It’s tricky today for parents to know what to show their kids. In a world where the Internet all too easily offers a path to dark stuff, parents have to figure out movies that can entertain but not be too much. Disney may be tops in animation but several of their films can have harrowing sequences that rock younger viewers (such as The Lion King). Other movies are clearly meant to be scarier and even “kid horror” and so parents have to judge how soon a kid can get into them. Some parents are perfectly okay letting kids see grisly R-rated films before they’re even 10 but others can be far more strict in their viewing choices. It doesn’t help that too many films that seem so kid-friendly really aren’t.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell. Where The Wild Things Are was a dark kid’s book so it makes sense the movie version would be the same. As noted, several Disney films have dark elements and some movies can be up front on how they’re not for the little kids. But a lot of flicks can sucker parents in by looking wonderfully kid-friendly but be anything but. The themes are dark, there are horrifying scenes and in some cases, the whole thing ends up being even scarier than a slasher film. Sometimes, it’s unintentional, other times the filmmakers meant for it to be this way. But they combine into a “family film” that comes off horrific. Here are fifteen films that sound “kid friendly” on the surface but can give even adults nightmares to let parents know they have to screen stuff carefully.
Whenever Disney puts this 1942 classic out on video, they have a cover showing the young Bambi in a forest, smiling with pals Thumper and Flower. That gives the impression it’s no different than any of their musical adventures. But when kids put the flick in to watch, they see a stunningly dark portrayal of life in the forest. Sure, it has light moments like Bambi on the ice or falling in love and some warm family messages. But it also contains the most infamously dark moment in the history of Disney animation. Finding the dark figure known only as “Man” in the forest, the deer take off with Bambi’s mom yelling at him to run. He leaps over a hill just as a gunshot echoes, wandering out to call for his mother only to have the Great Deer tell him “your mother is gone.”
It’s a heartbreaking scene, terrifying for the idea of any child losing their parent and it still amazes it was ever produced like this. The film tries to get more light-hearted with Bambi growing up but then Bambi has to fight another deer for a doe. That’s followed by a forest fire sequence still stunning in its realism with woodland creatures racing to escape the horror as well as hunting dogs. For all its beautiful old-school animation, this ranks as among the darker works of the classic Disney era that still rocks kids today.
14. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory
Tim Burton’s 2005 version of the Roald Dahl novel with Johnny Depp had its freaky moments. But it can’t touch the 1971 original which has become a beloved family favorite. The plot is well-known: Innocent Charlie Bucket and four rotten kids win “golden tickets” to tour the factory of famed candy maker Willy Wonka. It’s the most famous role of the late Gene Wilder who clearly plays Wonka as a man with some dark edges. It’s obvious he knows full well four of these kids are going to meet a very nasty end and is totally okay with it, thinking they need to be taught a lesson.
The most famous scene is when the tour takes a trip on a boat through a tunnel. Lights flash, the music sails, a chicken is shown beheaded with other bits and everyone is howling. Then Wonka begins offering a dark song in a way that makes him look like a total lunatic, complete with a wild howl. Charlie and his grandfather nearly float into a fan and the scene of Wonka screaming at them later is truly disturbing. Not to mention the Oompa-Loompas look downright weird when they sing. Families may love it but that doesn’t stop it from being sour at times.
13. The Witches
It is astounding how well this 1990 movie brings Roald Dahl’s often terrifying “kids book” to life. It starts with a young boy told of how witches are all around, looking like normal women but signs like gloves and large shoes. A story is told of a family who see their daughter trapped in a painting, aging on before vanishing. At a resort, the boy discovers a convention of witches and it’s bad enough seeing them remove gloves for clawed hands and wigs to show bald heads. But then the Grand High Witch (Angelica Huston) peels off her mask to reveal a hideous face with massive nose and chin to terrify you. She boasts of her plot to turn all the children of England into mice, doing so to the boy and a friend.
This leads to sequences of the duo dodging both witches and hunters, including a harrowing sequence inside a kitchen. Houston is scary even in her “normal” guise and the way these witches see kids as vermin to be exterminated is scary. The movie contains a “happy ending” unlike the book yet the majority manages to make Dahl’s story even scarier and perhaps the most horrifying view of witches put on film.
12. Return To Oz
The original Wizard of Oz can be dark at times. But it has nothing on this 1985 Disney production that borrows from the original books for some horrifying times. A young Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy, whose tales of a magical land lead to her put in an asylum. They are actually going to subject the girl to electroshock therapy when a storm whisks her back to Oz. There, she finds everyone in the Emerald City turned to stone and the Yellow Brick Road in ruins. Then we get the Wheelers, twisted monsters with wheels for hands and feet and horrific masks who scream out as they chase Dorothy.
