When we think of cartoons we tend to think of jolly comedies packed with colours. Anyone who has watched TV designed for toddlers will know that there is no lack of brainless noisy and pretty cartoons. There is nothing that says this has to be the case. Cartoon is just another medium to work in and can deal with dramatic and melancholy themes just as well as any other.
In fact cartoons can be more emotionally devastating because we don’t expect them to make us feel. We came here to laugh! Then from out of nowhere the creators spring some serious emotions on us. You would not think that a cartoon about rabbits could lead to tears but then one day you’ll turn the channel and see Watership Down is on and you need to reach for the tissues. This list will look at 15 of the worst offenders in terms of tears shed during cartoons.
And obviously because this list deals with the emotionally hard hitting moments from these cartoons: SPOILERS!
15 The Simpsons
Homer Simpson is a dumb character. That’s what makes him funny. But we like him because he has a big heart, despite his small brain. He loves his family. One member of the Simpson clan was always mysteriously absent though.
Homer’s mother is first introduced in the Season Seven episode “Mother Simpson.” It is revealed that Mona Simpson has been on the run from the police for 27 years after taking part in a raid on Mr. Burns germ-warfare lab. To make things easy on Homer, Grandpa Simpson told the boy his mother was dead. Reunited mother and son bond but are parted again at the end of the episode when Mona has to flee. The episode ends with Homer sitting on the hood of his car staring sadly at the stars.
Wall-E begins depressingly enough. The Earth has been ruined by over consumption and is nothing more than a garbage heap. Alone on the planet a small robot spends his time gathering this waste and crushing it into cubes. When he suffers an accident he has to cannibalize parts from his dead fellow robots.
The tone of the film soon shifts when Wall-E is introduced to EVE, a probe sent to look for life. He follows her out of love and the pair goes on an adventure that brings humanity back to Earth. But just as they achieve their goal Wall-E is injured. Repaired he seems to have lost all memory of his former personality, failing to recognize EVE. Wall-E goes back to his garbage crushing ways.
Bambi is the classic children’s film that introduces children to the brutal world of life in nature through the murder of a mother. Bambi is the cute little fawn who is inquisitive about everything in the forest. He clings to his mother as she shows him the ways of the world. When winter comes the forest freezes. Despite the hardship this causes Bambi finds ways to enjoy himself, skating on the ice.
Bambi’s mother finds a patch of grass for them to eat and leads her son to it. But a hunter is watching. Sensing something is wrong she tells him to flee. Bambi makes it to cover but his mother is not so lucky. Bambi is left howling as the snow falls.
12 Watership Down
Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, has mused about his book “Maybe I made it too dark.” Anyone who has seen the 1978 cartoon made from the children’s book and left traumatised might agree.
The film features rabbits scared from their home by the apocalyptic visions (shown in gruesome detail) of Fiver. This is just the beginning of their trials. Death stalks the rabbits. Hawks, snares, gun-totting farmers, cats, dogs, and other rabbits must all be faced. Many deaths of animals are shown leading to countless parents having to discuss cheery topics with their children. The film ends with a character being led into the rabbit afterlife. To cap the film’s dark tone it features Art Garfunkel’s feel-bad hit Bright Eyes.
11 When the Wind Blows
When the Wind Blows is a 1986 animated film about the Bloggs, a pair of average people living in the countryside. They know that war is coming, but they remember the Second World War and can’t see how the war they are told is coming can be much worse. They do start preparing but this only makes it clear how inadequate the government’s plans for civilian survival are. Their simple trust in their ability to muddle through is juxtaposed with the unimaginable powers of nuclear weapons.
Despite their faith in the government that they are sure will sort all things out the couple succumb to radiation sickness, crawling back into their shelter made from propped up doors.
Up is a Pixar film that starts in a way that seems to dare you to keep watching it begins so bleakly. A montage of the romance between Carl and Ellie seems the classic set up for a comedy. Their married life is colour and laughter and smiles. Together they dream of going to South America.
Somehow things get in the way. They dream of having a child, but then the montage shows a crying Ellie in a doctor’s office. The couple age and the funds for the trip to South America are forgotten. But Carl gets the money to book their dream trip. As he leads his wife up a hill to present them Ellie collapses and is shown dying in hospital. Carl walks despondently into his ramshackle house, alone.
9 The Fox and the Hound
An orphaned fox cub is taken in by an elderly widow called Tweed. If this film ended there then there would be fewer crying children in the world. After being taken in by Tweed the fox befriends a puppy dog belonging to the widow’s hunter neighbour. That puppy is destined to grow up to be hunting hound.
Despite this the two grow into fast friends. Warnings that things cannot last are ignored. But when the fox strays into the hunter’s land the hunter promises to kill the fox. Widow Tweed realizes the fox can no longer live with her. She drives with him into the woods, weeping at what she must do. She removes the fox’s collar and sets him free. As she drives away the storm begins to blow.
