“Everybody knows it sucks to grow up.” — Ben Folds
The movies we see as children have a power we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand. Films for kids and families are usually broad, bright, and loud, functioning on deep levels of good versus evil, where the evil is represented by the kind of sweeping, wholesale loss or heartbreak that can leave you wounded for life. Almost every kids’ movie has some kind of tragedy fueling its plot, but some go further by making that tragedy life-changing, inescapable, and permanent. Even if things get better — even if they kind of work out in the end — the memory of that pain lingers, coloring the film and your experience of it. Basically, kids’ movies can be damn depressing, even the happy ones. They’re the movies that first hint at how confusing and tough the world can sometimes be, and these moments are a cut above. If you can make it through this list without feeling anything, you are probably dead.
Spoilers abound, obviously:
The Neverending Story: The death of Artax
The Neverending Story is the kind of weird kids’ movie that doesn’t get made much any more, thanks to the displacement of practical effects in favor of CGI and the over-reliance of studios on tested brands and Y.A. series. It’s also got one of the saddest moments you could think of, when the warrior Atreyu loses his horse, Artax, to the Swamps of Sadness. We actually watch the boy try and haul his horse out of the muck before the animal gives in and sinks.
I can’t believe this was marketed to kids.
The Land Before Time: The death of Littlefoot’s mother
Although the film would go on to spawn 12 (seriously) direct-to-video sequels and a short-lived TV show, the original The Land Before Time was a modest critical and commercial success. It was also remarkably dark for a children’s movie, so much so that producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pushed for edits to make the film more palatable to kids. Edits or no, watching a baby dinosaur’s mom killed by a T-rex is damn disconcerting for little ones.
Old Yeller: Obvious
My Girl: The death of Thomas J.
In addition to being a smart coming-of-age movie that treats girls like humans and not paper dolls, My Girl gets high marks for dealing so frankly with the idea of death as a part of life. Still, that’s almost an academic distinction, and not one that most kids are able to make when they see the movie the first time. All we get is a tiny Anna Chlumsky weeping over the corpse of Macaulay Culkin.
Dumbo: “Baby Mine”
Dumbo is a deeply weird kids’ movie, and one that probably shouldn’t be shown to most young ones, who will alternately be terrified of Dumbo’s alcohol-fueled dream sequence and puzzled by the pack of crows who serve as the story’s chorus. But it’s also a deeply sad movie, one about loss and rejection and loneliness, and the “Baby Mine” sequence is its perfect, heart-rending focal point. While mother animals hold their young close in various cages (a life presented as positive, to give you an idea of Dumbo’s horrors), Dumbo touches trunks with his imprisoned mother as she sings him a lullaby. The moment breaks everyone.
Toy Story 2: The tale of Jessie the cowgirl
Toy Story 2 wonderfully captured the bittersweet sense of growing up and leaving your childhood behind you one awkward step at a time, and the flashback sequence detailing Jessie’s happy times with her former owner is the movie’s entire mission statement in one wistful montage. Add Sarah McLachlan singing and you’ve got a recipe for tears.
Monsters, Inc.: Sulley says good-bye
Pixar is basically an assembly line for moments that tear your heart out, but watching Sulley say goodbye to Boo is above and beyond. It’s the moment that kills parents and kids alike.
E.T.: “I’ll be right here.”
In E.T., everything works out OK in the end — E.T. is reunited with his people, Elliott grows closer to his family, etc. — but that doesn’t make the tearful parting any easier. E.T. and Elliott spend the film cementing their psychic and emotional bond, and neither wants to see the other leave. E.T.’s parting line to Elliott seals the deal: I cry every time.
I don’t know about you, but I need a chaser after all that: