It’s a Wrap! Adoption at the Movies 2014

Moviegoers were treated to many films that told stories about adoptive and foster families last year. Here’s a look at nine of the biggest.

2014 was my second full year of writing adoption movie reviews. Typically, I look for themes related to adoption, considering how an adoptee or adoptive parent might react to storylines that involve loss, feeling different, or the search for identity, so I was surprised to see how many mainstream films last year directly referenced adoption or foster care. Some treated it well, and some might have left adoptive families scratching their heads. Here’s a look at some of the most prominent adoption-relevant kids’ films from the past 12 months, with talking points.


Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Released: March 7 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionMr. Peabody, a highly educated adult dog and Sherman, his seven-year-old human son, are characters from the 1960’s animated series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody adopted Sherman as an infant after finding him abandoned in a box—a reversal of the trope of kids finding abandoned puppies in boxes, but perhaps an unhelpful origin story for young, human adoptees.

Mr. Peabody is a caring father, although he can’t quite bring himself to tell his son that he loves him, and Sherman has grown up struggling with the question of his identity—is he a human or is he a dog, like his father? When a popular classmate mocks Sherman, however, saying that he is a dog because his father is a dog, Sherman responds violently. His reaction brings about the main plot of the movie. Enter Mrs. Grunion, a cruel social worker who decides that Sherman should be removed from Mr. Peabody’s home. This threat hangs over the family for the entire movie, and never really gets resolved; it just goes away.

While Mr. Peabody and Sherman strengthen their relationship by the end of the film, I can imagine many young viewers in adoptive families left afraid that their family could be dismantled due to misbehavior on their part.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • So…is Sherman a dog?
  • Have other kids said mean things to you about adoption?
  • How did you respond, and what could you say the next time it happens?

Belle

Released: May 2 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionThis period drama, set in eighteenth century Britain, struck me as a positive exploration of adoption and racial issues for preteens and teens. In the film, the highest judge of all England must rule on a case that is threatening to disrupt the nation’s slavery-based economy. At the same time, the judge is raising two of his nieces. The inclusion of one of his nieces, Dido, causes a scandal because she is the biracial daughter of the judge’s nephew and a slave.

The judge’s love for Dido is evident, and he allows her to part with aristocratic social obligations and marry for love. The film also affirms the importance and value of Dido’s race—adoption does not erase it, and it is not something to be erased. One aristocrat takes a fancy to Dido, saying that he can forgive her bloodline. Dido ultimately rejects him, saying that she wants a husband who does not see forgiveness of her heritage as necessary. She does not apologize for her race, heritage, or paternal history.

While I wished that Dido had been able to know her father (they met only for several hours), I loved the film. Belle is a thoughtful and challenging film that looks at parental, adoptive, and romantic love and the interplay between these types of love and societal classism and racism. Belle may have had somewhat limited exposure; if you missed it, it’s worth looking for.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • One character remarked, “Society disregards even one of its own when it can.” What is it about human nature that makes us so quick to differentiate and exclude?
  • How have you experienced this in your own life?
  • Which unjust laws have been overturned? Which still exist?

Earth to Echo

ReleaseD: July 2 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionThree junior-high friends have noticed that their cell phones have been acting strange recently. They decide to explore this mystery on their last night together—the next day, they need to evacuate their homes for the construction of a bypass. As they search for answers, they discover Echo, a tiny, scared alien who wants to find a way to get back to his home.

One of the boys, Alex, is in foster care and, according to his friend, already “has been moved all over.” The film’s depiction of Alex is particularly realistic and positive. Having been moved so often, he fears abandonment, but he is also loyal, brave, forgiving, and dependable. He is the first of the boys to connect with Echo, and he is overjoyed when he realizes that Echo trusts him. At one point, when Echo is in danger, he says, “I know how it feels to be left. I’m not leaving him. I know how it feels. We’re all he’s got.”

One of the characters expresses the film’s message—that kids can do anything, and that they’re not powerless. The unspoken message that shines through is that, despite having real sadness, losses, and challenges in their lives, foster kids can be the bravest, most loyal, most forgiving, and most dependable of their peers, and they can turn their experiences outward into kindness to help others in similar situations. If foster care is part of your family’s adoption story, this one might be a good pick for a family movie night.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • Which of the kids—Tuck, Alex, Munch, or Emma—do you identify with or like the best? Why?
  • Why was each boy sad to be moving from his community?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Released: August 8 • Rated: PG-13

Movies about adoptionFour reptilian brothers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are working to protect their city from the villainous Foot Clan. The turtles were raised by an anthropomorphic rat named Splinter, who refers to them as “my sons.” Splinter is a positive, nurturing father figure. He taught the turtles how to be safe, believes in them, reminds them of the need to trust him and each other, and tells them that they will be able to accomplish “amazing things.” In one scene, he says, “I became their father and they became my sons.”

