Seventeen films in, Pixar is arguably the most well-respected studio around when it comes to animated movies, save maybe for its parent company, Disney. From 1995’s original Toy Story to this year’s Finding Dory, Pixar's films have accumulated heaps of critical acclaim, along with heaps of cold, hard cash. Their tales are mostly heartwarming, but, as has been the case with Disney from the start, there are certainly occasional moments of darkness that are almost surprising to see in a kids’ flick.
Some of these moments come in the form of physical scares and others are times of real emotional bleakness. Then there are some that deal directly with death, whether it’s a sad farewell, a shockingly graphic scene of near-death experience, or actual fatal mutilation. Seriously, some of these scenes pack a real visceral punch.
Get ready to read through a crack in your trembling fingers, because here are the 15 Most Disturbing Moments In Pixar Movies.
15 MONSTERS INC - SULLY SCARES BOO
First of all, there’s something profoundly sinister about the whole concept of Monsters Inc. It’s a movie about a world full of monsters that use the sheer terror of human children as their primary source of power. Of course, they are monsters, so we can’t necessarily expect them to have the strongest of morals.
That being said, the heroes of the film-- giant blue fur-ball Sully and little green cyclops Mike-- are ultimately kind-hearted, or else it wouldn’t be a Disney kids' movie, and they do ultimately discover that children’s laughter is an even better power source than a scream. In this scene, though, things get about as dark as they ever get in Pixar’s fourth feature film. Sully is in a scare simulator, told to scare a dummy child. He lets out a ferocious lion-like roar, claws and teeth bared and murder in his eyes. He accidentally scares the life out of sweet little Boo, a human child he’s grown attached to. For a time, she doesn’t want to be anywhere near the monster she used to call “Kitty,” and Sully is left heartbroken.
14 FINDING DORY - BABY DORY IS SEPARATED FROM HER FAMILY
The most recent Pixar film, Finding Dory is one of just six of the studio’s films to receive a PG rating, rather than a G, thanks largely to slightly darker thematic elements. Even though it’s only been in theaters for a little over two months, it’s already the top grossing Pixar film of all time, in terms of domestic box office take. Finding Dory has flown past Toy Story 3's gross and also crushed its opening weekend numbers.
Its predecessor, Finding Nemo, ranks fourth on the Pixar box office list and the two films share a central theme (which is kind of obvious from the title): someone’s lost and must be found. In this sequel, of course, it’s Dory, and it’s as much about literally finding where Dory is as it is about finding out who Dory really is and why she is the way she is. But the darkness here comes from the fact that she was separated from her family as a child, swept away by the undertow. It had to be a horrific experience, which explains a lot of her feelings of isolation and confusion.
13 WALL-E - THE FATE OF HUMANITY
Pixar took a chance with WALL-E when they released it in 2008. After eight films about cute, funny, and talkative toys, monsters, fish, cars, rats, and superheroes, they went with a film about an odd little robot with a mostly silent first act. But it worked, earning critical acclaim and more than half a billion at the box office, worldwide.
Granted, there was a little backlash from the political right, due to WALL-E's messages about consumerism and the environment. After all, this futuristic tale posits that humans were forced to leave Earth because of all the garbage that had piled up. That’s dark enough. But humanity escaped and when WALL-E finds a group of humans on a ship, he discovers that they have learned nothing from their slobby ways on Earth. All they’ve done for centuries away from the planet is sit and eat in a fully automated world, growing morbidly obese as a result. It’s funny to see what they’ve become, but also horribly tragic and not entirely impossible.
12 INSIDE OUT - RILEY GETS DEPRESSED
In Inside Out, Pixar’s 15th film, the main human protagonist is an 11-year-old girl whose family has to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. It’s a major culture change for the kid and she has trouble dealing with it. She misses her best friend and her hockey team and all the comforts of home. But we watch as the major emotions in her head, personified in the form of cute little creatures, try to keep her happy.
