Pete’s Dragon officially marks the Year of the Wild Child. The Aug. 11 release is about the discovery of a 10-year old boy living deep in the forest under the care of a dragon. In the last 10 months, the Orphan Raised by Wild Animals story has popped up in four films: Spot in The Good Dinosaur, Mowgli in The Jungle Book, Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan, and now Pete in Pete’s Dragon. Here’s why it’s become a popular trope…

·       Kids love animals in movies. The more connected the young protagonist is with the animals, the more kids tend to connect with the film (see Dolphin Tale, Air Bud movies). The idea that they are equals with creatures – or even “be the boss” over large, wild animals – is more exciting than eating pancakes for dinner.  

·       Living amongst untamed creatures and becoming one of them is one of our deep-rooted survivalist fantasies. It’s one thing to dream of being a Jane Goodall, who can hang with the apes. But, the fantasy is far more satisfying when it extends to developing a natural predator’s prowess, strength, fearlessness, and aptitude for survival with no modern amenities.  One could say that camping and Boy Scouts are examples of this deep rooted desire. In Pete’s Dragon, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is drawn to Pete, partially because he has lived her own childhood dream of living her days and nights deep in the forest.  Jungle Book producer Brigham Taylor says he was drawn to Mowgli’s story because of “the wish fulfillment of a kid living in the jungle among the animals.”

·       It’s the ultimate ego-trip. A kid managing-just-fine-thank-you without parents is incredibly empowering to children – yes, kids are capable, and strong, and don’t need their moms and dads to always tell them what to do! It’s why you see this story element over and over again – from Dorothy Gale to Nemo to Harry Potter to Pete.  In fact, licensed clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology Dr. Ramani Durvasula says, “The fantasy for any child is that they can be as strong and wise as an adult, and the wild child allows that myth to play out.”

·       It’s a fish-out-of-water double whammy.  Comfort in one’s surroundings does not offer an opportunity for growth, adventure or comedy, therefore, taking a character out of his element and into unfamiliar situations makes for great storytelling. For kids, it’s an instantly relatable concept because they are already constantly trying to understand the world around them and how to fit in. These boy in the wild stories work on two levels, because they don’t quite fit into either the wild or civilization.

·      It brings us back to the freedom we had as kids, which kids no longer enjoy today. Dr. Ramani says, “In prior generations, little boys got to play out their wild boy narratives on long summer days – way before iPhones – by playing in the woods and staying out ‘til the fireflies came out and mom called them in.  In a stranger-danger tech world, little kids don't get to be as wild, and so we put our ‘longings’ on our silver screens.”

In other words, the ultimate reason why we are seeing so many more wild child stories at the multiplex is the same reason Bear Grylls is popular. The more insulated we become – resulting from technology, comfort and the fear of the danger of the world around us – the more we admire characters who don’t need any devices, air conditioning, microwaves, cars. And, that’s the biggest takeaway from all of these four characters. They are all fearless, and in this day and age, who doesn’t find escapism in that?