Pete’s Dragon, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Iron Giant, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6.
Five different films that span a wide range of genres and formats (live action, animation, and even both). What exactly do all these films have in common?
The stories are born from the same archetype: The boy and his X.
The Boy and His X
Its a trope that has existed for decades, to the point of having become a deeply rooted and well established storytelling device. From Lassie and Old Yeller, to Calvin & Hobbs and Garfield, to Pokemon, Lilo & Stitch, and even Adventure Time. The trope has taken on a multitude of different forms throughout the years and has been used in various films, TV shows, comic books, and literature, still persisting to this very day.
The ‘X’ part of course means that the person or thing that the boy befriends doesn’t even have to be a dog or any other kind of animal. Heck, the ‘boy’ doesn’t even have to be a boy. It can be a man or woman, youthful or elderly, human or non-human that has that special relationship with the ‘X’ of that specific story.
As I have said before, this trope has traversed its way through many different mediums, but the one format where its become the more and more prevalent is feature animation.
Take these two films for example: How to Train Your Dragon and Big Hero 6. Two properties that, genre-wise, couldn’t be any different from each other. But when stripped down to their very core, they are both centered around a special bond forged out of less-than-ideal circumstances. In one movie, a friendship is born out of a dangerous and risky encounter between a scrawny viking and a fearsome dragon during a time of war. In another, a sudden tragedy brings a kid prodigy closer to his brother’s creation: an inflatable health-care robot.
The similarity between the two was not lost on fans of both films, leading to some heated fandom debate over whether Big Hero 6 was trying to repeat a formula that made the How to Train Your Dragon franchise a success. But here’s the thing about this particular archetype.
It’s a formula that just works.
Reasons Why It Works
In fact, there are a multitude of reasons why it works as well as it does, but to keep it simple, we’ll narrow it down to a few key explanations.
One, it’s a premise that has a readily built-in appeal. It’s the quintessential heartwarming story that’s guaranteed to bring to draw in the masses. Like it or not, there’s a reason why the major focus of Big Hero 6 is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. There’s a reason why Hiccup and Toothless have risen to become an iconic duo in animation. Everyone loves a good bonding story. Which brings me to my next point…
Two, it’s a device that taps into a very human instinct: the power of friendship in all of its forms.
It’s simply human nature to want to make a long-lasting connection with somebody. It’s why we love our pet animals. It’s why we get excited about meeting an old face again. We are always dream of that ideal relationship. It’s what makes the archetype about as timeless and universal a theme as anything else.
And three, just the sheer simplicity of the set-up (combined with its broad appeal) makes it where it can be worked into a vast amount of stories and genres. Why else would this simple archetype show up in a movie set in a fantastical viking world and a movie about robots and superheroes! It’s chameleon-like ability to take on any shape or form is also a huge factor in its longevity. Along with everything else, it further solidifies the ‘boy and his X’ story as a tried-yet-true mode of storytelling.
Now, let me end on an important question: will we ever tire of this archetype in the same way they people may eventually tire of the adorable sidekick? I honestly don’t think so.
Because it’s not simply a trend or even a genre in the traditional sense. It’s a template. A familiar yet sturdy platform on which stories of every stripe can be built around it.
Or, to put it in a much simpler term: its simply just another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. How it gets used depends on the person using it.
What are your thoughts? Are there any other animated films out there that utilize this formula?