Unfortunately, the Sadness character accidentally turns a happy memory into a sad one, and things just go downhill for poor Riley from there. It’s funny watching the "emotion" characters inside her head as they strive to turn Riley around. But Riley’s actual life becomes quite dark. She bursts into tears at school, she loses her fun-loving nature, she fights with her beloved father and best friend from Minnesota, she loses her passion for hockey and quits, and she dwells on her own loneliness. Ultimately, as her inner world literally crumbles, she runs away, trying to get back to Minnesota, where everything was good before the move. It’s really sad to see what happens to Riley and if it wasn’t for the fun world inside her head, the bulk of the movie would have felt very dark. In the end, though, her inner and outer lives balance each other masterfully to create a beautiful movie.
11 FINDING NEMO - NEMO’S CAPTURE
Finding Nemo is one of Pixar’s greatest films and you know one thing going in, simply based on the title: Nemo needs to be found. So it can’t come as too much of a surprise, when, in fact, the young clownfish is essentially kidnapped. To make a point to his overprotective father, Nemo swims out to sea, directly towards a fishing boat, not realizing what it is. From a human perspective, of course, fishing is either a leisure pursuit or a source of food, but it’s obviously quite different from a fish’s perspective.
Suddenly, the heads of giant human scuba divers fill the screen, extremely disturbing from the perspective of a tiny fish. For all Nemo knows, they’re giant monsters. He screams for help, but it’s too late. He’s captured in a net and taken back to the boat. Meanwhile, to make the scene more terrifying, his father chases after him toward the boat and is nearly shredded by the motor’s spinning rotor.
10 TOY STORY - SID’S CRAZY HYBRID TOYS
Is it just us or is there something inherently creepy about the very concept of sentient inanimate objects, like toys or cars? Do they have actual organic material inside them? And where does that organic material go in Toy Story, Pixar’s classic feature-film debut, when the toys are around humans and are just unspeaking toys? This is made all the more troubling by the film’s human villain, a seemingly sociopathic pre-teen named Sid, and his horrific experiments with said sentient toys.
Woody and Buzz sneak into Sid’s bedroom. First, they watch helplessly as their cute little alien friend is fed to Sid’s dog. Then Sid turns into some sort of mad doctor, squashing a doll’s head in a vice, referring to her as his “patient,” as he attempts “a double bypass brain transplant.” Sid even insanely adopts the voice of his non-existent assistant, exclaiming, “Doctor, you’ve done it!” What he’s done is fused a pterodactyl head onto his sister’s doll. And those who take the whole “sentient toys” thing seriously are left wondering, is it dead? Is it still sentient? Can it survive? Will it have any kind of quality of life? Soon after, we’re still left wondering about Sid’s patients’ mental and physical state when a group of hybrid toys creepily emerge from the darkness, led by a nightmarish, unspeaking, baby-headed mechanical spider.
9 9. THE GOOD DINOSAUR - THE DAD DROWNS
After a two year break, Pixar released three films in the span of a year, with The Good Dinosaur sandwiched between Inside Out and Finding Dory. Released in November 2015, The Good Dinosaur takes place in a world where dinosaurs were not killed off by an asteroid, and went on to live alongside humans. By the studio’s high standards, tt wasn’t particularly well received and stands as their least successful movie from a financial standpoint, making “just” $332.2 million worldwide.
Nevertheless, we did get a solid Pixar display of darkness. The young dinosaur, Arlo, and his father are running through a terrible storm as his dad tries to get him to overcome his fears. But Arlo can’t quite make it-- he collapses. As he tries to hobble away, the nearby river floods and a massive wave rushes toward them. His dad nudges him out of the way to safety, but his father is unable to escape the rapids and they violently take him away as Arlo watches helplessly.
8 8. CARS 2 - REDLINE IS TORTURED
The original Cars (2006) depicts a pompous, selfish, but immensely talented race car named Lightning McQueen. It’s a heartfelt story of how he’s forced to spend time among the humble townsfolk of the dilapidated small desert town of Radiator Springs. While there, the quirky citizens eventually rub off on him and he learns about friendship and that winning isn’t everything.
