It’s easy to have in mind what is typically designated as an animated children’s movie. The overall consensus is that the film will be happy, light, and fun. However, some boundary-pushing filmmakers have turned this expectation on its head. As a result, this has led to some dark animated movies that maybe would have been better off being deemed for an older audience.
The films presented here make a clear case that even a genre as innocent as animated children’s movies can have its dark moments. (Movies like The Black Cauldron or Rock & Rule that were intended for the teenage demographic and older will not be included.)
10 Spirited Away
The Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away follows a ten-year-old girl who inadvertently travels to a magical world. It may seem like a whimsical story, but it has its dark moments too, and some scenes are downright scary.
For example, the scene where the protagonist’s parents have been turned into pigs is genuinely horrifying. Likewise, the scene where the spirit No Face (the name itself is creepy) slurps down the employees of a bathhouse is beyond unnerving. These moments sound like nightmare fuel, yet the film is geared to kids and has a PG rating.
9 FernGully: The Last Rainforest
Tackling the topic of environmental degradation, FernGully: The Last Rainforest remains a heavy animated flick for kids. Set in the titular last rainforest, a fairy colony suffers the first-hand effects of deforestation when a logging company targets their home. When FernGully accidentally shrinks one of the loggers, she and her new human friend rally together to stop the destruction of her forest home. In concept, it was strategically smart to gear an eco-conscious film to children as a way to get people invested in environmental causes early on.
At times, however, the film leans too hard on the threat to the well-being of the main characters to get its eco-conscious point across. Further, the pollution cloud villain Hexxus has a frightening sinister appearance that has surely scarred young audience members. Despite the film’s comic relief from Robin William’s funny performance as a kooky bat, the film remains a distressing look at the deterioration of the world’s rainforests.
A boy can talk to the dead in the stop motion animated film ParaNorman. Channeling The Sixth Sense, this movie embraced the macabre. A film that discusses death will always teeter on being too much for kids to watch, and as a film that revolves around the loss of life, ParaNorman is one of the darker forays in the children’s animated genre.
Made by the production team Laika, the stop motion animation is incredible and worth a watch for kids who favor that animation style. However, for squeamish kids who don’t like the thought of ghosts and zombies, this inventive film probably won’t go over well for them.
Soul could be described as one of Pixar’s most emotional movies, as an existential film that questions happiness, fulfillment, and the willingness to live. These heavy themes seem hard for adults to grasp, let alone children.
From Pixar’s Pete Doctor, this movie presents some of life’s biggest questions like “Why are we here?” and “what is my purpose?”. As a result, the film is important but wistful. Not particularly a movie to leave the viewer with warm fuzzies at the end credits, Soul is a thought-provoking film that has incredibly profound moments.
6 The Brave Little Toaster
On the surface, The Brave Little Toaster seems chipper, with cute anthropomorphized appliances. However, the film is actually a dark look at abandonment, aging, and isolation. The film follows a group of lonely appliances who live in an abandoned cabin. Longing to reunite with their owner Rob, the gang embarks on a dangerous trek to the big city. But, once they reach their destination, the crew question their usefulness and desirability when compared to newer modern appliances.
The sadness the likable characters feel when they’re apart from Rob is heartwrenching. To boot, the nightmare of Toast the toaster features a firefighter clown and a tub of water. Keeping in mind that toasters and water do not mix as well as the creepy firefighter clown appearance, Toast’s nightmare scene on its own is enough to make this cartoon gloomy.
5 The Last Unicorn (1982)
An entry in the fantasy genre, The Last Unicorn is about a unicorn who discovers she is the last of her kind and travels to find if there are any more of her species. This 1982 film is not the traditional fairy tale movie as it has no easy resolutions. One of the main characters even claims “There are no happy endings because nothing ends.”
Obviously, not the most upbeat words of wisdom. The film is mournful and a bit melancholic, not the first words to come to mind to describe a children’s film. Along with the more somber tone of the movie, The Last Unicorn also contains some haunting scenes thanks to the villainous Red Bull character.
4 The Secret of NIMH
Due to his tear-jerking animated films, Don Bluth is responsible for so many kids crying their eyes out. From The Land Before Time to An American Tail, Bluth’s films bring the waterworks. Therefore, it should come as no surprise then that The Secret of NIMH has the reputation of being one of the darkest animated children’s films.
In this movie, a field mouse gets the assistance of a rat colony to help her ill son. As well as revolving around a youth’s serious illness, the film also comments on unethical animal testing. Further, the film has its creepy moments like the Great Owl’s bone-covered lair.
3 The Hunchback 0f Notre Dame
Between corrupt authority figures, racism, lust, greed, and violence, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not the typical Disney movie. In fact, this Disney movie is often regarded as too dark for children. The obsession the hypocritic zealot Mayor Frollo shows for Esmerelda is not exactly kid-friendly fare, especially when it is sung in a song called “Hellfire.”
Likewise, Esmerelda and her traveler peers are relentlessly discriminated against, as is the physically disabled Quasimodo. While this film is watered down compared to the Victor Hugo book on which it is based, this Disney movie explores topics and subjects that may be too intense for the kiddie crowd.
2 Coraline (2009)
Coraline starts off as a pleasing and genial story of a young girl feeling neglected and venturing into a secret parallel world where everything seems perfect; seems being the operative word, as Coraline later learns the sinister truth of the other world.
When Coraline is presented with the opportunity to permanently stay in the other world, things take a turn for the frightening. With threats of having the main character’s eyes replaced with buttons sewn into her skin, the film even veers into Silence of the Lambs territory.
1 Watership Down (1978)
To start, Watership Down begins with a bunny having an apocalyptic vision. That’s already a warning of things to come in this unsettling story. It only goes downhill from there, as red-eyed bunnies are shown violently attacking each other and burying other rabbits alive.
These rabbit-on-rabbit crimes seem like the last thing a child would want to see yet the movie and the novel in which it was based were designed for children. This British film was so grim that the BBFC (the British equivalent to the MPAA) has received complaints every single year since the film’s release about the four years and older audience classification.