During family movie night some years ago, in an effort to spare my daughters’ delicate sensibilities, I lunged for the remote control to stifle “Jerry Maguire” during a sex scene I’d forgotten all about. What I managed to hit was the fast-forward button. What ensued onscreen might be described as pogo porn.
The daughters laughed, mostly at their father, but there was a lesson to be learned: Develop a better trigger finger. Also, the media is a minefield. You have to watch your step.
Parents of young children know this; parents of adopted and foster kids know it even better. It’s a lesson I was reminded of this weekend when “The Boss Baby” became an unexpected hit, and some adoptive and foster parents found themselves dealing with messages their children find painful.
A few years after the “Jerry Maguire” debacle, my gift for gracelessness was tested again when my younger daughter and I were watching “Despicable Me” and we arrived at the sequence in which Gru, not yet a good guy, returns the adorable orphans Agnes, Edith and Margo to Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls because he can’t be bothered with them anymore.
This time, I was frozen in place: What was the girl beside me — who was adopted from an orphanage — going to think?
She, too, survived. But adopted kids have to. So do their cousins in what can be the precarious circumstances of foster care. And mainstream entertainment doesn’t always help. Awareness has certainly grown among film and TV executives in recent years: Not everyone in their audience is part of the proverbial ideal 2.5-child nuclear family. But there’s no escaping the fact that rooted in our culture’s literary DNA is a proclivity for treating the disrupted family unit as a conveniently poignant narrative device. The parentless child — one whose mother or father has been killed, kidnapped, lost or just left — is a mainstay of our fiction. Evil stepmothers predate the Grimms. Fagin was a truly bad surrogate father. Tarzan probably got the best of it, being raised by apes.
It may be true that the best way to watch a kids’ movie is by sitting next to a kid. It’s equally true how easily and often one can be shocked at how insensitive the movies can be about childhood impermanence, while sitting next to a kid in foster care. (I know one pretty well.) The 2014 remake “Annie” is often cited as being among the weakest recent portrayals of foster care or adoption, with its nightmare foster parents, incompetent social-services system and an adoptive parent who comes and goes.
The “Despicable Me” series, on the other hand, is pretty good for adopted and foster children; the orphans transform Gru into a decent animated human being and they all form a fast familial bond. Similarly, the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise is concerned with recognizing and accepting differences between members of a nontraditional family, and a child’s need to know where he came from. By Chapter 3, there’s even coexistence between adopted and bio families.
But being a consumer and film critic has led me to understand that there are two different moviegoing, TV-watching worlds, and what might leave one unaffected can deeply disturb the other. The current hit “The Boss Baby” isn’t about adoption, but it’s come under fire on Facebook and on blogs like AdoptionattheMovies.com and Chicagonow.com for raising a delicate and perhaps even ridiculous question: Is parental love finite?
The infant-like character of the title, voiced by Alec Baldwin — dressed and talking like a chief executive — disrupts his older brother’s previously idyllic existence, pushing him aside, telling him he’s passé, and implying that his parents don’t have enough love to go around. It’s a story line that could kindle insecurity in any child getting a new sibling, but more so for one who is caught between biological and foster parents, has been shuttled from home to home, or has joined an existing family.
Admittedly, we parents can wax more indignant about this stuff than the kids ever would. I used to worry, once in a while, about “Modern Family,” in which the adopted daughter is Vietnamese, like my daughter. The show is not above making Asian jokes. “Will she be able to pronounce it?” someone asked in an early episode, when told the child would be named Lily. My daughter didn’t get it. The bad-driver jokes, too, roll off her back. She loves “Modern Family,” probably because it’s funny. That’s basically it.
What does bug her are movie and shows in which adoptees are other than normal kids. She cited “Parenthood,” which before its demise in 2013 had been the target of some withering criticism on adoption blogs. “They always make adoption a big problem,” she said, speaking generally.
Elsewhere, my foster son adores “The Boxtrolls,” the 2014 stop-action movie in which a young lad is “kidnapped” (as in rescued) by a gnomish tribe of gentle subterranean garbage collectors who are the targets of a genocidal exterminator; until late in the game, the boy has no idea he is not himself a boxtroll, and ultimately reconciles his human family and the one underground. I’ve also found an enlightened attitude in some very unlikely places: “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” for instance, was largely concerned with the three rodents’ fears that their father figure, Dave, would leave them for kids more like himself. It treated the issue with enormous sensitivity.
Sitting through a Chipmunks movie, of course, is a lot to ask of parents, adoptive or otherwise, and you hate to admit you have done it. But at least you weren’t sandbagged by some antediluvian notion of how family is supposed to work.
I’m no expert. Arguably, anyone incapable of operating a remote control shouldn’t be entrusted with children. But I have some. They possess a variety of origin stories and, some might even say, issues. And it would be nice if, when they watched a movie, they always felt at home.