The highlight is Princess Mombi, the new ruler of the city. She turns out to have heads in cases that she removes and puts on like they’re hats. An utterly chilling sequence has Dorothy sneaking to steal a key, the heads all waking up and screaming with a headless Mombi then chasing Dorothy. Then there’s the Nome King, a stop-motion animated freak, a pumpkin-headed aide and more. It’s just astounding this was made and still a movie guaranteed to freak you out at any age.
11. The NeverEnding Story
To many, this 1984 film is a family classic with a gorgeous score, truly innovative visuals and fantastic designs. But have little kids watch it and it can freak them out. It all starts with a fantasy land attacked by a mysterious “Nothing” threatening the world. A young boy reads of the exploits including a warrior youth sent to stop it. The sequence where the boy’s beloved horse sinks into a swamp is heart-breaking and can move anyone to tears. Then there’s the monstrous wolf chasing the warrior around. The bits of statues firing laser beams can be freaky as can be the sequence of stuck in a blizzard. The scene of the warrior and the wolf talking with the wolf growling and snarling is chilling. There’s also the finale of this world destroyed and more threats before the big ending. It has a liked final scene but it’s still a very disturbing story that’s more likely to give little kids nightmares than anything fun.
10. All Dogs Go To Heaven
Don Bluth was always hailed for his great animation but a dark edge Disney just couldn’t touch. His 1989 film is a great example as a heartwarming title tricks kids into viewing a rather disturbing experience. It begins with Charlie (Burt Reynolds) digging out of a pound called “Death Row,” his sidekick nearly drowning and the two shot at by guards. After a stop at a seedy bar (yes, including prostitute dogs), Charlie is hit by a car and dies. He steals a magic watch to get back to Earth with a ghostly voice saying he “can never come back.” Things get downright macabre now as Charlie has to rescue a little girl voiced by actress Judith Barsi who was killed by her own father before the movie’s release.
Charlie starts using the girl to forge his own gambling empire which leads to a sequence dreaming of going to a horrific Hell where he’s almost torn apart by bat demons. The two are also almost eaten by a giant gator. Charlie does sacrifice himself and ends up in Hell, returning as a Hellhound. Yes, it has a “happy ending” but astounding that a movie with such a heavenly title is a hell of a dark ride.
David Bowie. The only man who could be surrounded by Muppets and still be the most bizarre guy in the room. In Jim Henson’s beloved 1986 fantasy, a young Jennifer Connelly is Sarah, a teenager tired of her baby brother and wishing he’d go away. Enter Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King who takes the child to his land. In order to rescue him, Sarah must go through a complex maze of bizarre creatures. There are hands that form faces and bodies, Bowie doing a wild song and dance number while wearing ultra-tight pants, freaky goblins, most crazy creatures and just some of the nuttier exploits imaginable. The truly creepy part is how it’s clear Jareth truly believes this is all to win the love of a fifteen-year old girl, that putting her baby brother in peril is “wooing” which is a disturbing dimension. The film is hailed for its style and Bowie’s performance but it’s also pretty damn freaky for younger kids.
8. The Peanut Butter Solution
So you look at that title and you think we’ve got some goofy kid’s comedy about making sandwiches, right? Wrong. It all starts with an 11-year-old kid heading over to his new neighbor’s home and peeking inside. Whatever he sees is so horrifying, it causes his hair to fall out. The next night, the ghost of a homeless couple who died in a fire offer him a magical peanut butter that will make his hair grow back and he uses it. His friend is so happy he decides to use the same hair for…down there.
Then it gets weird. The kid’s hair keeps growing and growing and a teacher kidnaps him and various other kids and puts them in a factory so they turn the hair into brushes. Oh and the music is by a then unknown Celine Dion. It’s a wild nightmare of kids locked up after being drugged and taken off the streets to make these brushes which are somehow magical. It’s just utterly mad and freaky and you’ll never think of peanut butter the same way after seeing this film.
7. The Dark Crystal
In technical terms, Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy remains an astounding achievement. No human actors at all, just puppets, many life-sized in a variety of forms and the way they’re brought to life is impressive. They’re linked to a story that is even darker than the seemingly good fantasy title. It kicks off with the Skeksis, vulture-like figures who watch their aged leader die and break apart into dust. They screech and howl as they go about with the Garthim, monstrous crab creatures doing their dirty work. The Skeksis enjoy kidnapping the innocent Podlings and subjecting them to a process turning them into mindless slaves to suck away their life force.
The main plot has two Gelfings, the last survivors of a dead race destined to restore the title Crystal and end the Skeksis. So you have harrowing sequences of them chased by the Garthim, a battle on a cliff, a scene of one Skeksis send flying into a volcanic pit and more. That’s not to mention the nutty one-eyed hag Aughra helping out. The film has a massive audience for its style and visuals but lives up to the Dark part of its title very well.
