Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings Adoption Movie Review

By Addison Cooper, LCSW

In ancient Japan, young Kubo lives in a hilltop cave with his mother, who is depressed most of the day. While his mother sits in silence, Kubo earns a living by entertaining the villagers with origami and music-aided stories of Hanzo, a brave samurai warrior. In the evenings, Kubo returns home, and his mother – who is much more herself at night – entertains him with stories of Hanzo, who was Kubo’s father. Kubo’s mother cautions him to never be outside after dark, warning him that if he is out after dark, his grandfather and aunts will find him, take his eye, and take him away from his mother. 

One night, Kubo participates in a ceremony intended to help him communicate with his deceased father. This ceremony keeps him out past dark, and sure enough, his aunts find him and try to capture him. His mother fights them off at great sacrifice, and uses magic to send Kubo flying to safety. 

Kubo lands in a mysterious blizzard where a talking monkey explains his situation: Kubo will continue to be chased by his grandfather and his aunts; he must go on a quest to find his father’s armor in order to fight them off.  He is not alone, but is accompanied by the monkey and a large, forgetful beetle-shaped man.

LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD THE REST OF THE WAY: but if you want to avoid spoilers, in a nutshell: a very engaging story of a kid making peace with his story of loss while also running from some terrifying members of his birth family.

The Adoption Connection

Kubo and the Two Strings will have relevance to many adoptive families, and especially to families who adopted from foster care, if the child has recollections of being abused. In this story, Kubo’s mother is the estranged daughter of the godlike Moon King. He rejected her when she fell in love with Hanzo, a mortal samurai.

Kubo believes that his grandfather and aunts killed his father. They also took one of Kubo’s eyes, and they intend to take the other one; the Moon King believes that if Kubo loses both of his eyes, he will not be able to empathize with humans, and that this will make him more like his cold, distant, immortal family. Kubo’s mother tells him that his aunts and grandfather must never find him, or else they would try to take him away. She’s right; when Kubo’s aunts do find him, they attack, and it’s only the apparent sacrifice of her life that lets Kubo’s mother save him. In a way, she sends him away from herself in order to protect him from her family.

After Kubo escapes his aunts’ first attack, he is aided by a monkey and a beetle; they help him fight against his aunts. Kubo learns that the beetle is his father, and the monkey embodies the spirit of his mother. Kubo is able to share a meal with them, although he did not realize that they were his parents at the time. Both of his parents die while fighting his witch-like aunts, but his aunts are also killed. Kubo must then fight his grandfather. Kubo manages to defeat his grandfather by drawing on the power of the memories of his deceased loved ones; his grandfather does not die, but becomes a confused, elderly mortal. Kubo and others convince him that he is a good, kind man.

As a young child, Kubo had never met his father, but learned of him through stories shared by his mother. He later expresses that memories are a strong force.

I can imagine this film being frightening to kids who have been removed from abusive situations; the theme of being chased by abusive relatives who want to take you away could be too believable for some viewers to enjoy.  Other viewers, who grieve lost relationships or unknown parents, might find comfort in a scene where Kubo unknowingly is able to share a meal with his parents. It is also comforting thought that, even though he thinks his parents are gone, they are still caring for him; and even after they die, his memory of them is able to guide and strengthen him.

This is a very good movie, but it might be too scary for some kids with particular histories. For other, older kids, it could be an interesting invitation to think about how absent or deceased relatives are still positively relevant to them.

Strong Points

Kubo and the Two Strings has created a beautiful stop-motion animation world. A highlight is watching Kubo tell the stories of Hanzo, which he animates with Origami and accompanies with his skillful playing of the shamisen.

The film captures the power of story and memory, and could be comforting for kids who could be elped by developing positive memories of family members with whom they’ve lost contact.
Kubo eventually learns the whole story of his family – how his parents met, and why his maternal relatives are pursuing him. Although it is a frightening story, Kubo finds healing and peace through knowing his story. He is able to make sense of his life, function in the world, and even bring some level of healing and reconciliation to his grandfather.

Kubo asserts that memory is a powerful magic; if he holds his parents in his heart, no one can ever take them away.

Kubo works to develop an honest and livable understanding of his experiences, “It’s a happy story, but it could be happier.” He asks his parents to be with him, and as the film ends, their spirits are standing by him.


It is uncomfortable to see Kubo caring for his mother, who initially appears to be rendered catatonic by depression. This isn’t actually the case, but kids might not catch the nuances that suggest otherwise.

The film questions the definition of family; this could be helpful for some viewers but hard for others. The question posed is: if your relatives act towards you with hate, and intend to harm you, must you still call them family? It’s a hard question without an easy answer.