There are some challenges to the film that make it a poor choice for most young viewers: We see elements of one character being murdered. Splinter uses a form of corporal punishment on the turtles that, while intended for humor, could remind some viewers of trauma experienced earlier in life. It’s also notable that the main villain is basically the adopted son of a crime lord. One character explains, “his soul has been poisoned by a dark master [who is] like a father to him.” Also, a villain mocks the turtles by suggesting that Splinter is not their true father. This could be very hard for kids who are struggling with questions of identity, belonging, and “real-ness” of the adoptive family. Most preteens, however, will enjoy the action and the portrayal of family loyalty (and their parents might remember the movies and cartoons from the 1990s).

 Post-viewing discussion question/family activity:

  • The turtles’ calling card bears the Japanese symbol for “family.” If you were designing our family’s card, what would our symbol be?

The Boxtrolls

Released: September 26 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionA villain has declared that a local infant, the Trubshaw Baby, has been kidnapped by the Boxtrolls, an underground society of tinkerers. The villain capitalizes on the public’s fear of kidnapping by creating a business for himself of hunting and capturing Boxtrolls. The Boxtrolls do have the missing child, by the way, but they didn’t kidnap him, and they have raised him as one of their own. The boy, named Eggs, after the box that he wears, was entrusted to the Boxtrolls by his birth father. After they are eventually reunited, they work with the Boxtrolls to clear their names.

I loved the warmth of the Boxtroll parents; Eggs’s father figure, Fish, won the 2015 Adoption at the Movies Award for “Best Adoptive Parent or Adoptive Parent Figure” and the Boxtrolls won for “Best Adoptive Family.” In a very sad scene, Fish is captured, and pulled away from Eggs’s arms. In another scene that could be hard for some viewers, a girl tells Eggs that he couldn’t possibly be a Boxtroll because he doesn’t look like one—and then the Boxtrolls agree that Eggs isn’t actually one of them. While this has the potential to be a fun film for kids, parents will probably want to screen it first.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • Why did Eggs fall to the ground when he heard that he had been “given” to the
  • Boxtrolls?
  • What might have been a better way for him to learn his story?
  • Can people who don’t look alike be a family?

Big Hero 6

Released: November 7 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionHiro Hamada lost both of his parents at a young age. He and his brother, Tadashi, are being raised by their loving aunt. After Tadashi dies in an accident at the university where he was a robotics student, Hiro becomes, understandably, very depressed. Eventually, inspired by the memory of his brother, Hiro joins his brother’s friends in working for the good of the world.

Hiro processes his very hard losses in realistic ways, and can provide a good model for kids who are recovering from loss. In one scene, he must explain Tadashi’s death to Baymax, the robot he invented, and does so very sensitively, sadly, and honestly. While some kids might struggle with the loss of Hiro’s older brother (he dies in a loud, bright explosion), and the near-loss of Baymax, Big Hero 6 is fun, and would be a good choice for many families with kids ages seven and up—and was the 2015 Adoption at the Movies Awards “Best Animated Movie” and “Best Movie of the Year” winner. I was also pleased to learn that the director, Don Hall, is an adoptive father.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • How did Hiro feel when Tadashi died? How did he act?
  • When do you think he started feeling better? What helped the most?
  • Is it possible to still be sad about a loss, and also to be feeling better, at the same time?

 Penguins of Madagascar

Released: November 26 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionThis animated film showcases the adventures of a family of penguins. Years ago, three penguins noticed—and then rescued—an abandoned egg. When the egg hatched, the penguin who emerged greeted the others with, “Hello. Are you my family?” One of the characters affirms this, “You know what, Kid, you’ve got us, and we’ve got each other. If that’s not a family, I don’t know what is.” This seems like a good fit for children ages five to 11. The penguins are essentially an adoptive family, but their adoptive status isn’t part of the plot; it’s just part of life. Sometimes, it’s like that in real life, too.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • What makes a family a family?
  • Private felt like he wasn’t valued as a member of the family. Have you ever felt that way?
  • What changed it for Private? What changes it for you?

