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Is Kung Fu Panda 2’s adoption theme cause for concern?

Adopted children are being led to believe that the stories of their births will make them happy. DreamWorks should know better Adoption is a frequent theme in children’s films, but its treatment can give rise to concern.


Recently, some adoptive parents have detected unsympathetic messages in Tangled, Despicable Me and Hop. Kung Fu Panda 2, however, does its best to uphold currently orthodox doctrine. So this one shouldn’t pose any problems. Should it?

Po, the martially artful bear of the title, grows up as the son of Ping, a noodle shop proprietor who actually found him in a radish crate. As Ping is a goose, Po ought perhaps to have questioned his parentage, but didn’t. Ping doesn’t tell him the truth until he’s grown up, which is of course regrettable, but Ping is pretty embarrassed about this so it’s all right.

Once Po realises he’s adopted, he’s beset by an identity crisis so troubling that it distracts him from the very important war he’s waging to save China from an evil peacock. “Who am I?” he asks himself. “Where did I come from?” To attain the inner peace his kung fu master tells him is a necessary condition for success, Po must uncover his origins.

He finds the village whence he came and acquires what he thinks are the facts. This enables him to prevail over the peacock and to rescue the country. At peace with himself at last, he returns to Ping and embraces him as his true father. Thus both the necessity for genetic truth and the primacy of emotional investment are duly asserted.

Barely half a century ago it was still thought best for adopted children to be denied not only the details of their biological parentage but sometimes even the fact of their adoption. Now, of course, the opposite view prevails. And there’s no doubt that, as they grow up, most adoptees do want to find out where they came from. Po’s example may encourage children to feel they can attempt this without disrupting their existing familial relationships.

Yet there’s a bit more to it than that. Luckily for Po, his quest is successful. Adoptees in the UK have had the right to see birth records since 1975 and are given help to find out more. Nonetheless, some will have to live in permanent ignorance of their full background, especially those adopted from overseas. Po is not only spared such a fate, he enjoys further good fortune: his history turns out to be just as he might have wished it.

Many adopted children are tormented by the fear that their parents deliberately abandoned them; this can make them feel worthless. Conveniently, Po learns that his mother did everything she could to protect him before (apparently) being hunted down by the wicked peacock’s wolves. Some of his human counterparts may end up receiving rather less welcome tidings.

Other youngsters, beset by the usual adolescent anxieties, convince themselves that contact with their birth parents will be the answer to their problems. This may be far from the case. After all, some will have been adopted from care after parental abuse or neglect. Finding out the truth could be traumatic.

The Adoption Reunion Handbook quotes Jackie, who found her birth mother after a two-year search only to discover she had little interest in her daughter. “You think that when you find your birth relative, they will be everything to you, but it can make things worse: you can be horribly rejected all over again or find out things about your past or your birth parents that you don’t want to hear … You can end up feeling like a lesser person, a total reject.”

Some adoptees might do best to leave their backstory unexplored. Certainly, they may not all benefit from a storyline that advocates laying it bare in order to find success in life. The implication that a person’s backstory will be comforting may be even less salutary.

The original Kung Fu Panda gives the impression that Po was probably adopted but that this is no big deal. The new film does get round to proclaiming that it’s not where you’ve come from that matters but where you’re going. Nonetheless, its story conveys a different and less inspiring message.

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