Last summer we watched our DVD of Kung Fu Panda and I was reminded of everything that was dear and enchanting about it. In fact I was so inspired that I blogged my appreciation of the movie. I wrote at the time how I really thought it was beautiful how they didn't feel the need to make a big deal out of the fact that Po is (obviously) adopted- the filmmakers just treated it like it was normal! And that was beautiful to me. I sang the praises of this adorable and even inspirational film that not only normalized adoptive families but offered us the inspirational theme "there is no secret ingredient"- meaning we already have all we need to do the things we need to do. Here's what I wrote a year ago:
"What really moved me about this movie this time around was the way they handled the Panda's adoption. It's obvious from very early on in the movie that Jack Black's character (Po) is adopted- his father is a Goose, for heaven's sake. But they don't make a big deal about it. They never tell us the story of how Po got to be in a goose family, but yet we see them as a family for sure. It's not treated as unusual at all. None of the other characters act like it's weird for a goose to parent a panda- it's just accepted! Beautiful. And just when we think that Papa Goose is going to tell the Po some version of, "You aren't really my son..." he doesn't! Instead he tells him the secret of the famous noodle soup! Which leads us all to believe that there is a great understanding between them of how they became a family, and maybe it is none of our business. We get to assume that no matter how Po got into this family, his is IN this family. That goose is his DAD and a proud Dad he is!"
So I didn't hesitate when my boys wanted to go see the sequel. In fact, we made a big deal out of the fact that this would be Avé's very first time to go see a movie in the theatre! Last summer she just didn't know enough English to sit through a movie, but now that she's ready we thought this would be a fun first experience.
Now, of course I realize that this movie is a CARTOON and therefore perhaps you think it's not to be taken too seriously. But I beg to differ. I truly enjoy *good* animation. WALL-E was one of the best movies I have ever seen- animated or not. Any film, like any good piece of art, has the chance to speak to our culture- either to reflect it or to portray it in it's best or worst light. And when a movie has children as its primary audience it needs to be especially careful in the messages it sends.
If you haven't seen the movie yet, please know that everything I write from here on will be a spoiler. I'm not going to give away anything big about the plot- truthfully I was so irritated and distracted by the way they treated adoption that I didn't really get into the plot.
The first big disappointment came when we discover that Po doesn't know that he's adopted. Really?!?! Really. He's a panda... being raised by a goose. But he never knew he was adopted??? That would be like Avé, my gorgeous black daughter being deceived into thinking she was biologically mine. Not only would that be ridiculous, but it would involve everyone around her LIVING A LIE. The thing that I loved the MOST about the first movie turns out to be not true. I thought this family was just so okay with being an adoptive fam that they didn't even need to make it the focus of the movie! Well... I was wrong.
And then... the second big disappointment came in the way that the goose-Dad reveals to Po that he is adopted. His face and his voice are filled with such shame and embarrassment. Adoption isn't anything to be ashamed of!!! Yes, the roots of adoption are sad and always based in the loss of a first family... but that doesn't mean that an adopted child nor an adoptive family need to be embarrassed!!!! Adoption is also beautiful and redeeming! NOT something to hide from. Adopted children and adoptive families are not "less than." I hate that the movie treated it this way.
Perhaps the BIGGEST disappointment came when Po told his friends that the goose isn't his "REAL" dad. And yes... that's the language the film used. If this film hadn't already been in my bad books this in and of itself would have been a deal breaker. Unacceptable, DreamWorks. Just completely ignorant. DreamWorks script writers obviously did NO research into adoption; obviously spoke to NO adoption experts to find out how using that language would feel to adopted kids and adoptive families.
I have been asked by Avé's peers and other little kids, "where is her REAL mom?" and I answer in the way that I've learned by reading about other adoptive families' experiences by saying, "Oh, you must mean her Ethiopian mom..." or "...her first mom..." I'm so totally fine with answering questions like these that arise from legitimate curiosity. I'm all for normalizing adoption for my daughter and for all those she comes into contact with. It's obvious to anyone who sees us that I am not her first mother, and answering the question in the way I do validates both Mama Meselesh AND me AND normalizes her adoption. ...But I expect more from a company like DreamWorks. I mean... REALLY. Did they not talk to ONE adoptive family while writing that script??? I may not be my daughter's first mother, but am I not my daughter's REAL mother??? Am I a hologram???? How am I not real??? And for my daughter to HEAR THIS SENTIMENT SPOKEN WITH SUCH VALIDATION ON A BIG MOVIE SCREEN... UNACCEPTABLE!!!
And it didn't get better from there. When he goes off to discover his roots his "not REAL" Dad acts like this is the end of the world. He acts like a truly insecure adoptive parent; like Po can either be one of two things:
1. He can belong to the goose dad and not know he's adopted
2. He can know he's adopted and really belong to his first family.
I think most adoptive families ENCOURAGE our kids to be in touch w/ their cultural and biological roots! The fact is, my daughter has two absolutely legitimate families- her first, biological, Ethiopian family- and her second, adoptive, American family. And we aren't going to ask her to choose between us. She is BOTH. And we celebrate that.
You know. 'Cause it's the year 2011. Not 1950.
Later on in the movie there is a warm-hearted moment between Po and the sheep sooth-sayer person where she tells him that he is part of both worlds, and in the end there is a sweet moment between Po and his goose-Dad. But it gets ruined when he tells the goose-Dad that "the past doesn't matter." UGH. Of COURSE it matters!!!! You don't have to invalidate one family to legitimize the other!!!
Luckily Avé was a bit scared by the darkness and the big screen and the volume and asked to go to the bathroom several times. I also took her with me to get a refill on the popcorn and then later on the drinks. So she missed a lot of the movie. AND she's 4 1/2 so a lot of it just went over her head. I prompted a few conversations w/ her throughout the day to see if anything had crept up that she wanted to talk about, but I really don't think any of the movie sunk in at all. And I'm fine with that.
What a great opportunity this could have been for DreamWorks to portray all the different and beautiful ways we can become family! What a great opportunity to normalize adoption and educate kids all over the world about it. What a great opportunity to make adopted kids and adoptive families feel special and in the spotlight! But, No. That is NOT what happened. This could have been such a beautiful way to help everyone to see what adoption is REALLY like: sad and happy at the same time; finding identity and yet having to search to find your roots; accepting that some pretty crappy things got you to this place, and yet this place is sweet and good and has it's own redemption; belonging to two very REAL families at the same time; beauty and heartache all intermingled... It could have been so much more than it was.
Angelina Jolie said in an interview that she was really nervous for her kids to see the movie... and I thought, "then why didn't you say something about how that script was written???
Disappointing that in 2011 we find that most of the world (or at least Hollywood) (or at least DreamWorks) still thinks of adoption as shameful and less than. It made me really sad.