8 The Lion King
The problem with being a prince is that you are nothing until you are everything. You live in the shadow of your parent and can only take up your position as king by climbing over their dead body. In The Lion King Simba has a jaunty musical number in which he sings that he “Just can’t wait to be king.” He gets his wish much sooner than he hoped.
Simba is put in danger by a stampede of Wildebeest caused by his nefarious uncle Scar. When king Mufasa rescues Simba he is left clinging to cliff face. Scar seizes this moment to drop his brother to his death. Begging his father’s shattered body to get up Simba is unable to do anything. Scar makes him believe that he is at fault for the king’s death and that he must flee.
Long live the king, indeed.
7 The Iron Giant
The Iron Giant is an animated film about the friendship between a small boy and a giant robot. Such friendships rarely last, and so it proves here. The boy teaches the robot about the world via comic books. He also teaches the robot “We can be who we choose to be.”
Inconveniently landing in a twitchy Cold War America the robot is quickly seen a threat despite all the boy’s protestations. A nuclear missile is launched towards the town to destroy the robot. When the boy explains that all the townspeople will die the robot touches him on the chest saying “You stay. I go. No following.” He then flies up to be blown up by the bomb high above the earth.
Missing parents are a staple of children’s stories. They absence usually goes unexplained, especially in cartoons. But Rugrats revealed the truth of Chuckie’s missing mother.
In the episode “Mother’s Day” all the babies are working on gifts for their mothers, except for Chuckie. While the others talk about their happy memories of their mothers Chuckie has only dreams. The babies decide to find Chuckie a mother, with little success.
Chuckie does find a picture of his mother, the woman from his dreams and gives it to his father. Chuckie’s father then tells him the truth. Chuckie’s mother, Melinda, died when he was young. The last thing she wrote in her diary was a poem for Chuckie which his father reads to him.
5 Toy Story 3
The Toy Story films were always emotional roller coasters. They featured the feelings of rejection and jealousy and longing that everyone goes through as they grow up and change. It’s just they gave them to toys. No one looked at their toy box the same way again.
The whole of Toy Story 3 is filled with moments designed to tug on our heart strings as surely as Woody’s string is pulled to make him talk. The moment that made most people, especially those who had grown up with the films, tear up comes near the conclusion. The toys are trapped on a conveyor belt pushing them inexorably towards a fiery death in an incinerator. One by one the toys clutch hands and silently come to accept their imminent demise.
4 Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli anime film that opens with a child dying of starvation and gets less cheerful from there. Set in Japan during the Second World War the film follows a young brother and sister trying to survive together.
The siblings witness a firestorm caused by bombers with incendiary devices. Their mother is caught by the flames and later dies from her burns. They move in with an aunt who resents the extra burden they represent on dwindling food supplies. They leave and move into an abandoned bomb shelter. The fireflies they release into it for light die.
Soon they run out of food. The sister suffers malnutrition. The brother withdraws all the money left in the bank to buy food but returns too late. His sister dies, despite his efforts, and we see their spirits reunited in the afterlife after his own death.
Disney films from back in the day were not afraid to get scary. No one who has watched the psychedelic Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo can doubt that. But they also were not afraid to get emotionally scarring.
Dumbo is the baby elephant with whimsically large ears. Mocked by everyone Dumbo is finally tormented by boys who visit the circus where he lives with his mother. His mother tries to hide them from their jeers and tugging hands. When she drives them off she is declared insane and roped by the circus workers. Dumbo is taken from her and she is locked up. All she can do is reach her trunk through the bars and rock Dumbo to sleep while singing to him.
2 The Land Before Time
The Land Before Time is a cartoon both tragic in itself and for the events surrounding it. The film tells the story of dinosaurs driven to search for a “Great Valley” where food is plentiful. It focuses on Littlefoot, a Longneck, and it is not long before the sadness kicks in.
When Littlefoot is attacked by a Sharptooth his mother comes to his rescue. But the fight is savage and she is fatally wounded. Littlefoot finds her as she lays in the rain, unable to get up. She tells him to go on without her.
Later Littlefoot see his mother in the distance. But as he runs excitedly towards her it becomes clear it is just his own shadow projected on the wall.
After the release of the film one of the children who voiced a character, Judith Barsi, was murdered by father aged just ten.
Futurama was the sci-fi comedy series from the creators of The Simpsons. Fry, a pizza delivery boy, is accidentally frozen and finds himself awoken in the year 3000. He soon makes new friends but his friends and family from his old life are all gone. Normally this is glossed over but the episode Jurassic Bark bucks that trend.
When Fry’s old pizzeria is excavated the fossilised remains of his dog Seymour are discovered. Using the complicated science of ‘reverse fossilisation’ they are able to bring Seymour back to life. Yay?
No. Fry decides it would be wrong to bring Seymour back because Seymour must have lived a rich and fulfilling life after Fry’s disappearance. A montage then shows us the truth. Seymour waits outside the pizzeria for his friend to return as the seasons turn. After years of waiting he sets his head down on his paws, closes his eyes, and dies.