Disney+ and Family Traditions
The holiday break has given us a lot of opportunities to relax together as a family, which has been a blessing. Having some time off of work and school together has allowed us to hang out and play and unwind.
We like to watch movies and shows together, and several stories have captured our attention in the past month, especially on Disney Plus. We were totally engrossed with The Mandalorian series — we’ve had a standing date as a family to watch new episodes together on Friday evenings after finishing our housecleaning chores. We had also been anticipating the release of the new Pixar feature, Soul. And by happenstance, we fell into a show about the American School of Ballet called On Pointe.
We’ve written before about how one of the keys to raising teenagers is to get them talking — about anything at all. These three shows have given us some interesting conversation points over the past few weeks. Much of what we talked about comes down to tradition.
On Pointe offers a great example. One young girl — she’s maybe 13 years old — talked about how she feels free when she dances. But “free” might be the last thing you would associate with her experience after walking through a day with her in the documentary. Between school and ballet exercises and classes, she’s busy from 7 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. She does nothing else besides school and ballet and eating and sleeping. So how is it that she feels “free”?
We talk with our kids about the paradox of tradition and authority: having the constraints of structure actually gives us a more clearly defined arena in which to exercise our freedom. It’s kind of like learning to drive. If we’d given our eldest son the keys to the family van when he turned 16 — without any training or guidance — he would have been terrified and a horrible driver. There’s a very good chance he would have hurt himself or someone else. Learning the rules of the road didn’t impinge on his freedom — it gave him a way to exercise his freedom.
The same is true for this kid in ballet — she has given herself over entirely to the Balanchine ballet tradition, and that rigid structure has given her a way to apply herself to a skill through which she can create and express herself.
An interesting counterpoint in our conversation emerged with the Pixar movie, Soul. The visuals of the story are remarkable — it’s a beautiful film, and it’s well crafted. However, it leaves the viewer confused because it lacks a sufficient structure.
The main character of the story has a near-death experience, and his journey through the afterlife (and “before-life”) reveals a certain process by which souls enter and leave the world. But by the end of the story, those “rules” had been bent to the point that we lost track of what was happening and why and how it all fits together for Joe.
Pixar clearly knows what it’s doing with digital animation and character development. But this film lacks a metaphysical foundation — a tradition — and so it wanders around looking for answers. The second half of the story ceased to be compelling because we didn’t understand the constraints that the main character was facing.
Pixar has done this kind of metaphysical work before — Coco is a good example. They didn’t have to explain the Catholic worldview to allow that story to make sense, but the traditional framework of heaven and purgatory and the Day of the Dead gave the story parameters to work within. With Soul, Pixar gave the creators the keys to the van without any driver’s ed.
Tradition is what grounds The Mandalorian as well. One of the reasons it works well is that it draws from a complex story-world that has a clear metaphysical grounding. Star Wars fans know how the Force functions in this world, for example. Mandalorian fans have come to know the moral code that guides characters in that show. These are guard-rails for the story that we can adopt in our imaginations — this kind of structure gives us the freedom to identify with a character and to understand the internal conflicts they face.
All of this has been good conversation fodder with our kids. We try to touch on it lightly, but it’s not a big leap to connect these insights to religious practice. We’ve raised them in our Catholic faith tradition not because we want to control their thinking or behavior, but because we want to give them a way of life that will allow them to use their freedom responsibly, that will give them firm ground to stand on as they explore their own interior landscapes. They have to make it their own, of course, but our traditions give them an arena in which to grow in faith, hope, and love — the things that make our lives meaningful.
As Mando would say: “This is the way.”