Cars 2 (2011) somehow loses a lot of that heart and instead we get an international espionage thriller featuring Bond-like spies and Bond-like villains. And it gets dark quite early on. The opening sequence doesn't show lovable original characters like Lightning and his tow-truck best friend Mater. Instead, we get an action scene involving the spy Rod “Torque” Redline and evil Professor Z. Eventually, the villain captures the spy and proceeds to torture him. Professor Z explains in horrifying detail what’s happening to Redline, as he’s pumped with toxic gas (Allinol). “The Allinol is now heating to a boil, dramatically expanding, causing the engine block to crack under stress, forcing oil into the combustion chamber.” Essentially, Redline is being boiled from the inside. They crank up the power and we watch Redline’s reflection in a TV screen as he bursts into flames and breathes his last breath of whatever cars breathe.
7 7. TOY STORY - SID ALMOST BLOWS UP BUZZ LIGHTYEAR
Toy Story spends most of the film building sympathy for Buzz Lightyear, a toy spaceman who believes he’s really a heroic Space Ranger, not realizing he’s merely a toy. The film’s other hero, Woody the cowboy, is not always so heroic. He’s jealous of the new toy and wants desperately to burst Buzz’s bubble, to convince him that he’s not the hero he thinks he is, but in fact just an object to be played with.
Still, when Buzz’s safety is in question, Woody has a change of heart. And Buzz’s safety comes very much in question when Sid kidnaps him. After a Darth Vader-like torture scene where he burns Woody with a magnifying glass, Sid straps Buzz to a model rocket-- the kind of model rocket you can actually launch. In other words, Sid has every intention of shooting Buzz dozens of feet into the air. If the launch didn’t blow him to pieces, surely his landing shattered him. We come within one second of finding out, when Buzz is saved by Woody’s ingenious plan.
6 UP - ELLIE DIES
Up was the first Pixar movie produced in 3D, back in 2009, which worked nicely with all the flying scenes. But you can’t really talk about the plot without talking about the darkest thing that happens in the movie, right at the beginning, which serves as the inciting incident for all that follows.
In a montage, we meet a young couple named Carl and Ellie. They seem perfect together and they live a sweet life, but as we know, life isn’t always perfect. They want children but suffer from infertility. They plan a trip to South America, but obstacles are constantly thrown in their path, from broken bones to blown tires to a tree falling on their house. Finally, when they’re older, Carl decides to give the trip one last try. He buys the tickets, but Ellie takes a fall before he can surprise her with them. She never fully recovers and soon dies. Not happy. And Carl, certainly, is not happy. But it sends him on a quest to get himself to South America and find a new happiness.
5 INSIDE OUT - BING BONG’S SACRIFICE
A few weeks ago we also ranked this scene from the fabulous Inside Out as one of the most heartbreaking scenes in Disney and Pixar movies. And it is certainly heartbreaking. But it’s also somewhat unsettling, albeit in a heroic kind of way. Bing Bong is introduced inside the world of the human girl, Riley’s mind. As Riley’s former imaginary friend who had been lost in the far reaches of her memories, he serves as comic relief.
Bing Bong desperately wants to be a part of Riley's life again, while getting up to his goofball shenanigans. Ultimately, he gets his one final chance. Joy and Bing Bong are desperate to get back to Riley’s emotional headquarters, but they’re trapped in the deep, dark Memory Dump, where forgotten memories are erased. Bing Bong cranks up his rocket wagon and tries to fly them out, but it doesn’t have enough power. He then realizes how he can make his mark. The wagon was too heavy, so he gets it started with Joy, then, unbeknownst to her, he jumps out and falls to what is essentially his death, as he fades out of Riley’s memory. His sacrifice helped save Riley from her deepening depression.
