Children’s movies are supposed to be fun and comforting to our little ones, but every now and then, they decide to dig deeper and tackle issues that little Jack or Jill may not be quite ready to face yet. Come to think of it, you might not be either. Before delving into this list of the 12 Children’s Movies That Will Make You Cry, please know that we’re not saying any of these are bad films. We’re just saying we can’t watch the things without losing our collective — well, y’know.
While we suppose there is a place for such sadness in children’s entertainment, it doesn’t make it any easier. Now without further ado, let’s pry this thing open. Bring Kleenex.
12. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 is a film so packed with nostalgia and “feels” that we can barely see the happy ending through our bittersweet tears. The film centers on a case of mistaken identity— or rather, mistaken purpose. Andy’s toys attempt to move on with their lives as Woody tries to make them realize they were taken to the garbage by mistake. Andy is now 17 and gearing up for college. He’s clearly too old to be playing with toys, though he still shares an affinity for Woody (Tom Hanks).
Complicating Woody’s mission, Buzz (Tim Allen) loses his memory and is enlisted as a heavy in the other toys’ new home, Sunnyside Daycare, where they are roughly treated by the toddlers. Their escape and Woody’s continued pursuit leads to a pivotal scene where Buzz’s memory is restored along with his friendship to Woody just as the incinerator threatens to claim them as victims. Thankfully, Pixar, who can be some child-hating bastards when it comes to splicing in adult themes — see: the first few minutes of Up — spare us any deaths; however, they do yank a few tears out of our heads as we watch Andy leave his toys with Bonnie, saying goodbye to such a magical chapter of his life and his very first best friends forever.
11. Old Yeller (1957)
Walt Disney’s Old Yeller was a film we struggled to accept for years on the grounds that when you’re a kid watching it, you can’t help thinking, “Why the hell did they have to kill the dog!?” However, unlike another dead doggie entry on this list, Yeller‘s ending seems more dignified and heroic. He gets rabies from the bite of a rabid wolf in a successful attempt to protect his family. Of course, you don’t have to be a doctor to realize what that means. Old Yeller is about to turn into a ravenous beast all Walking Dead-style.
As his primary human, Travis (Tommy Kirk), wrestles with the idea of killing Yeller, little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) ventures too close to Yeller’s pen and narrowly avoids getting attacked. It’s at this point that Travis realizes childhood is over, and the dog that he once knew and loved is no more. The love that Kirk conveys through the his character in those final moments before pulling the trigger will rip your guts out. But it’s also the perfect way to cap off the story of one amazing animal, who in saving his boy helped the youngster to become a man.
10. Where the Red Fern Grows (1974)
Where the Red Fern Grows could have been something special; unfortunately, the final 10 or 15 minutes make it a film we would put in the freezer if we were Joey Tribbiani. After enduring more hardship than a little fella should be allowed to suffer, Billy Coleman (Stewart Petersen) is forced to watch one of his dogs get butchered by a mountain lion and the other starve herself to death. His big consolation at the end of the story (a red fern that only an angel could supposedly plant) grows up between the two graves.
Keep in mind that from the beginning, this poor kid has to deal with outright poverty — getting a job at the ripe old age of 12 so he can buy the dogs in the first place — and guilt from having been involved in a fight with another kid wherein said opponent fell on a hatchet and died. As for the big coon hunt competition that occurs just before the mountain lion attack, it was all Billy could do to participate in it because of the hatchet incident, and he ends up losing when he has to abandon the hunt to save his Grandpa’s life. Now granted, the winner does give him the medal, but that brief moment of triumph is followed by the doggie snuff part of the film.
9. The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King is terrific kids’ fare, at least until Mufasa’s brother Scar betrays his king and forces him off a cliffside into a pack of stampeding hyenas, who proceed to trample him to death. Spoiler alert, kids: Mommy and Daddy are going to die someday. What’s worse, Scar leads Mufasa’s son Simba to believe he is responsible, so our hero will live out the rest of his cub years convinced he killed his own father.
Lesson number two: in life, no one will hurt you like family. What else would you expect from something inspired by the work of William Shakespeare?
Rounding out this decidedly depressing kids flick is a climax that, while triumphant in the sense that Mufasa’s death is avenged, sends a message to kids that diplomacy is a waste of time and some
people lions need killing. Not only do they need it, they should suffer the goriest death imaginable — being torn apart by hyenas. We’re not sure what to think of this one as children’s movies go, but it’s certainly a great flick nonetheless.
8. Lady in White (1988)
Lady in White was an early starring vehicle for Lukas Haas that dropped in 1988 and served as a kiddie primer to the world of serial killers and their child victims. Often identified as a “family horror film,” Lady in White stars Haas as the younger version of an author/narrator who witnesses the murder of a young girl.
In the MPAA’s infinite wisdom, they awarded Lady in White, after appeal, with a tamer PG-13 rating in spite of the fact that the rating was, in those days, reserved for other adventure films that attracted a large number of prepubescent children (like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for instance). And yes, back when the FCC was a lot more uptight about what aired on television during primetime hours, this one would show up often during prime family viewing times. While we may be able to look at it today and say, “That’s not a family film,” that’s very much how it was initially packaged.
