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Children's Movies That Were Unexpectedly Dark

MovieWeb 11/3/2022 Matthew Watkins
© Provided by MovieWeb

Kids, just like everyone else, want to be entertained when they watch a movie. Once they get to a certain age, though, it begins to take more than just bright colors and slapstick humor to truly impress a child. Character development and more engaging plotlines start to play bigger parts. In fact, a great ‘kids' film, needn’t appeal to just children, but can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages.

Disney’s Pixar studio is a fantastic example of a studio making family movies that appeal to people of all ages, just look at Monster’s Inc., Ratatouille or Toy Story for movies that are adored by young kids, but have enough going on below the surface to be enjoyed by older kids and adults as well. The Shrek franchise is another example of how to succeed at this, in this case through use of more adult humor and double entendres.

However, if something is marketed as a movie for kids, at the heart of it, it needs to be a film that will be primarily enjoyed by children. The following movies are examples of movies that, at certain parts, appeared to have completely forgotten they were being watched by children and take unexpectedly dark turns that have most probably left whole generations of children scarred for life. Please be aware there are a few mild spoilers below.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

In hindsight, there’s a lot of dark and downright disturbing aspects in Wolfgang Peterson’s 1984 family fantasy flick The NeverEnding Story. The plot revolves around a brutally bullied 10-year-old bibliophile named Bastian who, after the death of his mother, feels alone and is unable to connect with his father. He is transported to a fantasy world where he attempts to save it from disappearing into a void of nothingness. “The Nothing will be here any minute. I will just sit here and let it take me away,” states a creepy looking giant monster known as Rockbiter.

Although this all sounds terribly dark and depressing, there’s one scene in particular that really takes this darkness to another level and if you’ve seen the film, you know the scene! Needless to say, it’s hard to recover as a child from seeing the young protagonist’s beloved horse Artax, overcome with sadness and sorrow, slowly drown to his death in the ‘Swamp of Sadness,’ as the boy desperately pulls at his reigns, all the while crying uncontrollably.

The Lion King (1994)

By all accounts, Walt Disney’s musical animated feature The Lion King is a great movie. The Disney score is fantastic, the animation is top-notch, and the story is an anthropomorphic take on Shakespeare’s beloved Hamlet. It also features one of the saddest death scenes ever to appear in a movie, period.

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The villainous Scar orchestrates a stampede, which he uses to murder Mufasa, King of the Pride Lands. What makes the scene so uncomfortable for children is that Mufasa is Scar’s own brother. On top of that, he gaslights his young nephew Simba, Mufasa’s son, into thinking his father’s death was his fault. Not only was it a brutal death, now many children probably grew up to have an unhealthy fear of their own family members.

Watership Down (1978)

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine how this grizzly, gory story of a herd of rabbits fleeing their home in search of somewhere safe, could ever be considered a children’s movie. At the time of release in the UK, though, it was given the U certificate, meaning it was deemed suitable for all ages (similar to the MPAA's ‘G’ rating). It became a box office hit, implying parents were taking their children in hordes to be traumatized by what can only be described as an animated animal bloodbath.

The deeper meaning and subtext of the film and the 1972, Richard Adams novel it’s based on, have long been analyzed and debated. Whether an allegory for the Holocaust or ‘just a story about rabbits’, as Adams’ daughters claim, it certainly left an indelible mark on those young minds that watched the movie.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is undeniably funny, clever and silly at the same time. Featuring Bob Hoskins as the live-action straight man to the maniacal animated Roger Rabbit, this film noir throwback includes a whole slew of slapstick comedy to keep the young children happy. Alongside cartoon cameos from the world’s favorite toons including Donald, Daffy, Bugs and even the head honcho himself, Mr. Mickey Mouse, there’s also a heap of adult content.

