Did you know that it was Steven Spielberg who originally created the PG-13 rating after his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was determined to not quite fit within either the PG or R parameters?
What was once an identifier to distinguish film contents that might be deemed inappropriate for viewers under the age of 13 has now been shrugged off as “ratings creep” has allowed films to push the envelope on what is considered ‘mature’ content. Violence, sexual innuendo and strong language can now be found in films of just about any rating, as audiences become increasingly desensitized.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that movies can’t still find ways to shock, particularly when it comes to younger audiences. Even as the language they hear gets a little stronger and the scenes they see grow a little more violent, young film-goers still develop emotional attachments to characters and become connected to the story unfolding on the screen. It stands to reason, then, that losing a beloved character would still be pretty jarring.
As movies become more risqué, the fate of characters becomes less secure. Boundary-pushing filmmakers are given the green light to introduce viewers to edgier themes, including death. The result has been a series of films that serve up shocking gut punches by offing some of their most beloved characters. It goes without saying that this list will serve up plenty of spoilers, so be warned!
12. Ellie, Up
We aren’t even introduced to Ellie as a living character (well, she’d still be a cartoon, but you know what I mean) in the 2009 Disney/Pixar flick, instead getting the story of her and husband Carl through a heart-wrenching series of flashbacks. Other than an inability to bear children, they are a happy, loving couple who bond over their shared passion for adventure and exploration. As Carl finally arranges a long-awaited trip for the couple to visit Paradise Falls, Ellie falls ill and dies, leaving her widowed husband a heartbroken, disgruntled hermit. We can’t say we blame him.
11. Red Shoe, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Just because it’s a cartoon (or a partial cartoon, as the case is here) doesn’t necessarily make it kid-friendly. That’s the lesson with 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a part-animated, part-live action flick that secured a PG rating despite gratuitous slapstick violence and vivid sexuality in the form of Jessica Rabbit. Heck, film baddie Judge Doom gets run over by a steamroller! That’s nothing, though, compared to the innocent red ‘Toon Shoe’ that meets its violent end by being dragged, screaming, into a vat of Doom’s scalding “Dip” and, ultimately, melting into paint. Even with little background on the shoe, it’s a pretty harrowing scene for a PG movie.
10. Leslie, Bridge to Terabithia
This coming of age tale, set partially in the fantasy realm of Terabithia, tells the story of two fifth-graders who create a magical getaway to escape their struggles to fit in at school. Leslie, the new girl in class, helps the bullied Jesse confront his harassers and grow comfortable in his own skin, while Jesse offers Leslie a close friendship that slowly grows into an attraction. Then, she dies. No, really – she drowns while visiting Terabithia on her own while Jesse had been on a field trip with his music teacher. Although the death does not happen on-screen, it doesn’t dampen the sadness of seeing Jesse’s devastated reaction and a scene of shared mourning between he and Leslie’s dad.
9. Marley, Marley and Me
You know going into Marley and Me that you’re about to see a story spanning the life of a family and their beloved dog, so chances are you’d be in for some heartstrings-tugging. But just because the ending is predictable doesn’t mean that it fails to hit hard. Based on the memoirs from New York Times columnist John Grogan, Marley and Me shares the titular pup’s story from havoc-wreaker to an integral part of the Grogan family. As he grows old, becomes ill and is ultimately put to sleep, you see the emotional reaction of a family losing one of its members. Judging by the film’s $242.7 million box office haul, plenty of dog-loving viewers felt that same response.
8. Rue, The Hunger Games
It probably goes without saying that a movie based on the premise of a group of young people being thrust into a survival contest with one winner won’t be without its share of harrowing death. But even if you went into The Hunger Games knowing that you were in for (without reading the books, that is), it remained pretty tough to watch the killing of Rue, a sweet 12-year-old tribute who exemplified the human cost of the Games. While there were no shortage of deaths in the movie, seeing Katniss Everdeen sing to Rue and cover her in flowers as she dies at the hands of a competing tribute makes for a standout tear-jerking scene.