Kubo uses a lamp-lighting ceremony to try to speak to the spirit of his deceased father; his father does not show respond, and Kubo is enraged. Also, it is in attending this ceremony that he is discovered by his wicked aunts. At one point, it appears that everyone else’s relatives’ spirits have come, and only Kubo has been left alone. This could be hard for kids who have unresolved grief connected to feelings of abandonment.

Although Kubo’s relatives intend him harm, we are given a brief insight into their perspective. His aunts feel that they lost their sister, his mother. His grandfather wants Kubo to be like him, but believes that Kubo must lose part of his human nature to be part of the immortal family. Even though their actions are completely wrong, it is possible to even view them with some level of understanding and compassion. They are frightening, but they are people doing monstrous and evil things rather than purely evil monsters. It may be a slight nuance, but it could be helpful for kids who need to find glimpses of good even in birth family members who have been abusive towards them.
Although Kubo makes peace with it, he does lose his parents when they are killed by his aunts. He intends to kill his grandfather, but ultimately does not have to.

Weak Points

The aunts who pursue Kubo are masked witches, and his grandfather turns into a terrifying monster. 

His aunts and grandfather want to take his eye away from him, and they kill his parents. These elements of the story likely make the film too scary for young kids (and possibly even preteens) with unresolved trauma regarding violence in their families of origin.


Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautifully animated, deeply emotional story. Kids who have experienced abuse at the hands of birth family members will certainly relate to the story but might find it too intense. Older viewers might find it a helpful tool to explore their mixed feelings towards their families of origin. The film can also be helpful for illustrating the power of memory and the power of stories. Although the film is rated PG, it does seem likely to be pretty scary for kids with certain histories, and I’m more comfortable recommending it for kids ages 11 and up. Parents should research or prescreen the film before sharing it with their kids. However, it is a beautiful film, and certainly worth considering.

Questions for Discussion

What makes someone family? Can anything make somebody “not family?” (It might be helpful to let your child express their thoughts here without leading them to a certain answer.  For kids who have been abused, it might be helpful to suggest that in a way, they themselves get to choose who they define as family. Perhaps it could be helpful even to acknowledge that some people can be (legal or genetic) relatives without feeling like family, and some can feel like family even without being legally or genetically related.)

What are some of your most helpful memories?

If you could share a meal with any two or three people that you do not see often, or that you have never met, who would it be? What do you think it would be like?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Adoption Movie Review

The United Federation of Planets has maintained peace among many species of the galaxy, which has allowed civilization to pursue exploration rather than war. Halfway through their five-year mission to explore space (the final frontier), the crew of the Enterprise is exhausted. Captain Kirk thinks about leaving his ship and applying for a promotion to a desk job; Spock thinks about leaving the ship to pursue other endeavors, and the rest of the crew needs a break. The crew answers a distress call and sets off to rescue a stranded crew, but they are surprised to be attacked by a swarm of small ships led by the mysterious Krall. Krall wants to steal a bioweapon that is aboard the Enterprise, and intends to use it to break up the peace created by the Federation.   **SPOILERS THE REST OF THE WAY**

The Adoption Connection

There is no mention of adoption. There are some aspects of the film that might have tangential relevance to adoption for some families. One alien character seems to take care of another alien character. One character has lost his father and drinks to his memory. The film’s villain became a villain because he believed he had been abandoned. Another character lost her parents when they were killed by the villain.

Strong Points

The films’ heroes are quite brave; they refuse to abandon their crewmates even in the face of great danger. Their actions contrast the villain’s charges against the Federation.

Captain Kirk is frustrated when another person is slow to get behind his plan. Another Enterprise crewmember has the empathy to understand that she has been traumatized by the loss of her parents, and explains this to Captain Kirk.

Kirk is brave, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect the civilians from Krall’s destructive plans.


A woman is disintegrated onscreen by a powerful weapon.

The woman who had lost her parents is threatened by the man who killed them, “You will die here just like your father.”

The villain intends to kill many civilians at a Starfeet base. His motivations are mixed – he wants revenge, and he seems to believe that peace is bad for humanity. Most people in the base he targets will likely interpret his violence as causeless and unprovoked.


There’s quite a bit of action in this movie, and although some characters do talk about their parents that have died and another talks about being abandoned, most young viewers will probably focus on the action. This seems best suited to parents and teens ages 13 and up.

Questions for Discussion

When people are hurt, they sometimes try to hurt other people. What would be other ways for Krall to respond?

Have you ever felt like someone forgot you or left you on your own? When do you feel secure and remembered?

When you become discouraged, how do you decide whether you should continue pursuing your goal or whether you should change your goals?

