Children’s Movies Have Too Many Orphans

Parental separation makes for a great plot point, but try telling that to a parent of an adopted child

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What do Rio, Rapunzel and Puss have in common? Parental separation.

Consider for a moment some of our children’s greatest fictional heroes. Luke Skywalker grows up thinking his father is dead. Harry Potter: orphaned as an infant. Ditto Superman. One looks further into the literary pantheon for the pint-sized — Cinderella, Spiderman, Tarzan, Sleeping Beauty, Lemony Snicket’s Baudelaire children, Batman, C.S. Lewis’s Pevensie kids — and it’s hard not to spot a common familial theme: where the hell are all these kids’ folks?

Obviously it’s Mythmaking 101 to begin a hero’s journey with some initiating trauma. But does that trauma have to occur so frequently before the hero’s earliest memory? Maybe it does. Maybe kids who grow weary of their parents’ nagging and failure to understand them see these stories as a way out. Maybe, on some abstract level, all of us think when we’re young that any moment an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Hagrid or holographic Jor-El will appear in our lives to whisk us away on a string of exciting adventures, after telling us where we really came from.

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But I (and as many as a million sets of parents like me) don’t have the luxury of thinking about parental separation in the abstract. That’s because one of my own personal heroes has gone through it as well: my 7-year-old son, Max.

I hasten to add that Max is a happy, well-adjusted child. We have an open adoption, meaning that both his birth parents and their families are part of his life. He understands where he came from and why he’s here with us. And needless to say, at birthdays and Christmas he cleans up.

But some adopted children under less happy circumstances, like Harry Potter with his hateful relatives at 4 Privet Drive, struggle with abandonment issues and other psychological hurdles. Even kids who land with adoptive parents as loving and supportive as Jonathan and Martha Kent may wonder why they were “given up.” (Actually, the correct term is placed. Bridle against PC language if you will, but watch what you say in front of my kid). And as such, should parental separation be such commonplace story fodder for entertainment aimed at kids?

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Of course one can point to any number of counterexamples just in Pixar movies alone. But I don’t think I’m overacting. This year, I’ve had to have The Adoption Talk with Max after almost every film I’ve taken him to see, because they all had lead characters who were taken from their parents at an early age. Rapunzel in Tangled, Po in Kung Fu Panda 2 and Blu in Rio all grew up far away from their biological progenitors. The origin of Rango‘s title character is shrouded in mystery, but his love interest Beans is a card-carrying member of the Dead Dad Club. I’m glad Max is too young for Thor, in which one character’s belated discovery of his own adoption contributes to inter-dimensional catastrophe. By the time we came out of Puss in Boots last weekend, I didn’t even feel like discussing Puss’s fraught relationship with his human adoptive mother. And that’s not even mentioning last year’s Megamind (with the title character’s Superman-like escape from a planetary catastrophe that kills his parents) and Despicable Me (which we avoided entirely based on word-of-mouth from fellow adoptive parents).

For plenty of kids, stories about young people with dead, absent or galactically evil parents are a novelty, a look into a different life. For other kids, they can be a raw nerve. Most raw nerves are treated with some sensitivity, but not this one. And that’s why I’m going to think twice before going to see the upcoming and much-anticipated Hugo, about an 11-year old orphan in Paris who explores his father’s dark past. Even if it is directed by Martin Scorsese.