“Who cried when Old Yeller got shot?” asked Bill Murray in Stripes. Not a single hand goes up.
“Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot?” Everyone reluctantly raises their hand.
For an entire generation (and several since), Old Yeller was the gold standard of upsetting children’s films. So endemic in American culture, just the mention of the film will bring about recognition – even to those who haven’t seen it.
The brutal sadness of Old Yeller’s death signifies a character’s first step toward adulthood. He takes the burden and responsibility of an unpleasant buy necessary act. This is the very essence of great children’s films; the lesson taught is meant to usher the viewer alongside the character toward a new level of maturity. Some, however, take that notion to extremes well beyond a tender aged child’s realm of understanding. These films have the opposite effect, causing young audiences to run under the covers – regress, if you will, into a womb-like state.
There are countless terrifying children’s films. Either the imagery is just too horrifying or the implications of the lesson are easily misread. Here’s just a small sampling of some of the most memorably nightmarish children’s films. These are 15 Kids Movies That Will Screw Up Your Childhood.
15. Return to Oz
Most children of the ’80s recall the horrors that lie in wait when Dorothy returns to Oz. Where the original film presents a colourful world derived from L. Frank Baum’s novels, Return offers a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Set only six months after the events of the original 1939 film, an insomniac Dorothy (played by a young Fairuza Balk) returns to the magical land after receiving electroshock therapy. She is dismayed to learn Emerald City’s formerly fun characters on the verge of extinction. It’s worth noting that other subsequent adaptations set in Baum’s universe have taken an equally dark tone (The Wiz notwithstanding); Syfy channel’s Tin Man and last year’s Emerald City have their own disturbing imagery.
14. Watership Down
This 1978 animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel features a group of anthropomorphic rabbits trying to escape a fascist rabbit leader. It all boils down to a rabbit war, involving a dog ripping the animals to shreds. Sure, it is a clever, powerful allegory for tyranny and it stays pretty faithful to its source material. In fact, The Economist hailed the original novel as a triumph, proclaiming, “If there’s no place for Watership Down in children’s literature, then children’s literature is dead.”
Except… did you miss the part where a dog tears a rabbit to shreds on screen? Because, even though animated, it is gruesome. It isn’t just the dog, it also contains extreme rabbit-on-rabbit violence. And animated blood. So much animated blood.
Walt Disney’s Dumbo tells the story of an orphaned elephant shunned by his circus companions due to his appearance. It’s an uplifting tale about overcoming adversity and finding your own uniqueness despite being ostracized. The film’s pedigree is completely justified, though it does take one bizarre detour. Like so many young people without proper guidance, Dumbo and his friend do the circus-equivalent of breaking into an adult’s liquor cabinet (albeit accidentally) and get plastered. They both start to hallucinate terrifying, dancing pink elephants. It’s hard to see where Disney is trying to go with this beyond a chance for their animators to show off, but it’s enough to make a kid swear off alcohol – at least until college when hallucinating pink elephants is exactly what they want.
Of the films Jim Henson helmed in the ’80s, The Dark Crystal is often considered the darkest. However, Labyrinth has some issues worth discussing. A young Jennifer Connelly stars as Sarah, a 15-year-old whose brother is kidnapped by the Goblin King (David Bowie). To rescue him, she has to make it through a harrowing maze. While Labyrinth is definitely more aimed toward children than Crystal, there’s plenty to frighten younger audiences including a perverted flaming demon, a truly terrifying masked ball and David Bowie – whose ultimate agenda may as well be an SVU episode.
Pinocchio – the classic tale of a puppet who only dreams of being a real boy. Let’s set aside the fact that that plot could easily be a Puppet Master sequel and just focus on what is considered one of the most whimsical Disney films ever made. Critical analysis of Pinocchio ranges from claims that it’s an allegorical tale for the tenets of a capitalist society to just a simple morality tale. After Pinocchio’s wish is granted, see, he turns into a rebellious little bastard. On his “vacation” to Pleasure Island, he turns into Marlon Brando in The Wild One, smoking cigars, gambling, vandalizing and getting plastered.
10. All Dogs Go to Heaven
Don Bluth was one of the most significant animators in Disney’s history. The Secret of N.I.M.H., An American Tale and The Land Before Time were all Bluth’s brainchildren. Each explored issues somewhat beyond a child’s grasp, but the material was usually worth the potential psyche-damaging imagery and themes. For the first half of All Dogs Go To Heaven, it almost feels as though Bluth had mellowed. It’s a charming little film about a doggie conman in 1930’s New Orleans named Charlie B. Barkin. Sure, Charlie is murdered by a mob-dog early in the film, but he’s instantly in a better place. And soon after that, he manages to return to earth and be a hero.