Which two characters did you think were the bravest?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016) Adoption Movie Review

by Addison Cooper, LCSW

Please note: Spoilers throughout this review. Want to avoid spoilers? In a nutshell: this one is probably good for adoptive families with kids over 8, but it could be hard for kids who are sensitive to themes of parental loss or violence. Like Finding Dory, for adoptive families this isn't a popcorn flick, but instead is a rather deeply emotional film that could be helpful for some kids and parents as they think about loss, feelings, and family formation. Spoilers ahead the rest of the way:

A young boy named Pete is on a road trip with his parents. Just after his parents commend Pete for his bravery, their car overturns. Pete’s parents die in the accident, and Pete is left alone on a road through the wilderness. Pete is sad and alone, and soon finds himself surrounded by wolves. Before the wolves can attack, they are scared away by a large, furry, green dragon. Local legends tell of a vicious dragon in the woods, and Pete’s first question is “Are you going to eat me?” This is a friendly dragon, though. Pete is safe, and names the dragon Elliot after a favorite storybook character. For the next several years, Pete and Elliot enjoy life. Their happy life is threatened when developers come to the forest. Several workers decide to hunt Elliot; Pete is fascinated by Natalie, a human girl of his own age. Will Pete and Elliot remain friends? Can Elliot stay safe? And how will Pete fit in with the other humans?

The Adoption Connection

Pete lost his parents when he was very young. He has bonded to the friendly dragon Elliot, who serves as some combination of guardian, friend, and pet to Pete. He appears to have strong memories that arise when he sees a car, which makes sense given that his parents died in a car accident. Pete is initially scared when adults try to take care of him; he runs away, and cries that he wants to go home. Pete eventually finds a home with a human family, but continues to visit Elliot.  

Strong Points

Natalie and her mother Grace take a genuine interest in Pete when they find him apparently alone in the woods. They are safe people; Natalie’s mother takes Pete home, finds out who he is, and strives to care for him, intending to take him to the social service agency in the morning.

Grace is able to connect with her own history of loss to be helpful to Pete.

Pete has several people who arise to protect him when he is vulnerable, alone and afraid: Grace, Natalie, and Elliot all help him out.

When Pete wants to run away, he tries to promise that no one ever has to see him again; Grace affirms that she wants to keep seeing Pete around. Her affirmation to him reminds me of what David says to Dennis in Martian Child – basically, “you belong here, and I want you here.”

Finding a human family does not preclude Pete from maintaining a friendship with Elliot; his human family makes sure that he is able to keep visiting his furry green friend.

When Pete and Elliot say goodbye to each other, they howl to express their emotions; it was reminiscent of a scene between Spot and Arlo in The Good Dinosaur.


An adult handles Pete roughly, knocking him out.

One of the woodsmen tries to capture Elliot, and to claim Elliot as his property. One or two scenes are a bit violent, Elliot is shot with several tranquilizer darts, and another scene involves a lot of fire; either of these could be scary for some kids.  

Weak Points

Grace lies to Pete; she tells him that he can go home, but she secretly intends to bring him to social services.


Pete’s Dragon seems best-suited to kids ages 8 and up. Younger kids might enjoy the film, but younger kids who have experienced trauma might be scared by a couple scenes where Elliot is attacked by hunters. Kids who have unresolved grief regarding lost parents might find an opening scene very hard to watch when Pete’s parents die in a car accident. It’s also pretty sad when Pete and Elliot split up – even though they are able to continue their friendship. A few kids behind me in the theater cried. Although it is sad at times, this is also the story of a young boy who is helped after a great loss by a safe friend, and who needs – and finds – a loving, understanding parent. If your kids can make it through the hard parts, this seems like a positive movie for adoptive families with kids over age 8 or so. It’s not an easy “popcorn flick” kind of movie, but it is an emotionally deep movie that could be helpful to some adoptive families for its portrayal of loss, emotion, and family formation.  

Questions for Discussion

Two people have an argument; one says, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The other says “Just because you say something is true doesn’t mean it is.” Which of their points of view do you like best?

What do you think helped Pete feel comfortable with Grace and Natalie?

Now that Pete is part of Grace’s and Natalie’s family, will he keep seeing Elliot?

How many different people cared about Pete?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) Adoption Movie Review

Dr. Erin Gilbert and Dr. Abby Yates once shared a close friendship based on their shared belief in ghosts. They even wrote (but did not publish) a book about ghosts. Years later, Erin turned her focus away from ghosts in order to teach at a prestigious university. Feeling hurt and betrayed, Abby enlisted the help of another scientist to continue her research into the paranormal. When money was tight, Abby also published the book that she and Erin wrote. When Erin learns this, she is terrified that it will hurt her chances of getting tenure. She confronts Abby, who says she will think about stopping to sell the book if Erin helps her with a paranormal investigation.   


