Essays · Movies

Hollywood’s Wild Boys of the Jungle

By  · Published on August 12th, 2016

We’ve spent an entire summer chasing feral boys through the woods.

Hollywood’s decided to take a hike if the trifecta of The Jungle Book, The Legend of Tarzan and the recent Pete’s Dragon is any indication. Why the studio’s sudden interest to go “into the woods” as Stephen Sondheim once said? Why are there three summer movies starring feral men/little boys grappling with society? I can’t say I’ll definitively answer those questions, but let’s hash out some thoughts.

The most obvious element to deconstruct is the alpha male. Both Jungle Book and The Legend of Tarzan have their roots in colonialist literature surrounding the alpha, with the young man (Mowgli and Tarzan aka John Clayton) ripped from the trappings of the British aristocracy by an unforgiving landscape filled with savages, both human and animal. The original texts see Mowgli and Tarzan becoming the alpha males of their respective domains, a literal element in Tarzan, with the intention of colonizing the vicious jungle for Queen and country.

Suffice it to say times have changed, and one of the main criticisms lobbed against The Legend of Tarzan was its dated racial connections. In this newly minted version of the tree-swinging aristocrat, John Clayton has given up the jungle for the staid British life. He’s drawn back into the past he’s given up when claims of slavery are presented to him. Tarzan, newly wrapped in the trappings of a wealthy society that had its own views of oppression, decides to go back into the savage wilderness to stop other white men from exploiting the African citizens. To quote BuzzFeed’s Allison Willmore, Tarzan here is “woke.” The Legend of Tarzan gives us a feral man who’s become civilized, but who ends up realizing that his “tribe,” both a literal African tribe as well as the people he considers close friends, are all housed in an isolated location free of capitalistic, white influences. He becomes the white alpha male of his new society, and though there’s meant to be unity, the time period leaves Tarzan’s conception of togetherness problematic.

Permeating all three films is the idea of “finding your tribe.” Much of what makes the concept of the feral person so appealing is that the woods/jungle allow a sense of true self to flourish. Tarzan, Mowgli and Pete understand themselves best when they revert to their animalistic influences. Now, past incarnations of Tarzan saw said animalism taken literally, and The Legend of Tarzan presents a near superhero version of Tarzan who has adapted his animal nature to blend into societal trappings, while the other two little boys are just speedy or adept at climbing, either way, time in the woods bodes well for Darwinism.

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The Jungle Book’s Mowgli has been cast into a cruel world after losing his parents to the jungle, but he’s adapted by befriending the animals, and being a hybrid outcast, both man and wolf. It is this juxtaposition – to have a wolf’s bravery and defend his “pack” while deciding whether to give that up for civilization – which propels the story. Mowgli’s eventual acceptance of the “man village” isn’t out of fear, as Shere Khan is destroyed, but is a decision that shows his transition into adulthood. He understands that one can remain a jungle boy forever, so long as the jungle remains in his heart. Mowgli finds a new tribe, while retaining the memories that come from his past. Like Tarzan, Mowgli ends up entering a new place where he is part of a community, as opposed to Tarzan’s attempts at moving towards a more perfect utopia for everyone to inhabit but still firmly sees him in charge.

Pete’s Dragon hews closer to The Jungle Book, and not purely because both films place a feral boy in the spotlight. Pete’s time in the woods and his interactions with the dragon Elliot act as a coping mechanism for loss. Pete retreats into the woods to deal with the trauma he’s experienced. Isolated with Elliot, Pete’s able to find the safety and home that’s eluded him. Once he’s brought back into society – unlike the previous films, Pete’s Dragon is the only one where man actually infringes on the woods themselves – Pete must decide whether his animal and human sides can mix.

Unlike the previous two films, Pete actively debates whether one lifestyle is preferable to the other. On the one hand, Elliot is the woods, and Pete’s able to be free, but the family he’s found in Millhaven accept Pete’s eccentricities. Pete’s Dragon gives us the union between the two ideals: Pete finds the tribe that allows him all the comforts of the forest while maintaining a happy and normal home life. At the same time, Elliot is still out there, representing Pete’s true nature in spirit, and the boy can visit whenever he wants.

What’s most interesting to note is we’re given three feral boys, but where are the feral girls? The concept of females in the woods is generally the stuff of horror movies, and female feral children are few and far between. One of the most recent ones is 2013’s Mama, where two orphaned girls turn feral, surviving with the help of a benevolent, if obsessively maternal entity. There are similarities to Mowgli and Pete, but Mama uses the concept to perpetuate horror tropes regarding motherhood, giving us two wild hellions so out-of-control they’re not human and/or have ghostly/demonic connections.

Maybe with the country so divided, the isolation offered by the feral child/man is soothing. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into nature and never come back? Or possibly it’s sparking a return to masculinity and one’s alpha male roots, a concept that’s a bit more troubling than reassuring. Either way, this is the summer of the wild child!

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Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.