Then he goes to hell. Oh boy, does Charlie go to hell. Bluth’s depiction of hell is loaded with typical fire and brimstone, but also horrific dragon monsters. The villain is also eaten by a giant alligator.
9. The Witches
Roald Dahl is one of the most important children’s writers of his time. He was also a real-life James Bond during World War II. Dahl’s dark history, laced with a plethora of women who reportedly fell at his feet, never quite found its way into his children’s novels. What it did bring to his work was a straightforwardness rarely displayed in such works. This was a man who had to inform his superiors of countless potential scandals, including the fact that he believed Franklin Delano Roosevelt was schtupping the Crown Princess Martha of Norway on the side.
He treated children with the same blunt accuracy. The Witches, based on Dahl’s novel, tells the story of a young girl who discovers a coven who masquerade as regular women, but in their spare time kill children. It’s the make-up that’s most terrifying here. When head witch Angelica Huston removes her human face, her pointed nose and scaly skin is the kind of thing you’d expect in a genuine horror film. Then again, it was helmed by Don’t Look Now director Nic Roeg.
8. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
In David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Christopher Walken’s teacher tells his students they’ll like the next assignment – Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – because it involves a teacher who is murdered. It later becomes a motif for Walken’s former coma patient, as he cites it when he explains his desire to be a recluse. “As he was a bachelor,” he quotes, “and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled their head about him anymore.”
So why did Disney believe the story was prime source material for an animated film in 1949? Ichabod Crane, in the story and the film, is a clumsy, unsightly man. He’s downright goofy looking, and the segment of The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad plays up his clumsiness for laughs. But Ichabod is also a bit of a lout – he may truly have feelings for Katrina Van Tassel, but also wants to take her father’s money.
While it’s only implied in the original story that Ichabod is murdered by his romantic rival, the animated film shows in clear detail that the headless horsemen murders him. Other adaptations are even more gruesome (particularly Tim Burton’s), but none of them are directed toward children.
7. Little Monsters
After the release of Pixar’s charming Monsters Inc., those who remembered the 1989 blackly comic Little Monsters noted striking similarities. Rather than being charmed by a warm voice performance from John Goodman and Billy Crystal at his most manic, however, Little Monsters tries to extract joy from OCD 80s curio and present day bald man Howie Mandel. Young Brian (Fred Savage), lonely after moving away from all his friends, suddenly discovers an under-the-bed world of monsters. Mandel is Maurice, his guide monster through a grungy underworld that looks like someone Purel-ed a Total Recall set after retrieving it from a dumpster.
If the plot rings a bell, that’s because it also shares a lot in common with a less child-friendly picture: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. In that film, a human is taken to a monster underworld full of Barkerisms, stalked by serial murderer David Cronenberg. Like Nightbreed, Brian slowly begins to transform into a monster and must take up arms against evil beings.
6. A Cry In The Wild
If you grew up in the early ’90s, there’s a good chance you were subject to Gary Paulsen’s young adult survival novel Hatchet. The novel follows young Brian, flying to visit his separated parents when his pilot has a heart attack. Armed only with the titular item, he learns to survive in the Canadian wilderness as he awaits rescue. It’s a decent novel, but its impact is cut when you learn that Paulsen followed it up with four sequels, including a reboot.
The film adaptation, A Cry in the Wild, is largely faithful (scripted by Paulsen). It stars Jared Rushton as Brian, previously known as one of the kids shrunk by Rick Moranis. It’s disturbing precisely for one scene. Brian must retrieve his Hatchet from the downed plane, under a cold lake. When he arrives, he discovers the body of the pilot (Ned Beatty), who has been fed upon by sea life. Think of the scene in A Simple Plan when Bill Paxton discovers the pilot picked apart by crows and you get a sense of the make-up job done on Beatty.
A subplot deals with Brian’s struggle to tell his father of his mother’s affair, which he ultimately decides to keep to himself. It’s difficult to unpack what kind of message that sends, but it certainly doesn’t feel right.