There’s plenty of boozing, violence and even rumored cartoon nudity, but it’s Christopher Lloyd’s scenery chewing performance of Judge Doom that really freaked the kids out. He seems to get off on the gruesome torture of toons and the scene in which he transforms from live-action Christopher Lloyd into a cartoon character is inexplicably scary, even to this day.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is without-a-doubt one of Disney's most underrated gems that is often overlooked during its groundbreaking Renaissance decade, but nonetheless is an outstanding achievement for the studio. A retelling of the classic Victor Hugo novel, the edgy flick follows the deformed but kind-hearted Quasimodo as he dreams of being accepted by Parisian society despite being hidden away in a bell tower by the callous and prudish Claude Frollo.

The 1996 animated musical is undeniably one of Disney's darkest films to date, tackling mature and oftentimes unsettling subject matters such as genocide, lust and sin, damnation and even infanticide. At the beginning of the picture, Frollo and his soldiers chase Quasimodo's mother to the steps of Notre Dame where she falls and fractures her skull, killing the terrified young woman. Believing her child (Quasimodo) to be a demon, Frollo goes to drown the baby but is interrupted; he reluctantly decides to raise the child instead. As if that wasn't enough, Frollo harbors a deep, obsessive lust for the beautiful and kind Esmeralda, even singing the song "Hellfire" about his impure thoughts.

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Adapted from the Katherine Paterson children's book of the same name, the coming-of-age fantasy Bridge to Terabithia stars Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as two twelve-year-old neighbors-turned-friends who envision the titular wondrous world in an abandoned treehouse as a way to cope with bullying and life's hardships. The two tween heroes develop a deep and meaningful bond throughout the film, and those who have never read the novel were in for a heartbreaking shock when Robb's character Leslie tragically dies after hitting her head and drowning in the river while trying to cross the creek to get to Terabithia.

The devastating, tear-jerking moment is truly a gut-punch for audiences, despite the fact that the book has been considered a tool for helping young children cope with grief and death. Paterson was inspired to write the story after her son's eight-year-old best friend was struck and killed by lightning. Few eyes were dry in theaters after Hutcherson's character Jess realized his beloved pal was truly gone, and that it was up to him to keep their fantasy world alive.

Coraline (2009)

For all intents and purposes, Coraline was marketed as a kids’ film. While the promotional artwork was a tad darker than, say, Frozen, it doesn’t even begin to suggest the terrors that are in store for any young viewer about to watch Coraline. If The Lion King taught kids to fear their uncles or even their siblings, Coraline taught children to fear their own parents. Beautifully yet creepily animated using stop-motion, Coraline encounters another version of her parents in another realm.

Displeased with her old parents, these new ones seem to treat her well, that is until she refuses to be mutilated by them. After that, all bets are off as they spy on her, threaten her and try to kill her, all while still resembling the parents that, as a child, she should be able to trust.

Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio is one of the world’s most beloved Disney animated movies but looking back, it definitely didn’t skimp on the dark stuff. It follows the story of Pinocchio, a puppet, brought to life by a blue fairy, on a quest to become a real boy. But things aren’t easy for Pinocchio, not only does his nose visibly grow every time he is dishonest, he also seems to go from one horrific encounter to the next. From being kidnapped and trafficked to actually getting eaten alive by a whale, the film has very few glimpses of happiness. The scene in which the booze guzzling pre-teens transform into donkeys to be forced into slavery is one a lot of kids won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

The Witches (1990)

Based on Roald Dahl's fantastically twisted children’s book of the same name, The Witches seems as if it is specifically designed to frighten children. Despite being such a fantastical tale, it is still somehow quite believable for a child. The witches disguise themselves as ordinary, everyday people, and they specifically target children. We’re told of one poor child who was cursed to spend the rest of her life trapped inside a painting, aging gradually until finally disappearing a few years earlier.

Is this why our parents warned us about talking to strangers? The fear factor goes into overdrive, though, when the witches reveal their true from, thanks to Jim Henson for some disgustingly impressive prosthetic work. The long noses, rotting teeth, balding scabby heads and maniacal cackling is enough to give anyone nightmares.

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