Paddington

Released: November 28 (U.K.); January 16, 2015 (U.S.)• Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionWhen a young bear’s aunt decides that she is too old to care for him, she tells him of older days, when kids would wait at train stations to find new families, and suggests that he could do that. She places a note around his neck that reads, “Please look after this bear,” and sends him on a boat journey from Peru to London. The bear arrives at Paddington Station and begins asking passersby to be his family; he is ignored. Alone and dejected, the bear is at last noticed by the Brown family, who give him the name Paddington, and offer him at least one night of lodging in their home. They try to help Paddington find a family.

Paddington’s search is hindered when information about his history is withheld from him. Many adult adoptees will resonate painfully with this scene. People who were adopted internationally might resonate with Paddington’s struggle to fit in to his new London culture; he expresses, “It’s not easy being in a new place.”

The Brown family ultimately becomes Paddington’s family. One of them says, “It doesn’t matter that he’s from the other side of the world. We love him, so he’s family, and that means we stick together.” Paddington optimistically realizes, “In London, everyone is different, but that means anyone can fit in. I don’t look like anyone else, but that’s OK because I’m a bear—a bear named Paddington.”

While it’s easiest to see this film as a picture of international adoption, I also see glimpses of the best parts of foster care adoption. Mrs. Brown ultimately does become an adoptive mom to Paddington, but along the way tries to help him reunify with people who know and love him. There are some true-to-real-life problems (when Paddington breaks a house rule of the Browns, their first inclination is to have him leave), and a brief but scary depiction of an orphanage. Overall, though, this is a charming, optimistic film about successfully forming a family, while honest in depicting the difficulty in doing so.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • What makes it hard to be in a new place?
  • What eventually helped Paddington feel at home?
  • Mr. Brown said that family means sticking together. What do you think family means?

Annie

Released: December 19 • Rated: PG

Movies about adoptionIn this highly anticipated retelling, a 10-year-old girl has been in foster care since she was abandoned with a note, at four years old. Despite living with a bitter and abusive foster parent, Annie is resilient and remains optimistic. She is then taken in by an aspiring politician, Mr. Stacks, who hopes that serving as a foster parent will earn him votes. He eventually learns to put his love for Annie before his ambitions, and they become a family.

In this depiction, Annie is not a Caucasian girl with red hair, but an African-American girl. Mr. Stacks is also African-American. Of the five main white characters in the film, only one (Stacks’s eventual girlfriend) is warm and nurturing toward Annie. Her foster mother and social workers—one merely incompetent, the other cold and dismissive—are pretty awful. Although it doesn’t seem to be the intent of the film, this dynamic could reflect—and possibly plant—some mistrust of white adults involved in the foster system. And yet, race is not directly mentioned in the movie; the only allusion is a comment that Annie makes about her own hair.

Another update to the character of “Little Orphan Annie” comes when Annie corrects Stacks: “I’m a foster kid, not an orphan. I have parents.” This is an important reminder to foster parents—and society. Annie’s abandonment is atypical, however, as most kids in foster care know who their parents are and the initial, primary goal is reunification.

Throughout the film, Annie dreams about her parents and still frequents the location where she was found in the hopes that they will come back. She sings that their only mistake “was giving up me.” Kids who were adopted or are in care do think about their birth parents, and, when there is no accurate information, fantasize. This underscores how important it is to provide kids with honest information about their stories, all along.

Toward the end of the film, Stacks says that Annie healed him by giving him “what I didn’t know I needed.” While this is clearly meant to be a touching moment, it would have been better if Annie could have learned from and depended on her caretaker for emotional support. Some kids in foster care have been expected previously to function in a parental role for younger siblings, leading to “parentified” behavior. But this is unfair and it should never be a kid’s job to get a parent to be loving and kind.

I can imagine this film being challenging for kids who have had a rough experience in foster care; it will be important for parents to tell them ahead of time that the film features a very bad foster parent who is not like most foster parents. Kids who have suffered from disrupted placements or who long to be adopted, or who long for absent birth parents, might find this film hard. Outside of those concerns, the movie is generally family-friendly with upbeat, catchy songs, and should be good for kids ages eight and up.

Post-viewing discussion questions:

  • How did Annie stay so hopeful, even in hard times?
  • Do you think Annie will still look for her birth parents, after Stacks adopts her?
  • Is it possible to be loyal to more than one family at the same time?
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