5. Radio Flyer
It’s an unfortunate fact that there are some truly awful fathers out there – more than enough to persuade most people that the ability to have children should be licensed. Radio Flyer is a mostly sweet story about two brothers who must deal with an alcoholic, abusive monster of a dad played by Alec Baldwin (so really just Alec Baldwin). Baldwin’s father is over-the-top evil – a small town big shot who insists everyone refer to him as “The King.” The younger brother sustains several beatings by The King, and both are reluctant to tell their mother, seeing as how happy she is.
Rather than actually confront the very difficult issue of child abuse, the film offers an alternative: run. The two boys build their wagon into a makeshift plane, and the younger brother flies away, never to see his family again.
It’s the worst kind of after school special and, to top it off, the younger brother’s escape is genuinely meant to be a happy ending. What of the older brother? He grows up to be Tom Hanks – Hollywood’s nicest man. But anyone who has dealt with a real-life The King knows that when the object of abuse is no longer there, he will simply turn his violent attention elsewhere.
Up is one of Pixar’s best achievements, combining imagination with a sincere sweetness and big laughs. The animation juggernaut has always found the right balance between childlike wonder and emotional maturity. One of Pixar’s strongest suits is their voice casting – rarely opting for big, well-known names rather than the right names. As a result, children of the millenium were introduced to the likes of Albert Brooks and Ed Asner in ways no one could have expected. Asner’s performance is downright heartbreaking, but its nothing compared to the wordless opening minutes of Up. The montage takes the audience through a complete romance, from courtship to marriage to death. They even include the concept of a miscairrage in there. And while it’s something that every child should see, finding the appropriate age to break it to them that even the most beautiful things end in death.
Casper the Friendly Ghost has graced the pages of comic books and animation since 1939. It was only in the live-action 1995 that we not only get the skinny on how Casper died (pneumonia), but also confront death in unpleasant, awkward ways. Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman play a young girl and her widowed father, respectively, who move into a supposedly haunted house, only to discover there are indeed three abusive poltergeists and Casper.
There’s also apparently a buried treasure that villains Cathy Moriarty and Eric Idle are seeking. Despite some genuinely sweet moments, Casper is a really screwed up kids film. The evil ghosts are consistently abusive to Casper, and later plot to kill Pullman so he may join in their shenanigans. And kill they do. He falls down an open sewer after they get him drunk. It turns out that Pullman loves being dead. Just when Casper gets the chance to come back to life via convenient plot contrivance, he instead brings back Pullman. Rather than actually confront death in any meaningful way, it instead treats it like another in a long line of silly pratfalls.
2. The Monster Squad
The Monster Squad follows a group of ragtag, monster-obsessed preteens who discover that Dracula, The Wolfman, The Gill-Man, The Mummy and Frankenstein are real and have teamed up in their small town to retrieve a magical amulet. It sounds like a great Halloween kids’ film. The story is that director Fred Dekker (placed in director jail after Robocop 3) set out to make an Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, kid-friendly comedy. Naturally, when that’s your goal, you hire Shane Black, who was penning Lethal Weapon while on set. As a result the film includes violence much too extreme for kids – including one scene in which the Wolfman is blown to pieces by dynamite, then his bloodied limbs reconnect themselves.
Adding to the terror, Dekker couldn’t secure the rights to Universal’s monsters, forcing him and make-up artist Stan Winston (Friday the 13th 3D, Predator, The Terminator) to drastically redesign the monsters. The redesigns are more in line with his work on Friday the 13th 3D than, say, Jurassic Park.
1. Cloak and Dagger
Eleven-year-old Davey’s imaginary friend resembles his widowed father, an air traffic controller. Both the father and the friend are played by Dabney Coleman. After witnessing a murder, Davey finds a video game cartridge containing military secrets. Davey and his imaginary friend – a secret agent named Jack Flack – are soon on the run from murderous spies.
The set up is terrific, particularly for an ’80s film. It was released during the trend of young-kid-gets-in-over-his-head films like War Games, The Manhattan Project and The Flight of the Navigator. This kind of escapist fantasy was always box-office gold, attracting Cold War kids who dreamt of getting caught up in espionage they could comprehend.
At the end of the film, after Davey has shot and killed evil spy (who killed his imaginary friend), the last two villains hijack an airplane with a bomb. Davey’s father volunteers to fly the plane, evacuating the passengers. Davey watches from a distance as the plane explodes, distraught. His father suddenly appears, walking away from the wreckage.
But there’s never any indication he ever got off the plane. So the implication is that his dead father has now replaced his imaginary friend. Also, Davey’s willingness to kill could suggest a serial murderer in the making, complete with a dead relative he talks to.
Suck on that, kids.