Top 10 Movies About Finding Your Adventure
Being a young person is one of the worst things in the world. I recommend avoiding it if you can. Children and young adults are at almost every possible disadvantage in society: physical, intellectual, financial, you name it. You might even say that young people are at a moral disadvantage as well, since they are more likely to be presumed to be in the wrong than a so-called adult, no matter what the context.
As such, being young can be a time of great frustration with the world, but it is in positions of constraint and imprisonment that artistic souls find their richest expression. In histamine-like response to their condition, young folks often harbor secret (or not-so-secret) fantasies of the world being different than it is, where the apparent rules, so “well-understood” by the grown-up wardens, are revealed to be flawed or completely rewritten.
In other words, our world must be more fun than it appears, and when I finally discover the exciting underbelly that I know is there, then my true inner greatness will be visible to the world.
There is a subgenre of films which celebrate this youthful (and universal) addiction to the inevitable revelation of the world’s true adventure-filled nature. Common to many of these films are components of a new rubric for the Hero’s Journey:
I call this the “Wistful Hero’s Journey” because wistfulness is usually a core competency of our hero at the beginning of the story, full of sighing regretful longing for some world other than this one. This is a deep-seated instinctual fantasy, of being the secret hero in a shadow-fight that adults are too stupid to see, and it’s more than just ubiquitous. This fantasy is, more than another other non-physical factor, responsible for anyone ever surviving childhood. Without stories like the below, either on the screen or in our heads, our longing would degrade into discouragement and ennui before our tenth birthday, and who wants to see (or be) a fifth grader full of ennui? It’s a disgusting thought.
Like all attempts to reduce fiction’s infinite complexities into an infographic, there are inevitable modifications and subversions to be found once these complex patterns of thought and feeling are mapped onto celluloid. But the resemblances are there, enough so that taken together, the psycho-cinematic skeleton becomes visible.
These ten films, ranked by the FlickChart global rankings, are narrative echoes of the same primitive gnosis that we all share: this world is not as dull and terrible as it seems, and in this new world that I will discover my true greatness shall be revealed.
Global ranking: 4219
Wins 39% of its matchups
839 users have ranked it 8,716 times
0 have it at #1
8 users have it in their top 20
Cloak & Dagger hits directly at my point about this plot pattern being deeply seated in the youth psyche. Young Davey is experiencing a full-blown psychotic episode in the wake of his mother’s death, and the best raw material with which his mind can populate his delusions is the fantasy that he is living inside of his favorite multi-platform gaming universe.
…Okay maybe it’s not in his head and it’s actually happening exactly as shown. But Davey’s predilection for adult, improbably informative imaginary friends makes him an unreliable narrator.
In any case, we have a young child who’s “normal” life is both tragically dull and pathetically littered with childish attempts to bring in some sense of wonder and excitement. Because of some terrible people, he finds himself to be suddenly exactly as important as he always wished he would be. But the lesson of growing up is that having the power of people’s respect (or at least attention) means you suddenly see how much you have to lose.
Global ranking: 3013
Wins 32% of its matchups
72,724 users have ranked it 473,632 times
298 have it at #1
6639 users have it in their top 20
The children of Narnia do not intentionally go looking for adventure, nor do they harbor grand daydreams about their repressed greatness. They are not wistful heroes but reluctant and flawed ones. They do not fit our rubric precisely.
But we give them ranking in our list here because of two crucial stickiness factors for young audiences. First, the device of the wardrobe, a commonplace and utilitarian symbol of domesticity, is one that has been carefully calculated to make our ordinary world seem fractions of an inch away from a world exponentially less ordinary. Okay, so we’ve checked our wardrobe and this particular one doesn’t lead to a parallel universe, but if the universe even allowed such things, how would we know it? Or, more elusively, could we disprove the possibility? No, we cannot.
Lewis’s story plants a new kind of seed in the audience’s mind: a healthy, hopeful doubt in the apparent boringness of our surroundings. Such a dose of hope-doubt can encourage contemplation of the world as sunyata, fundamentally empty, nothing meaning anything except what you ascribe to it. To children in especially miserable circumstances, this is an exceptionally liberating way of thinking.
The other crucial aspect to this story which makes it germane to our discussion is the intense contrast in power and importance that the children experience. From Blitz orphans to the Christ-lion-anointed crown heads of a magical kingdom is about as severe and meteoric a rise as is possible to achieve within one hundred and fifty minutes. These kids’ hidden greatnesses turned out to be so great that it exceeds the imaginations of even the most megalomaniacal of children. In this way, by supersaturating a new generation with this fantasy, we have kept that hope alive.