New York City is invested with malicious ghosts who intend to kill humans. They want revenge for wrongs that they experienced in life. A young man named Rowan North is marshalling the ghosts. He has been bullied throughout his life, and promises himself that he will now become the bully. Rowan intends to release the souls of a million vengeful ghosts into the world to torment people. He even kills himself in order to become a ghost and lead his army. Erin and Abby are helped by the ghost-fighting inventions of Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and the deep knowledge of New York City possessed by Patty Tolan. The four of them become known as the Ghostbusters. They will try to capture and contain the ghosts that Rowan has released into New York.

Meanwhile, the government is aware of New York City’s ghost problem, but to avoid a public panic they proclaim that the Ghostbusters are frauds.

The Adoption Connection

There isn’t any mention of adoption in this movie. The theme of abandonment is relevant to some folks who have been adopted; Abby has felt abandoned by Erin, but they are able to reconnect and restore their friendship.

Strong Points

Abby and Erin are able to restore their friendship, even after Abby felt abandoned by Erin.

When Erin confides that she was ridiculed as a child for her belief in ghosts, Patty offers an empathic response, “Kids are mean, but I believe you.”


A few parts of this film make it likely to be too scary for young kids, but also a bad choice for older kids and teens who are prone to nightmares. There’s definitely a startle/jump factor at some points in the film. Some of the ghosts are scary rather than cute. One character speaks of being haunted for a year as a child; another character has turned to the occult in order to bring suffering upon the world.

Weak Points

One character is thrown to his death from a high window. A ghost possesses two main characters. A villain electrocutes himself in order to evade capture and become a ghost.


The Ghostbusters and Rowan North share one experience: their genius was rewarded by the public with scorn and mockery. Rowan became embittered and intended to lash out, hurting those who hurt him. The Ghostbusters were hurt a well, but they keep pursuing their work. As one says, “Who cares what people say? We know the truth.” The villain and heroines respond differently to similar societal mistreatment. I noticed a similar theme in some of the X-Men films. It is a helpful message for kids and teens (and adults) to learn: “You will probably be treated unkindly at some points, and yet it is up to you to decide how to respond. Being treated unkindly does not require you to become an unkind person, but you might have to work really hard to avoid it.” 

Unfortunately, this film isn’t probably good for most young kids or for kids who scare easily; murderous, gruesome ghosts could be hard for some young viewers to dismiss from their minds. Kids 12 and up and adults might enjoy the film, but parents should probably see it first before bringing their kids along. For families who do watch the film, there is a good opportunity to talk about choosing how to respond to unkind people, and choosing not to seek revenge.

Questions for Discussion

Do you believe in ghosts?

Have you ever felt abandoned by a friend? Did the relationship ever get rebuilt?

What does it feel like when someone doesn’t believe you? What does it feel like when someone believes you?

Rowan and the Ghostbusters were all treated unkindly. Why do you think the Ghostbusters stayed noble, while Rowan became cruel? 

What helps some people decide not to seek revenge? 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course Adoption Movie Review

Earth’s future is endangered when several asteroids are directed to Earth. An adventurous weasel named Buck finds an ancient hieroglyph which reveals that the asteroids’ impact might be predictable and preventable. Buck must convince his peers to act, but they face a couple obstacles: preventing the asteroids’ impact might cost one community of animals their access to perpetual youth, and a group of flying dinosaurs want the asteroids to hit, believing that because of their ability to fly, they alone will survive.   (Spoilers ahead the rest of the way)

Meanwhile, a ground sloth named Sid is lamenting being single. Manny and Ellie, a wooly mammoth couple, are preparing for their daughter Peaches’ wedding to Julian and are upset when they learn that she intends to travel abroad after the ceremony.

The Adoption Connection

This movie isn’t about adoption. It’s possible that the concept of leaving home might connect with kids who have experienced instability of home (Peaches intends to head out into the world against her parents’ wishes; the whole herd of animals is threatened by the destruction of their global home). A trio of villains steal an egg from an expectant parent, but the villains are thwarted and the egg is returned.

Julian believes he is part of Peaches’ family, but Manny asserts that he is not part of the family yet. 
Although this conversation is about marriage rather than adoption, it could catch the ear of some kids who do not yet feel secure in their family.

Strong Points

A group of characters decide to put their individual interests aside in favor of saving the world.

One character convinces his father to do the right thing, when his father had planned to do something cruel.

