Our view of animation tends to be as two-dimensional as the characters that inhabit its world; they can either be a playful adventure for kids, or a quirky sitcom for adults. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but you’re missing out on some real gems if that’s all you see. Every now and again, it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone to shake things up. Honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a cartoon that makes you want to curl up in the fetal position.
Contrary to popular belief, animation is capable of eliciting the same emotions as any work of live-action. There are titles that are genuinely terrifying, and you also have your share of thought-pieces. Although, whenever images of “mature” cartoons float around in people’s head, they think of tentacle kink shows from Japan. We’re not hating on tentacles, but there’s a little more to it than that, and besides, plenty of weird is homegrown right here in North America.
From polyamorous mice to a billionaire president turned superhero, the following list is sure to have something that will forever change the way you think about cartoons.
15. Parametric Expression
One of the things we like about animation is that it’s far removed from reality. Even when it tries to stay somewhat grounded, we know it’s still an imagined world, and that keeps us at safe distance from anything too, uh, real. But if you’re watching something like Parametric Expression, you can forget about slipping away into fantasy.
Created by Canadian artist Mike Pelletier in 2013, this short showcases facial expressions that are eerily lifelike. How did he pull it off? Let’s just say that technology has turned making humans into an exact science (digitally speaking). By using a modeling software called MakeHuman, Pelletier was able to capture movements and convert them to computer algorithms. So every smile, widening of the eye, and scowl was done by an actual person. We’re not sure who was able to morph their head into that jagged, demonic looking thing, but they should probably get themselves checked out by a doctor.
14. Dog of Man
Dog of Man is a heartwarming tale of friendship… that will make your skin crawl. The main character is a lonely man without any friends but his trusted canine companion. Unlike your regular ‘ol dog, this one talks, but not in the charming, comedic way seen in Saturday morning cartoons. No, we’ve got an electrical plug planted into its head and a megaphone sticking out of its mouth.
As the man heeds the advice from his besty (or is it beastie?), he starts to go down the path to self-improvement. You wouldn’t think growing a tumor or severing limbs would do a body good, but hey, what doesn’t kill you, right? Truth be told, this is far more than just a gore fest. Creator David Firth does present a thoughtful commentary on friendship. It might take more than one viewing to digest the message though, as the grotesque visuals can get the better of you on the first go-around. Just be sure to keep an open mind and an empty stomach.
13. Watership Down
Do you like provocative allegories, rabbits, and nightmarish deaths? Then Watership Down might just be the ticket for you.
After having an apocalyptic vision, the central character Fiver tries to warn the chief about their impending doom, but he basically replies, “I’m not trying to hear that noise.” Shockingly, their home is subsequently wiped out by developers, leaving Fiver and the other survivors with nowhere to go but the safest of all places: the woods.
On their way to find a new warren (a series of connected burrows), the rabbits are attacked by a hawk and a host of other perils that don’t skimp on the blood. When a kids movie (that’s right, for children) is this graphic, it doesn’t stand as the best candidate for a more family-friendly remake. But that’s what the BBC and Netflix are planning to do in a four-part mini series slated for release in 2017. Only time will tell if CG and the vocal talents of actors like James McAvoy and Ben Kingsley will either soften the blow, or give us another reason to sleep with the light on.
12. The Plague Dogs
Director Martin Rosen can’t get enough of macabre stories filled win fury animals. Five years after adapting Watership Down, he took a stab at another one of Richard Adams’ classic novels.
In The Plague Dogs, unsettling is a feeling you become acquainted with from the onset. The picture starts out with a dog struggling for breath as a room fills up with water. All the while, a group of scientists coldly observe the grisly scene. Having seen this, you can understand why the film’s two top dogs would want to high-tail it out of the “research” laboratory.
Although, not every human who appears is a bad egg. Take a shotgun-sporting hunter, for example. He seems threatening at first, but all he wants to do is pet one of the doggies. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, if a dog excitedly jumps into your arms and you accidentally pull the trigger, you might shoot yourself in the face. The odds of this happening in real life are slim, but in a Richard Adams-inspired animated movie, it’s pretty much a guarantee.
11. The Little Pest
Have you ever had the urge to punch a baby? Apparently, animator Dick Huemer (Dumbo, Fantasia, etc.) did when he created the character of Scrappy. Throughout The Little Pest, Scrappy tries to ditch his baby bro Oopy. He starts with some threats, a little pushing and shoving, but nothing breaks Oopy’s spirit. Not even a smack across the face that sends the little tyke flying can keep him down.