Global ranking: 2063
Wins 46% of its matchups
1,178 users have ranked it 12,561 times
0 have it at #1
12 users have it in their top 20
Explorers is not as great a film as it could have been, due to several kinds of studio bullcrap during its production. But it still manages to boast a Wistful Heroes arc that is bold and unique, perhaps due to the unusual constraints of its construction.
Among all the films in our list, this one requires the most from its heroes. Genius, creativity, improvisation, and intrepidity are needs in extraordinary amounts from all of the main characters in order to play this story out. In this way the characters in Explorers could be said to be the most directly aspirational of our films. The audience is given an almost direct challenge: Could you be receptive enough to an extraterrestrial dream schematic to not dismiss it upon waking? Would you dare to be so “yes-and” to your life?
To an adult, the message is crueler: Was there a time in your life when you would have been like these kids? What happened to compel you to reflexively dismiss your dreams?
Global ranking: 1486
Wins 45% of its matchups
7,354 users have ranked it 66,246 times
7 have it at #1
114 users have it in their top 20
Young Arthur is actually not very wistful at all. He disappoints Merlin (and the audience) by not seeming to aspire to any life greater than a dogsbody and squire to relations he doesn’t relate too. We are driven mad by his geniality, because we all know how the story ends. “Don’t you realize you’re King Arthur?!” we yell at the screen. Our hero does not seem very heroic.
But still we have a story that fits into the central fantasy of young peasant life (pronounced “lower-middle-class”): forces beyond our reckon have already recognized us as the pivotal historical figure that we will surely become. All that is required is for us to await the happenstance accident which will set our new lives into motion, culminating in seeing those who once had power over us kneeling before our thrones. Britain’s ancient allegory of Divine Rightness plays directly into a child’s healthy arrogance, which will bolster her ego against the onslaught of (shudder) The Adult World.
Global ranking: 1404
Wins 40% of its matchups
6,387 users have ranked it 59,321 times
6 have it at #1
99 users have it in their top 20
The ‘Burbs represents a wonderful subversion of many of the tropes we’ve been talking about, and for very good reasons. There are no children, only middle-class men. There are no parents, only women. There is no throne to be won or greatness achieved; they just want the neighborhood to stay as nice as it’s always been.
…Okay, maybe that’s not all they want. Maybe they want another taste of what it was like to be a kid, when weirdness and adventure weren’t just things you saw on TV but seemed about to happen any minute. When leading the charge against dark and mysterious forces was not only a realistic possibility, it seemed inevitable.
The White Suburban Experience (WSE) was another in humankind’s long line of Utopian movements which attempted to throttle our instinctual urges. The “wise ape” is a creature born of ice age, wild steppe, and fire. He will never convince his own amygdala that he has finally and truly tamed the world, no matter how white his picket fence is. By embracing the fantasies of youth, adulthood can be made to be almost fun.
Global ranking: 1321
Wins 46% of its matchups
3,564 users have ranked it 30,784 times
3 have it at #1
45 users have it in their top 20
In The Last Starfighter we have a similar situation to Cloak & Dagger where, unlike Explorers it’s not a dream that comes true but the twentieth century equivalent: a video game. All those hours waggling that joystick, the enemy patterns memorized, and arcane key combinations encoded into muscle fibers, they must be good for something. I mean, I know I’m just a kid, but I’m, like, really good at this. Surely there’s a actual reward of some kind, right?
Video games are as much a “trade” for children as carpentry or HVAC or medical transcription for the Olds. It’s an early indoctrination into the Cult of Achievement For It’s Own Sake, in which our capitalist overlords insist on full membership in order to keep our society rolling “forward”.
But young people are painfully uncynical, and films like The Last Starfighter play out their hopeful fantasy that being exceptional at anything will always yield commensurate recognition, and that being great at something, no matter how apparently “recreational”, is the same thing as being Truly Great. All we have to do is wait for the galactic powers to recognize it.
…Any time now.
4. Time Bandits
Global ranking: 749
Wins 45% of its matchups
5,787 users have ranked it 58,641 times
5 have it at #1
82 users have it in their top 20
Our hero in Time Bandits, Kevin, is perhaps our most Wistful Hero, but the world that ends up happening to him is not one that he yearns for. In fact it doesn’t resemble any imagination-world at all. The world that he discovers is itself a subversion of the concept of worlds. He is shown that worlds, the universe, time, and morality are all infinitely mutable and impossible to nail down with anything so feeble as a mortal human mind.
Kevin’s adventure is the most unexpected one in this list, and I should take this opportunity to address the “Harry Potter Problem” with my thesis. Mr. Potter is another young lad living in a shitty world who has adventure fall noisily into his lap unbidden. The same could be said for Messrs. Skywalker. Why do we not include these and other similarly iconic heroes in this list?
