We like to think that films for children are always cheery and uplifting. But, like fairy tales, children’s animation often carries a darker message. Are the following ten TV shows and films a safe way to expose children to serious life messages about death, sacrifice and the harsh realities of the world, or are they just plain depressing?
Annabelle’s Wish is a Christmas film, so right away you know it’s going to tug at all the heartstrings. In the world of Annabelle’s Wish, Santa visits animals at Christmas, and gives them the ability to talk during the festive period, because, well, why not?
The titular Annabelle is a calf who forms a bond with Billy, a little boy who is unable to speak. Billy is bullied by other children and also has a difficult family situation, making him exactly the kind of quiet, introverted young lad who would bond with a special calf like Annabelle. Annabelle in turn loves Billy, but she also has ambitions of her own – next time Santa comes round, she plans to ask him if she can become a reindeer and fly his sleigh.
Only things don’t quite work out like that. Annabelle ultimately uses her wish to give her magical Christmas voice to Billy, meaning that he can speak but she never will again – and nor will she become a reindeer. It’s a heart-wrenching self sacrifice, and even though Annabelle finally gets to become a reindeer when she is an old, dying cow, this just makes the whole thing that more bittersweet and poignant.
Watership Down is one of those films children want to watch because from the cover art, it looks like it’s going to be all about cute bunnies. And yes, it is about cute bunnies: cute bunnies dying when their warren is gassed and then filled in; cute bunnies risking life and limb to find a new home; cute bunnies trying to avoid getting shot, eaten by predators or experimented on; and of course cute bunnies ripping each other to shreds. Both the film and the original book are very good, and they offer an important insight into the perilous life of the wild rabbit, but one shouldn’t go into them unprepared.
The Animals of Farthing Wood
The Animals of Farthing Wood starts off as Watership Down-lite. The plot of the first book and TV series is suspiciously similar – a bunch of animals lose their habitat due to human development, and have to undertake a perilous journey to the safety of a nature reserve. The main difference is that there are a whole bunch of different animals – both predator and prey species- who have sworn to protect and defend each other instead of obeying the usual food chain.
Farthing Wood goes one better, though, by continuing the story in a number of sequel books – most of which were adapted for the animated TV series. The animals that survived their trek are beset with additional issues – a particularly harsh winter, a rival group of foxes, poachers, an escaped big cat, and even a plague of rats. Even the one fox who leaves the nature reserve to pursue a more independent life swiftly gets shot and spends most of his story limping around with a bullet in his hind leg. He struggles to make it back to his family, even finding an impregnating a mate on the way, but ultimately dies from his injury.
In retrospect, this was hardly uplifting reading, but I loved these books as a child, and, to a lesser extent, the TV series.
George Orwell’s allegorical novel was adapted into an animated feature in 1954, a venture that was apparently funded by the CIA in an effort to produce a piece of anti-Communist work. With that in mind, the ending is changed to depict the overthrow of the evil pig regime, but much of the darkness of the main plot remains intact. Animals are killed – most notably, poor, noble Boxer is sent to the glue factory. I received a VHS tape of the film as a Christmas present at some point during my childhood, and found it fascinating, but my mother hated me watching it because she found it so dark and depressing.
I could have populated far more of this list with moments from Pixar – just think of the end of Toy Story 3, or *that moment* from Inside Out. But Up is the one that hits hardest for me. The first ten minutes are bound to have pretty much everyone sobbing, as we watch Carl and Ellie grow up, fall in love and get married – only for Ellie to miscarry, learn they cannot have further children, and die before Carl can take her on their dream trip of a lifetime.
But there’s another bit of Up that I find almost as upsetting. When Carl and Russell are camping out, Russell is adamant that his dad will show up to his Wilderness Explorer event. Deep down, both Russell and the audience know he probably won’t – and that’s quite a sad moment.
The Lion King
I’ve loved The Lion King for over twenty years, but I have to admit that there are some depressing elements at its core. The very night after Simba asks his dad Mufasa if they will always be together, Mufasa is hurled from a cliff by his own brother Scar in front of Simba’s eyes. Not only that, but as Simba tries desperately to wake his father’s corpse, Scar convinces him that Mufasa’s death was his fault, and that he should “run away and never return”.
Of course, things work out in the end, but has anyone ever considered how Simba’s trauma – which is never properly dealt with – continues to affect him and his decision making when he becomes king?
Another childhood favourite, Charlotte’s Web focuses on the friendship between a pig named Wilbur and wise, clever spider named Charlotte. As the runt of the litter, Wilbur is raised as a pet, but like so many other pigs, his ultimate fate is to be made into delicious pork products. To prevent this, Charlotte spins words of praise for Wilbur into a web above his pen, an apparent miracle which ultimately spares his life.
So far, so good, right? After all, Wilbur was spared from ending up on someone’s plate. Only, of course, the life of a spider is much shorter than that of a pig, and Charlotte dies, leaving behind only an egg sac. Wilbur gets to meet and befriend future generations of Charlotte’s line, but his dearest friend is gone.
The Land Before Time
Forget the franchise it spawned – the original Land Before Time is a children’s classic, which means that of course it has to have some sadness mixed in. Mothers are notoriously unlucky in animated features, usually dying young either on or off screen. In The Land Before Time, young dinosaur Littlefoot is saved from a “Sharptooth” attack by his mother, but she sustains fatal injuries in the process. With the land suffering from a drought and the rest of his herd long gone, Littlefoot follows his dying mother’s directions to seek out a land of peace and plenty, accompanied by other young dinosaurs. Again, it all works out in the end, but only after some extreme childhood trauma.
All Dogs Go to Heaven
All Dogs Go to Heaven is a weird film. Even as a child I could tell that it had a dark and sinister edge to it. The film revolves around Charlie, a canine con artist (bear with me) who is murdered by his villainous partner. Since “all dogs go to heaven”, Charlie gets a free pass into heaven regardless of criminal acts on Earth, but since he is not ready to lay down and play dead, he steals the watch that represents his life and winds it, giving himself a second chance. There are just two problems: firstly, he now has to keep the watch safe and ticking at all times, or he will die again; and secondly, having now forfeited his right to return to Heaven, the only afterlife he can look forward to is Doggy Hell.
Of course, the bulk of the movie is then a redemption arc in which Charlie saves a little girl and re-earns his place in Heaven, but with the threat of Doggy Hell always a hair’s breadth away, this is quite an unexpectedly intense film.
Garfield on the Town
Yes, even Garfield, the infamously lazy and greedy feline, can sometimes land an emotional punch in the gut. In Garfield on the Town, Garfield gets lost on the wrong side of the tracks, only to meet up with his feral family. Garfield bonds with his long-lost mother (and we learn that his love of lasagne comes from being born in an Italian restaurant), but their reunion is short-lived as Garfield realises he simply cannot cut it in the feral world.
At the end of his adventure, Garfield returns to his cushy life in Jon’s apartment, but upon his return he catches one last glimpse of his mother checking up on him. The sight of her rear paws as she disappears back to her life is a truly heart-wrenching moment.