4 RATATOUILLE - DANGLING DEAD RATS
After Brad Bird made his Pixar directorial debut with The Incredibles (The Iron Giant was his feature debut), he returned three years later with Ratatouille. It seemed an odd choice for Pixar: a movie with an odd French title, set in Paris, about a rat who likes to cook, but it was just another instance of Pixar successfully zagging when everyone expected them to zig.
Sure, it’s ultimately a heartwarming tale, as they all are, but there’s definitely some darkness. Remy the rat is shot at by an old lady with a very definite intent to kill. At one point, Remy is trapped in a jar and ordered to be executed. Most morbid of all is the scene where Remy's friend wants to warn him about getting too comfortable around humans. He brings him to a pest control establishment, where his friend asks him to “take a good long look” at a bunch of dead rats dangling from the rafters, surrounded by jars of rat poison. Imagine your friend warning you against hanging out with, say, lions, and does so by showing you a bunch of chewed up human corpses. Same thing, only in a kids movie with rats.
3 3. A BUG’S LIFE - HOPPER BECOMES BIRD FOOD
A Bug’s Life (1998) wasn’t the best or most successful of Pixar’s films -- just their second following the original Toy Story -- but it certainly had its moments. This includes some darker moments, like the one here. But first some setup: A Bug's Life is the story of a somewhat free-spirited and ambitious ant named Flik, who also happens to be accident-prone. His colony is controlled and oppressed by a gang of grasshoppers, led by the evil Hopper, who is blind in one eye thanks to a fight with a bird.
Towards the end, Flik tries to get revenge on Hopper for his dastardly ways by tricking him with a fake bird. Understandably, Hopper is afraid of birds thanks to the whole eye thing. But it doesn’t quite work. In turn, an angry Hopper begins to strangle Flik. That’s dark enough. Then a bird looks down on them, but Hopper isn’t scared. He thinks it’s another of Flik’s fakes. But nope. The bird grabs Hopper in its beak, flies over to its nest and drops Hopper into the mouths of its adorable waiting chicks. Hopper is eaten alive.
2 THE INCREDIBLES - SYNDROME IS SUCKED INTO A JET ENGINE
With a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 2004’s The Incredibles is one of the most well-received films under Pixar’s belt. After a 15 year wait, fans will finally be getting The Incredibles 2 in 2019, but until then we have to be content with rewatching this fantastic, original superhero film. It features a family of superheroes who have retired, but are forced back into action by a supervillain named Syndrome.
Syndrome was formerly a huge fan of Mr. Incredible, the patriarch of the superhero family, but was ultimately rejected by his hero, which led him to a life of supervillainy. But, like many Disney and Pixar villains, it’s his death that’s the darkest part of both his life and the film. Syndrome kidnaps the family’s baby and, just as he flies off toward his jet, which is hovering in the sky, the baby uses his shape-shifting superhero powers to get away. As Syndrome prepares to escape in his jet, Mr. Incredible throws a car at him, knocking the villain into the spinning jet engine. He mostly likely died by being churned to bits by the engine. If not, he was surely blown to bits when the jet subsequently exploded.
1 TOY STORY 3 - OUR HEROES ARE NEARLY BURNED ALIVE
Toy Story 3 isn’t just another animated sequel made to cash in on the box office success of its original. A few months ago we declared it “one of the greatest sequels period.” It masterfully builds on the characters audiences had come to adore over the first two movies, a love that somehow endures even for parents forced to watch the films dozens of times at home with their kids.
It’s that lovable quality, the sympathy that’s built for these characters, that makes what happens two thirds of the way through the third film so horrifying. The gang, including Woody and Buzz, finds themselves dumped in the incinerator at a trash dump. The looks of horror on their faces are chilling as they're pushed closer and closer to the flames, the music as dark and foreboding as you’d expect from a similar “certain death” scene in an adult drama. The glow of the flames dances disturbingly on their faces. There doesn’t seem to be any way out. Audiences’ hearts break as acceptance floods into the toys’ eyes. All the toys can do is hold hands and wait for death. Now that’s about as dark as a children’s movie can get.
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