The difference is (I submit) that their journeys are almost completely about escape. They want to find another world and/or achieve greatness so that they can leave their present world and never come back. Kevin, on the other hand, displays varying levels of fear and reluctance throughout his adventure (due in large part to how horrible it turns out to be). With Agamemnon you get the sense that perhaps he has found a new home, but when that falls apart, he does not don the trappings of a yes-and adventurer like Luke does with his new mates. And when Kevin eventually returns home, there is a sense in the film’s mood and style of a tremendous relief.
…Okay, even if I’m projecting that bit onto him, the fact is his journey, and the others on this list, are significantly more cyclical than usual, which I find to stimulate a more dramatically powerful tension in the home vs. adventure dialectic. Some adventures are about seeing new things. Others are about seeing old things in a new way.
Global ranking: 725
Wins 47% of its matchups
13,755 users have ranked it 119,470 times
17 have it at #1
341 users have it in their top 20
It is remarkably hard to get good publicity stills from The Lost Boys which feature the Coreys instead of the vampires. This highlights a perpetual problem with this film’s place in our culture: is it a vampire film or a vampire hunter film? One might say it is both and that is its strength. I might say that it is both and neither is sufficiently “itself” to tell each of those stories all the way through.
But obviously it’s here on the list because of the three young boys who, because of their youthful and open perspective, are the only ones who can see the other, weirder world that is living right alongside our own. Their reference materials are comic books, a parallel to the “reality boost” given to video games by The Last Starfighter, and again this provides a lot of stickiness to the young audience member’s mind. Well-crafted comics feel both real and better-than-real, so surely it is not a waste of time (as our parents say) to commit every panel to memory, right?
Our hero Sam does not achieve “greatness” per se, but he does manage to leverage the same resources available to any child (sticks, water guns, a dog) into a formidable defense against a legitimate threat to his family. This realizes the common fantasy of a child ascending to adult-protective status through his esoteric knowledge of the supernatural.
Global ranking: 195
Wins 55% of its matchups
60,999 users have ranked it 469,739 times
471 have it at #1
7871 users have it in their top 20
For most of us, The Goonies is this trope’s prototype and exemplar. Four young boys are powerless in the face of the complex real-estate-politik of the Pacific Northwest, so they express their frustration by going out to find the adventure that they know is waiting for them. Along the way they pick up other similarly disaffected youth, and everyone discovers their own special brand of heroism as they also discover the power of childhood.
There is not any particularly great “Greatness” in any of our heroes; they discover and play to their strengths but it’s not like in Narnia where it turns out that Mikey was the Chosen One destined to set One-Eyed Willie free or something. There is also (arguably) no supernatural element to the adventure here. This is an exciting, surprising, and powerfully grounded Journey whose Wistful Heroes aren’t annoying. Something of a perfect storm.
This film also rounds out our Corey Feldman trifecta, who made something of a career of helping other Wistful Heroes achieve their greatness. He tended to be always a bridesmaid and never a bride, but his comedic commitment and timing are crucial to the moods of his films, and for that we salute him.
Global ranking: 121
Wins 50% of its matchups
79,850 users have ranked it 673,102 times
617 have it at #1
10768 users have it in their top 20
As I was bouncing the concept for this article off my muse, I bemoaned the heavy male presence in this list, beyond that of the normal biases to be found in Hollywood. It seemed unlikely that this sort of fantasizing was somehow a uniquely male experience. Unless (more chillingly) it was that these boy-films were robbing young women of the necessary encouragement to do so. It was she who floated the story of Dorothy Gale as a possible female version of a Wistful Hero.
And then the sky came open because of course she is. Not only is she a good example of a misunderstood adventure-seeking future-hero, she may be the best example. The beats of her story are absolutely prototypical of the stories of all of the other stories in this list. Her wistfulness in Kansas may be less specific than Kevin’s in Goonies or Sam in Lost Boys, but the film compensates by drawing every drop of pathos out of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a scene which makes it painfully easy for anyone in the audience to identify with her, regardless of their circumstance.
The harder-edged stories in this list require the audience to make at least one metaphor-leap in order to generalize the hero’s plight, but at least at the beginning, the rock-solid character-song pedigrees of the filmmakers allow us to identify with Dorothy through shear artistry.
Like in Time Bandits, Dorothy’s adventure happens to her unbidden, but it perfectly embodies the two most crucial tenets of The Journey: she is blessed with a heretofore hidden greatness (or at least specialness) which requires a grand adventure to unlock, and she doesn’t realize how much she loves her old landlady-infested, twister-ravaged home until her adventure makes it plain to her.
The point is not that the normal world is great in contrast to the horrors of the adventure world; it often is not. But the normal world requires every bit as much heroism and greatness in order to survive in it. Especially for children, but especially for adults if they have forgotten how children can weaponize the power of fantasy.