7. Carin Fisher, Patch Adams
Marketed as a broad, sweet, family-oriented Robin Williams comedic vehicle, few went into Patch Adams knowing the true story of the real-life doctor on whom the film was based. Further obscuring the cinematic version from the real story is the fact that Adams’ closest ally for his medical practice was a man, not a woman as portrayed in the movie. But sure enough, just as his friend was actually killed by a deranged patient in real life, Monica Potter’s Carin Fisher meets her end in the movie in a particularly chilling scene (the murder occurs off-screen). Even though it was based on real life, it was still awfully tough to see coming.
6. Mufasa, Lion King
Man, Disney movies sure aren’t kind to parents. One of the most famous examples of this comes in The Lion King, as evil uncle Scar engineers a stampede that ultimately leads to the death of Simba’s father (and his own brother), Mufasa (and enables Scar to assume the mantle as King of the Jungle). As if killing off the main character’s dad isn’t bad enough, it takes place right in front of Simba, with Mufasa’s terrified eyes creating one last vivid impression before he falls off the edge of the mountain. You’d think it would take more than a little Hakuna Matata to shake that one off.
5. Thomas, My Girl
Okay, so this one strikes a particularly personal chord with me as an impressionable seven-year-old in 1991 who wasn’t far off from the ages of main characters Vada and Thomas. There was an unmistakable sweetness to the friendship and pseudo-romance of the characters played by Anna Chlumsky and Macauley Culkin. That’s what made it so hard to swallow as Culkin’s Thomas goes into the woods to retrieve Vada’s lost mood ring (so ’90s!) and dies from a severe allergic reaction after getting stung by a bee. I get that I’m remembering my young self’s reaction to the death, but did they really have to show an open casket in the funeral scene?
4. G-Baby, Hardball
Hardball tells the familiar, tried-and-true story of a ragtag bunch of kids who are rallied by a reluctant coach (Conor O’Neill, played by Keanu Reeves) to band together and find united success as a team. As is so often the case with these movies, both heart and comic relief are achieved through the character of G-Baby, a sassy young kid who isn’t old enough to play but wants to be part of the team. Just before the championship game, however, G-Baby is caught in the crossfire of a gang war and gets killed by a stray bullet. In this case, even the feel-good ending of the team playing on and winning the championship to honor G-Baby rings hollow in the aftermath of his devastating death.
3. Bambi’s Mom, Bambi
The year 1942 was a simpler time for both film-going audiences and for the Walt Disney company. It had been just five years earlier that Snow White marked the company’s first foray into feature-length animated movies and people were still years away from learning about Walt’s sad mother issues. You can imagine, then, how shocking it would have been for an audience of that time to see Bambi’s mom shot and killed by a hunter early on in the movie. Sure enough, critics and even Walt’s daughter Diane Disney complained about the scene. Time Magazine even went so far as to include it on their 2007 list of Top 25 Horror Movies of All-Time.
2. Bruno and Shmuel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
This film adaptation of John Boyne’s 2006 novel takes on the weighty subject of the Holocaust, but tackles it through the friendship of eight-year-olds Bruno and Shmuel, neither of whom understand the atrocities taking place. Bruno is growing up in a Nazi family, while Shmuel is confined to a nearby concentration camp – the boys become friends when they meet on opposite sides of the caged fence that holds Shmuel and his fellow Jews. The story of their innocence against the inhumanity of the Holocaust comes to a horrifying conclusion, as Bruno sneaks under the fence to play with Shmuel shortly before both boys are round up and brought to the gas chambers.
1. Trevor McKinney, Pay It Forward
Hayley Joel Osment‘s Trevor McKinney isn’t just the main character of Pay It Forward, but the heart and emotional driving force behind a movie about kindness and doing good deeds for others. Trevor takes to a class project from teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) that asks students to ‘pay it forward’ by doing good things for three random people to set off a goodwill movement. As the movement takes off, however, Trevor is fatally stabbed while coming to the defense of a friend from bullies. While the movie tries to wrap up happily by showing an endless sea of mourners that represents the people Trevor touched, it’s still hard to reconcile all of his generous acts with his ultimate fate.
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