7. Up (2009)
We can’t watch the first 10 to 15 minutes of Up without shaking our fists at the television and screaming, “Why Pixar, why!?” After one of the sweetest meet-cutes in the history of animated film — and possibly cinematic history as a whole — a charming montage takes us through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of a Notebook-style love affair that lasts into old age. As Ellie and Carl become increasingly grayer and the music more somber, you start to realize directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson are about to rip out your still-beating heart and show it to you.
And they do.
The meet-cute, the wedding, the marriage, the travails of a couple who always wanted children but couldn’t conceive one of their own, and the death scene — everything sets up the rest of the film beautifully, but it’s utterly gut-wrenching and guarantees tears throughout.
6. The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Not a lot of children’s movies come with a body count, but The Secret of NIMH defies expectations. A stirring adventure about a widowed field mouse hoping to save her sickly son Timmy from death by pneumonia, NIMH has a little more carnage than what most family fare is accustomed to showing, especially in the climactic battle when three of the main characters are offed in a series of violent happenstances: 1) Nicodemus gets taken out by a sabotaged rope and pulley system; 2) Jenner mortally wounds Sullivan before getting stabbed himself by Justin; and 3) Sullivan throws a dagger into Jenner’s back with his dying breath.
Those grisly occurrences aside, NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, and guess what they do to the rats there? If you said, “What is run experiments on them before final extermination, Alex?,” well done. The Secret of NIMH was followed by the considerably more watered-down The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue.
5. Bambi (1942)
Winter is coming, and Mommy has to die. Walt Disney’s Bambi has haunted the dreams of young children everywhere since first bursting onto the scene in 1942. After presenting a very relatable situation to a young child — being close to one’s mother — the film shoots straight for the heart and has a hunter blast mama during Bambi’s first winter.
What makes the scene absolutely grueling is the desperation in his mother’s voice as she tells Bambi to run and encourages him for the first leg of their escape. She fully realizes the danger; but Bambi is a little more oblivious. Plus, his adrenaline is pumping too hard for him to realize she is no longer behind him. Then, when he gets to safety, he is somewhat excited until he realizes he’s alone. Fortunately, the film gets more hopeful from there, but damn.
4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The father you thought had died a noble death turns out to be the big bad guy, who goes against everything you’ve ever believed was just and decent and good. Then he cuts off your hand. If only that was the worst that happened in The Empire Strikes Back. You also have to contend with your sister having kissed you — granted, they didn’t know the connection at that point — in order to make your rival (whom she likes much better) jealous. Then, said rival, who is a pretty noble guy himself, gets frozen into almost-certain death while gazing into the eyes of the woman he loves.
Sheesh, George Lucas. Why not just kill a bunch of kids while you’re at it? (Wait, wrong movie.) While some might scoff at the idea that The Empire Strikes Back was intended to be a children’s movie, one need only look at where marketing efforts were aimed at that point in the series to confirm.
3. Time Bandits (1981)
An Evil Genius who blows up entire people, turns others to pigs, and tries to kill a group of lovable little persons and their 11-year-old boy companion — it could only be Time Bandits. Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece of children’s cinema also delves into some pretty horrific territory by staging one vignette with King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), who slays a giant in front of our intrepid 11-year-old. Let’s also not forget one of Robin Hood’s “merry men” sending off each of the poor with a gift and a crushing punch to the face (male and female recipients).
By far the most disturbing part comes at the end, however. Young Kevin’s house burns to the ground. While he and his parents escape, he observes them poking at an explosive black rock and warns them not to touch it. Moments later, Mom and Dad are blown to bits. The end.
2. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) likely needed a whole lot of therapy after filming The NeverEnding Story scene with his horse companion Artax in the Swamps of Sadness. Buddies from the beginning, Atreyu pleads his favorite horse to fight against the Swamps’ power, but the harder he tries — like quicksand — the more he sinks. The film really chokes you up in how it handles that final shot with Atreyu’s face right up against the horse’s nose, pleading with his pal to keep fighting.
Thankfully, director Wolfgang Petersen bails before the part where the horse’s head is submerged in the muck, but by then, the damage is done. As with The Secret of NIMH, The NeverEnding Story was followed by a sequel — two actually, and a television series — but it’s almost as if the rights-holders wanted to make up for that bleak moment by overcorrecting to more traditional yawn-worthy family fare. Safer to watch, yes, but not as powerful.
1. Watership Down (1978)
No children’s movie does as thorough of a job teaching the cycles of life — and where death, cruelty and destruction fit in — better than Watership Down, which follows rabbit Hazel on an epic journey to the titular location so he can lead his “people” to a new, safe homeland. While Hazel at one point offers to sacrifice his own life for the good of others, it fortunately doesn’t come to that.
However, director Martin Rosen’s film does hang around long enough to show us Hazel dying peacefully in old age and venturing off into some kind of afterlife. Unfortunately, not every rabbit is so lucky. Take poor Violet or Blackavar, who meet untimely deaths thanks to a hawk and the main villain, respectively. And as for that villain, the aptly named Woundwort’s fate is never disclosed, but it does kind of lead you to think he was devoured by a dog.
The 12 children’s movies listed above are but a small example of some of the tearjerkers that have been released over the years. What about you, readers? Any that should be on this list? Add them in the comments section, so we’ll all know what to avoid (or watch, if we’re really in the mood to be punished).