(From the perspective of an orphanage caregiver)
We’re doing part 2 of our series, Reviewing Kids’ Movies About Orphans FOR Orphans. As we mentioned last month, Hollywood has an insatiable interest in using the orphan-typed character to highlight rags-to-riches story-lines. This is especially true within the classic kids’ genre. Whether it’s Simba, blaming himself for his father’s death, Harry Potter finding family at school, or Little Orphan Annie being verbally abused and used for labor in a home, we just can’t get away from the orphan motif.
These movies are often visual, story representations of the very real suffering and experiences our children have lived. Sometimes the inherent message behind the entertainment is helpful, and can even spark encouraging and therapeutic discussion. Other times, the message and subplots are dysfunctional, and the overt relatability is dangerous.
Before we begin this month’s orphan movie reviews—if you didn’t get a chance to read Part 1 of this series, you can check it out HERE.
Toy Story 2
Still standing, arguably, as one of Pixar’s most memorable and loved films, Toy Story awakened the imaginations of children around the world. Imagine all your toys coming to life when you aren’t around! With all of Pixar’s films, the embedded lessons about human relationship and family are at the core of their creativity. Toy Story 2 is no exception.
When Woody, our primary toy character, is stolen from his boy-owner, Andy, the rest of the toy gang embarks on a perilous journey to find him and bring him home. Woody has been taken by an adult toy collector, who owns one of each of the “cowboy” collection that Woody is a part of, including “Jessie the yodeling cowgirl”, “Stinky Pete the prospector”, and “Bullseye the horse”.
It is when Woody meets Jessie that we begin tapping into a story-line and set of emotions that many of our children in shelters will resonate with. As we discover, the character Jessie did not end up with the collector because she was similarly stolen, but because she had been disregarded and given away by her family.
It is an intense personification of an everyday practice—children who outgrow their toys will give or throw them away. But Jessie, the living toy, processes the scenario as family abandonment and a loss of secure relationship. Her mournful song will most certainly reflect the emotions and thoughts many of our children share towards their own mothers:
“When somebody loved me
Everything was beautiful
Every hour spent together
Lives within my heart.
So the years went by
I stayed the same
But she began to drift away
I was left alone
Still I waited for the day
When she’d say, ‘I will always love you’
Lonely and forgotten
Never thought she’d look my way
And she smiled at me and held me
Just like she used to do
Like she loved me
When she loved me.”
The coinciding montage of Jessie’s happy memories with “Emily” ends with Jessie placed in a donation box, looking confused, betrayed and disheartened.
Fortunately for Jessie (and our kids!), her story-line is about finding purpose and belonging in a new family. Jessie is eventually taken in by Andy, Woody’s owner, who writes his name on the bottom of her shoe in permanent marker, symbolizing a lasting bond.
Being aware of Jessie’s song and mournful dialogue is wise. Children watching the film will be forced to reflect on the painful sentiments of abandonment and confusion. However, the ending of the film is one of direct empowerment that mirrors the process of adoption, or even finding security within a healthy orphanage family. Therefore, we believe that Toy Story 2 could be an excellent resource for positive healing.
How did Jessie feel when Emily left her in the box? Do you think those feelings are bad? Why or why not?
What are some things that Woody and the other toys can do to help Jessie feel comfortable in her new home?
Do you think Jessie has forgotten about Emily, even though she is happy in her new family?
Disney’s Frozen was an international sensation. Grossing at $1.28 billion dollars, the main song, “Let It Go”, was translated and sung for children in 25 different languages. Especially geared towards young girls, it was a massive success that had its audience singing, dancing, and wishing to be just like “Elsa”. But what messages does the story offer children living in a shelter?
Born as princesses of Arendelle, sisters Anna and Elsa spend the majority of their childhood separated from one another and in isolation. This, to protect Anna, because Elsa possesses the unruly power to create and manipulate ice and snow, but cannot control it. The isolated princesses are then orphaned as teenagers, when the king and queen set sail on a royal journey overseas, and are shipwrecked.
The orphanhood of the girls is necessary to the plot-line, because our story soon settles on Elsa’s identity crisis of becoming queen, while simultaneously hiding her powers for fear of harming those she loves. The pressure culminates in Elsa abdicating the throne, running away into the mountains, and creating her own castle of ice in which to live, forever alone.
This moment of resolve to isolation and “releasing her powers” is where the famous song “Let It Go” takes place. Elsa sings about her satisfaction in pushing everyone away and destroying old boundaries, saying,
“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know…
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway”
Unfortunately for every caregiver of children with trauma, Elsa decides that the best way to combat fear is to say,
“It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
The reality is, Elsa is responding to a severe identity crisis, as a result of childhood trauma and isolation, by lashing out. For those of us working with abandoned and orphaned children, we know these moments all too well. Upon watching the remainder of the film, we understand that the intention was to resolve this crisis through family acceptance and a reuniting scene with sister Anna. The execution of the healing scenes, however, was underwhelming.
Elsa’s “Let It Go” moment was, by far, the most beautiful, and the most memorable. The famous, dysfunctional song, that millions of children have now sung for themselves, was award-winning and widely beloved. For children of trauma, who often feel that they have guilty, dark and dangerous parts of themselves hidden away, the message is damaging. Children are subliminally taught that divergent behavior and isolation are acceptable and good outlets for internal pressure and confusion.
Frozen is a beautiful movie filled with fun music. The intention behind it is to empower young girls to accept themselves, and work towards healing and integration from their past traumas. However, the climax of the film is unfortunately misplaced, and Elsa’s lowest moment is the most widely celebrated. When showing it to our children, we need to be aware that unhealthy defense mechanisms are glorified, and we may need to combat that message with the truth afterwards.
When Elsa was hurting inside, she left Anna and made her own castle. Was that a good idea? Why or why not?
What could Elsa have done to feel better, instead of leaving?
Was Elsa happier when her power was a secret, or when Anna helped her with it? Why is that?
As caregivers, we don’t want to miss a single opportunity to help our children heal from their past, and learn the truth of who they are inside. Movies are a perfect tool, because they are simply visual stories. And stories have, and always will be, relatable metaphors into our own journeys, pains, hopes, and future victories. Kids’ movies are no exception! So watch them closely, divide the good from the bad, and start a conversation as a family.