6. The Secret Of NIMH
Don Bluth’s 1982 film is a gorgeous animated adventure. It’s also shockingly grim and very dark. Based on a novel, it focuses on Mrs. Brisby, a mouse whose young son is constantly near death due to illness. Their brick home is about to be crushed by the farmer’s plow and Brisby seeks a way to save them. It all starts with her meeting an owl who crushes a spider about to feast on her and intimidating as hell. He sends her to a rose bush where she’s attacked by a rat soldier and discovers a society of intelligent rats led by an aged and wizened being with glowing eyes. He informs her that the rats were once experimented on with a gripping sequence of them injected before escaping their lab with mice blown away to their deaths.
That’s followed by Brisby trying to drug a deadly cat, caught and an escape involving slicing her arm. Meanwhile, two rats go on a death duel after one is crushed in construction and then the big climax has Brisby’s children nearly drowning in mud. That it’s pushed as a “kid’s movie” is amazing considering how amazingly dark it is.
5. Jack Frost
The problem is that there are not one but two movies with this title so it’s pretty easy for a parent to mess up and show the wrong one. The first is a nutty comedy of Michael Keaton as a dad killed in an accident and returning as his kid’s snowman. It’s goofy but offbeat fun. The other is a 1997 horror movie where the title refers to a serial killer on his way to death row when an accident douses him in radioactive waste. This leads to him turning into a monster snowman who goes on a grisly killing spree.
Naturally, it’s a grisly affair, the biggest being when Jack attacks a teenage girl (a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth) in the shower. With her nude, he assaults her then kills her in a truly disturbing scene. The movie has attained a cult following because of its cheap FX and even spawned a sequel but make sure this isn’t the one you show the kids.
4. Raggedy-Ann And Andy: A Musical Adventure
An animated musical about the beloved doll characters sounds perfect for a little kid to watch. Then you see it. The animation itself is just different, making the characters look freaky in their movements and several of the toys designed in ways that make them look frightening instead of loveable (especially the twins who sing everything they say). When a doll is kidnapped by a pirate captain (whose moustache goes erect talking to her), the two title siblings go to rescue her. From there, they team with a camel who follows hallucinations of a caravan and a looney knight dressed in garbage cans.
The freakiest moment is when they fall into a pit containing “the Greedy,” a monstrous chocolate monster who looks like a lake of mud that nearly swallows them up. And the aforementioned knight lives in a castle packed with deadly traps and trophies. The movie was a major flop and not surprising as few adults would want to see their kids check out a film that makes Toy Story 3 look innocent.
3. Watership Down
An animated movie about rabbits. What could sound more kid-friendly than that? Woe to any parent who unknowingly puts this on, thinking it’s a fun story to entertain the kids. It starts with a lovely talk of rabbits as creatures living in peace. Then, one has a vision of horror and flees with some helpers for a new land. One is killed by a hawk and then it is on. Nightmares of rabbits swallowed up in packs and rivers covered with blood are bad enough. Then there are snares with one nearly ripped apart on barbed wire and avoiding snares. They think they’re saved by a colony until it becomes clear the more crafty rabbits are using them for bait. Then there are battles against another horde of rabbits which leads to more bloodshed and grisly attacks than a war movie by Quentin Tarantino. It’s brutal, bloody, horrible, beloved characters killed for no reason and the “promised land” doesn’t even exist. While it’s hailed as a classic, a kid has to be a certain age before taking in this horror tale.
Many love the stop-motion animation of this 2009 film and it is impressive. But anything by Neil Gaiman is going to have some dark elements and this is no exception. The title young girl is annoyed when her workaholic parents move to Oregon and neglect her without any friends. She thus finds her way into The Other Place, a seemingly magical realm where her parents give her full attention. Just one thing: everyone in this world has buttons for eyes. It’s an absolutely freaky visual to disturb you greatly. More disturbing is that Coraline is fine with this given how this world’s parents are more loving of her, showing how desperate she is for affection.
Things get dark when Coraline is told she has to have her eyes sewn up if she wants to stay in The Other Place. When she refuses, her “Other Mother” turns into a monstrous creature that locks her up. Coraline is soon met by the ghosts of past victims relating they were tricked just like she was into this world and she needs to free the eyes to free their souls. Her true parents are kidnapped as Coraline must journey through a darker world to save them. It ends well but the animation makes an already freaky tale terrifying and while a great visual experience, not a movie for the kids.
1. Spirited Away
Japanese feature animation can be divided into two categories: Hayao Miyazaki and everyone else. The acclaimed animator has been wowing fans with slews of amazing works over the years. His masterpiece might well be this 2002 film which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and was a monster hit in Japan. It’s easy to see why as it’s gloriously animated and a true moving experience. It’s also the darkest and freakiest of all his films. When her parents go missing, young Chihiro follows them into a bizarre world that makes Wonderland look sane. The freaky stuff abounds like a huge ghost-faced figure that follows her around constantly and finding her parents turned into obese pigs. There’s also a witch with a massive wrinkled head and more bizarre chases. It’s a great tale of this young woman fighting for her family and it ends happily. But it’s a dark journey getting there so don’t think this is a Disney production but a truly scary ride.