Things do take a turn for the sinister once the two brothers go fishing. Their lines get tangled, and after some tussling, Oopy gets thrown into the water. Being the caring chap that he is, Scrappy turns a blind eye to blood-curdling screams of his drowning baby brother. The only thing that snaps him back to reality is the thought of going to the electric chair, because murder is only bad when you know you’ll get caught. Anyway, Scrappy pulls his brother to shore and revives him using some pretty impressive CPR.
10. The Sad Tale of Bad Breath Joe
Bad breath is no laughing matter. To get close to anybody, you have to first… get close to them, and halitosis can seriously get in the way of bonding.
In Dimitri Kozma’s The Sad Tale of Bad Breath Joe, the title character goes to great lengths to cure his funky breath blues. No, we’re not talking popping a few mints or chewing some gum. Although, it might have been worth it for Joe to give these two options a try before pulling out the heavy duty stuff. You’ve probably tried some pretty gnarly mouthwash before, but it’s doubtful that it packed the punch of sulfuric acid.
The only thing that burns more than Joe’s esophagus will be your eyes after taking a gander at this. On its own, the gore is pretty off-putting. However, the character designs add another layer of the heebie-jeebies. Whether it’s the bulgy eyes or abnormally large mouths, it’s all reminiscent of the fevered nightmares you’d have as kid after taking too much medicine. Sleep tight!
9. Blue Cat Blues
Tom and Jerry are bitter rivals, the kind who wouldn’t tinkle on the other if he were on fire. Nothing on this earth could bring them together… except for shared misery.
Blue Cat Blues starts off with a distraught Tom sitting on a train track waiting for death’s sweet release. It wasn’t years of being bested by a crafty rodent that brought him to this point; what we have here is the classic cat boy meets cat girl, and she dumps him for a cat boy with deeper pockets. To his credit, Tom didn’t give up without a fight. He bought her jewelry with his life savings, and even singed up for slavery so he could afford a new car.
Sadly, money can’t buy you love (apparently, a whole lot of money can, though). After being dumped for good, Tom hits the bottle hard until he decides to thrown in the towel to the grim reaper. All the while, Jerry counts his lucky starts that he has a loving and dedicated girlfriend. The only problem here is that all of that “love” and “dedication” is for another man-mouse. Heartbroken, he joins Tom on the tracks where they brace for the end.
8. The Animals of Farthing Wood
The Animals of Farthing Wood is like the distant cousin of Winnie the Poof. That is, if the story of everyone’s favorite honey addict dealt with the harsh reality of survival of the fittest.
After their habitat is destroyed, some cute critters pledge to stick together and search for a new place to call home. Throughout this 39 episode series, members of the central cast are killed off in ways that are natural, but sometimes gruesome. At one point, they encounter a bird called a shriek, that takes a liking to impaling its victims on thorns, stumps, and even barbed wire. When a litter of baby mice are left unattended, well, you can picture how things ended up (pun slightly intended).
Things aren’t all doom and gloom, as the heroes do make it to their destination of White Deer Park. However, they then have to face a turf war with the current residents, as well as fight off an invasion of rats. Now that you see how hard it is for animals to play nice, you probably have a whole new respect for Pooh and company.
7. Pika Don
You’ll hear time and time again that animation is for kids. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t deliver a powerful message. Renzo Kinoshita’s Pikadon (“flash, boom”) was produced to teach children about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and it’s likely that a few adults walked away having learned a thing or two as well.
The short starts out depicting scenes of everyday life in the light tone that we’re accustomed to seeing with any cartoon. About halfway through the picture, there’s a dramatic tone shift marked by the foreboding engine of an aircraft. Once the bomb drops, the viewer isn’t spared from any of the brutality. What makes this so chilling is the abrupt transition from the mundane to the unimaginable.
There’s perhaps no better anti-war statement than showing how it literally destroys the lives of ordinary people. As difficult as this is to watch, it gives us an intimate glimpse of what the victims went through in a way that footage from the time can’t.
6. Swing You Sinners!
As Ella Fitzgerald would say, “Sin don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Okay, she never actually said that, but she probably would’ve appreciated the Swing You Sinners! soundtrack… and nothing more.
On the lamb for stealing a chicken, this animated mongrel decides the best place to hide is a creepy graveyard. And it doesn’t take long for him to realize the genius of his move; the cemetery literally swallows the key to the gate, and other mouths emerge from the ground looking for a tasty doggy treat. Oh, and to add insult to injury, all of the ghoulish apparitions keep telling him how much of a scum bag he is.
Remember the chicken he stole? It puffs up into a giant, Louis Armstrong-esque scatting virtuoso. If that doesn’t give you the willies, just wait until the dog’s underwear morphs into a bloodthirsty ghost. Our ill-fated canine avoids the skid mark from hell, but is eventually beheaded, and then swallowed whole by a gigantic skull.