In one scene, an elderly character becomes young again; it could be fun for young viewers to imagine what their parents must have been like as children.


It appears briefly that Sid’s grandmother has died, but later she is revealed to have survived.  

A saber tooth tiger couple feels that they cannot be parents because small animals are afraid of them; after they help to save the world, kids come to them freely, and they begin to believe that they would make good parents. It might be good to ask kids what makes someone a good parent; the tigers' thoughts are a bit oversimplified.

Weak Points

A father tells his son that, apart from having his mother’s eyes, he is “completely useless.”
Manny and Ellie scheme to manipulate their daughter, rather than telling directly telling her their wishes.

A father dinosaur encourages his son to kill a protagonist.


Ice Age: Collision Course seems most likely appeal to younger viewers, ages 4-9 or so. There are some rather clumsy and ill-fitting innuendo jokes that appear to be thrown in for parents, but I imagine that they’ll fly over most kids’ heads. There are a couple scenes that could be scary for some viewers, but the film also presents a few decent conversation starters. Most adults and teens will probably find the film boring, but younger kids might like it, and parents could use the film as a way to have conversations about selflessness, accomplishments, change, how parents and kids can talk to each other, and what parents were like as kids.  

Questions for Discussion

What was a time when you chose to do something for other people, even when you wanted to do something else?

When was a time when you did something that other people thought you couldn’t do?

One character says that it is important to embrace change, sometimes. What do you think?

What do you think your parents or grandparents were like when they were little kids?

One character convinces his dad to do the right thing. What would you do if you thought your parent was wrong about something important?

How should Ellie’s parents have told her about their fears? Should they have been more supportive of Ellie?  

The Legend of Tarzan Adoption Movie Review

John Clayton’s mother had already died of natural causes when apes killed his father. He was an infant, alone in the jungle of Congo, but was noticed and raised by an ape called Kala. The apes knew John as Tarzan, and he grew up close to Kala and her son Akut, who became Tarzan’s brother. When Tarzan met Jane, he decided to return to England where he reassumed his birth name, and the title of Lord Greystoke. An invitation arises for John to return to Congo, and although he initially declines, he is persuaded to go by George Washington Williams, who wants to investigate his suspicions that Congolese people are being enslaved. When John returns to the Congo, he finds that the government of Belgium is enslaving people – and he learns that a local chief holds John responsible for the death of his son, and wants John dead.

The Adoption Connection

John was raised by apes, and known in his adopted homeland as Tarzan. He reclaims his birthname and birthright, and obviously struggles with reconciling the two parts of his identity – he initially refuses to acknowledge the name Tarzan. He is asked whether his mom was a monkey, and although he was raised by Kala and considered her his mother, he replies “of course not. My mother was Anne Clayton.” Circumstances bring him back to the Congo, where he reencounters his tribe of apes, who now view him as a traitorous deserter; their relationship is only mended after Tarzan receives a brutal beating from Akut.

Tarzan and Jane lost their first pregnancy, and the grief colors their relationship. After their adventures, Jane is able to carry a pregnancy to term.

Strong Points

Tarzan is welcomed back by the humans in the Congo who knew him when he was young.

Tarzan eventually appears able to reconcile his life as John and his life as Tarzan into one cohesive life.


Tarzan experiences much loss; his human father is killed by apes, his ape mother is killed by a human, and a fatherly tribal chief who cares about him is shot dead by a villain.
There is quite a bit of violence in the film, making it unlikely to be a good fit for most kids. An ape bites a man in the neck. A man is eaten by crocodiles. A man shoots another dead.

A local chief wants Tarzan dead because Tarzan killed his son; Tarzan killed the chief’s son because the chief’s son had killed Kala. Eventually, Tarzan and the chief reconcile to some degree.

Weak Points

Tarzan does not want Jane to come to the Congo with him; he tries to prevent her coming by locking her in her room.

Scenes of people being enslaved and Rom’s racist talk will be uncomfortable or disturbing for most viewers, but could be particularly difficult for kids who have been abused or subjected to overt racism.


The Legend of Tarzan has violence that earns its PG-13 rating; it doesn’t seem likely to be a good choice for kids. Teens and adults might enjoy the action scenes. Tarzan being caught between two identities will certainly be relevant to some people touched by adoption, but the issue is resolved without much discussion. For teens 14 and up or so, this one could be OK, but Disney’s animated 
Tarzan might be a better choice for most families.

Questions for Discussion

Is the Congo John’s home, or is it England? Can it be both?

Is his name John, or Tarzan – or can it be both?

What makes it difficult to live with two histories, two homes, and two families? What could make it easier? 

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