the astonishing amount of work that goes into making a piece of art, and the patience and flexibility it requires, spoke to my son. Success requires work."

David spoke of his move from Ontario to California 15 years ago, away from everyone he knew and loved. A weighty sacrifice, one that affects him still today. It was a risk and a huge transition. It was clear to my son that David’s success had come with a price. I could tell he saw David as a celebrity of sorts, and certainly a role model. He was star struck by him, but mostly I could see the great respect he had for this man who had followed and achieved his dreams.

Then the movie started. It was easy to see why David had connected so well with this movie; Moana’s story paralleled his own in some ways. Moana grew up living what most would consider a fine, even privileged life, but from childhood, she knew she wanted more. She had a dream, one that was not easily achieved, but she was drawn to it by a force she couldn’t ignore. Despite knowing the journey would be fraught with challenges and having to leave the safety of her home and the people in it, she voyaged out to fulfill her destiny. The belief in herself was enough to carry her. My son was paying attention.

This was the first Disney movie I can recall with a princess who looked like a believable person. Moana was 16 years old with the body of a 16-year-old. She had a realistic hip to waist ratio, she was not well-endowed, and while she was attractive, she was not sexualized in any way. She even had wet, drowned-rat, hair-in-the-face moments that we all know so well, unlike some other princesses (looking at you, Ariel.) There was no love interest, not even a hint of one. There was no expectation of her to marry or to have children. She was expected to become chief, but even then, she was to do so when she was ready.

"Moana was simply a strong protagonist. It is rare to see a coming of age movie starring a female character where romance is not a goal."

It was both refreshing and empowering. Again, I looked at my son, paying attention. In a world where female Marvel characters are removed from boys t-shirts, and the female star of Star Wars gets omitted from the board game version of the movie, normalizing female hero roles is as important for boys as it is for girls. Moana is an incredible role model for children of both sexes, which is not something Disney has always nailed.

Between the positive and empowering messages in the movie, and the incredible example set by one of the animators behind it, my son came away from that theatre a richer person. Thank you, Disney, and thank you, David, for such an affirming experience.

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