5. Balloon Land
No one knows what Ub Iwerks (co-creator of Mickey Mouse) was thinking when he created Balloon Land. On one hand, it can be viewed as a veiled PSA for safe s*x, on the other, an excuse to giggle while saying, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.”
From the first time we see the suggestive shape of the balloon people, we know that we’re in for something unforgettable. The star characters, a boy and a girl, wonder into the woods despite being warned that there’s a monster that can “rip your skin”. As luck would have it, they run into the infamous Pin Cushion Man, who wastes no time in stroking the metal rod sticking out of his crotch. Although thoroughly traumatized, the kids make it through this ordeal unscathed. The same can’t be said about the rest of the town, however.
Pin Cushion goes a spree where he pokes a bunch of balloon people to death. Not even the highly trained balloon army can stop him because, well, they’re still balloons. In the end, good does triumph, though. The citizens discover that Pin Cushion Man has one weakness: raw rubber. So they fling it at him until he gets pushed over the edge and falls to his death.
4. Feline Follies
It’s always good to make sure you lock the door when you leave home, because you never know when a bunch of mice might come in and destroy it. That’s what happened to Felix the Cat, who was known as Master Tom at the time that Feline Follies was produced (mmm, wonder what spurred the name change?).
Anyways, our feline Casanova was out on date when the mishap occurred, and with nowhere to go, he tries to crash at his new lady’s place. Although, his plan to keep things “casual” gets derailed when he’s greeted by a litter of baby Felixes. Petrified at the thought of taking on baby daddy responsibilities, he runs for the hills.
You’d figure that after the initial shock wore off, he’d at least request a paternity test or you know, get a job. But no, there’s only one alternative to solving this problem: sucking down gas through a hose. Ahhh, if only he had watched Balloon Land before hooking up with cat girl, this whole mess could’ve been avoided.
3. Bully Beef
When you come across a short called Bully Beef, you know it has to be good. Produced by Terrytoons (the creators of Mighty Mouse), this WWI themed tale centers on a polyamorous triangle of two mice and a cat.
Because S&M needs to be thrown in for good measure, the film begins with the cat whipping the guy mouse as he plows a plantation. Next, war breaks out, so master and slave put their differences behind them and enlist in the army. They then take turns kissing their mouse lady goodbye before heading off to the front.
As soon as they hit the battlefield, the cat’s head is blown off, but by using the powers of the cartoon universe, he’s able to pull himself together. Not every character is able to do this, however. A ton of mice get mowed down by artillery fire and they wind up just as you’d expect: dead! The main mouse does come back to life, and at the end of the battle, he scares the cat off by slinging a rock at his butt. At last, he can sloppily kiss his mouse lady without the fear of tasting cat food.
2. The Rapeman
Superheroes, as the name implies, are about saving people with their special abilities. The team that produced The Rapeman had a different idea of “saving people” in mind when they conceived of this anti-hero. Based on the Japanese comic book of the same name, high school teacher Keisuke Iwasaki operates under the motto of “Righting wrongs through penetration”.
On behalf of his clients, Iwasaki carries out revenge, brings parents closer to their children through traumatic experiences, and supposedly tames volatile co-workers. Some of the contracts don’t sit well with his moral compass (’cause he has one?), but he sees every job through to the end.
Other than its existence, the most surprising thing about Rapeman is that it’s not nearly as underground as you’d imagine. Western publications have used it to analyze Japan’s s*x culture, it inspired the name of an 80s band, and was even cited in an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
1. Trump Takeover
“I am justice, I am the Right, I am Trump Man!”
Yep, we were that close to having an animated, super-charged version of Donald Trump. Back in 2006, Michael Jacobson, the editor of the now defunct Trump Magazine, received an interesting pitch from his acquaintance Mitchell Shultz: immortalize the Donald by putting him into a kids cartoon.
The show was given the working title Trump Takeover and was set in a time when America was basically on the brink of collapse. Its only hope lied in the hands of a magical halo sporting Trump and his merry band from The Apprentice. Pulling out all the stops, Trump was expected to take command of the White House, revitalize the stock market, and save the crumbling inner cities. Of course, you can’t have a superhero cartoon without some epic fight scenes. So, Shultz threw in some ideas of the billionaire rough housing with aliens and what have you.
Regrettably, this project didn’t get far beyond the early planning stages. However, it was used as a selling point to land investors for the Premier Publishing company. While the stock crashed after a year, Trump made out like a bandit in licensing fees that totaled nearly $1 million. Not bad for a show that never happened.