Last year the plumb, hilarious, Jack Black-voiced panda Po was the darling of many movie nights at our house. Fairly tame, and cleverly done, Kung Fu Panda was one of the few animated movies that made it past my selective, aka “mean mom”, screening process. It was a bonus it took place in China, the land of our youngest daughter’s birth, and a place near and dear to my heart.
So this year, when Kung Fu Panda 2 was in the teaser stage, I was looking forward to it as much as my kids. Then I heard it had heavy overtones of adoption and abandonment and I had to step back from the ticket window and pause. Would this be another Meet the Robinsons, where adoption issues were covered in a stereotypical (and incorrect) manner for the sake of humor and box office sales? And even if the film’s producers handled the topic appropriately, was my daughter ready for the emotions it might bring out?
Luckily, several parents in my online adoption group did the pre-screening for me. According to them, the film did get into some pretty heavy stuff and discussing it with the adoptive child before viewing was highly suggested, but in the end all four recommended it. One even pointed that adoptive mom Angelina Jolie’s involvement with the project might have been one of the reasons the film hit the nail on the adoption head so well. Since I trust these "been-there-done-that" moms more than I trust many pediatric talking heads I followed their advice.
First, I reviewed the facts of the film as I knew them and then discussed them generally with our daughter, now age 8. Although she has come a long way on her journey to heal from her difficult beginnings, prior history told me I was wise to “check in” with her and take her thoughts on seeing the film seriously. I certainly didn’t want to get all the way into this film only to find out she was not ready to deal with some of this stuff. I knew from past experience that such a miscalculation on my part could lead to regression and grief bigger than her little soul seemed capable of processing.
What a girl I have though! When I told her about the movie and wondered aloud what it might be like for her to watch the harder parts of it, she listened closely and then said she wanted to see it. Later on that afternoon as we got ready to go she disappeared and returned with her baby blanket (which she doesn’t use anymore) and a stuffed animal. She thought she should bring both to give her support. Smart kid.
At the movie theatre she sat between her biggest sister and me and draped her blanket over herself and her bear. Gummy worms in one hand, my comforting hand in the other and years of therapeutic parenting in her past, she was probably as ready as she could be.
As the movie played out before us we witnessed:
- Po’s father struggle to tell him he is adopted and then watch helplessly as Po heads off into battle, wondering if he has lost his son for telling the truth,
- Po loose his “inner peace” (i.e. concentration) when something reminds him of his abandonment during a Kung Fu battle,
- Po question who he is personally but also try to avoid his feelings about his past,
- Shen, the evil and highly insecure Phoenix, scream at Po that his parents never loved him and that was why they left him,
- A wise, and endearing, soothsayer, guide Po into remembering the details of his abandonment and most specifically that his parents loved him but had to leave him to save him,
- The soothsayer tell Po that although his past was sad this is not what makes him who he is,
- Po regain his inner peace and return to his adoptive father, because this is his “real father”, and
- An older male panda turn toward the “camera” at the end of the film and state “my son is alive”.
What a range of emotion we felt in that short 80 minutes. Everything from humor at Po’s father (a goose) thinking that Po hadn’t noticed they were of different ethnic origin to deep pain when Shen tries to convince Po that his parents didn’t love him to weepy sadness during the scenes of Po’s birthmother fleeing Shen’s army and leaving Po in a basket of radishes. Needless to say the blanket and lovey came in handy. Perhaps I should have taken my own?
The only part I did not care for as an adoptive parent was the gratuitous reference at the end to Po’s birthfather being alive. This is most likely a set-up for a sequel, but I felt that it was not realistic. There are so many adoptive children (especially those adopted from China) who will never be able to know their birth-parents and I wonder if such a scene gives them false hope. I also wonder how this will be handled in a sequel.
In the end my girl was moved but not set back by the film and I am glad we went to see it. I am also glad that I was not blindsided by the film’s heavy subject and got a chance to talk with our daughter before seeing it. Finally, I am glad that there is now a children’s film that for the most part appropriately touches on the issues of loss, adoptive parents as “real parents”, and most importantly that our past does not have to define who we are.