Many times, especially here in the West, we consider animation to be something for kids. That assumption is starting to change, of course, with major studios like Pixar and DreamWorks producing animated fare that can just as easily appeal to adults as well as their children. Even then, however, the younger demographic is the major focus. So almost always the heroes win, the main characters learn a valuable lesson, and everyone is alright in the end.
Every so often though, an animated feature will refuse to remain in the happy ending camp and just thoroughly eviscerate the viewer, whether it’s intended for kids or not. Here are six animated films or shows that made me feel like dying. Note: this list is purposely Pixar and DreamWorks free since I want to throw the attention towards older films and smaller, less well-known studios, but rest assured: I saw the first 10 minutes of Up. Also, some of the text and clips will be spoilery, since they’re showing the sad stuff.
The Animals of Farthing Wood
Well he seems friendly enough!
The Animals of Farthing Wood was a 90’s European television show based on a series of books by Colin Dann. It detailed the trials and tribulations of a group of animals forced out of their homes by humans hell-bent on “progress,” and didn’t bother shying away from its darker themes in spite of being developed with a younger audience in mind. Main characters suffer and die, and there’s even some blood.
I was about 10 when I saw this. Perfect time to learn about “growing old gracefully.”
Still, I have to give the show kudos for not talking down to its audience. It’s a bit hard to find nowadays, though it appears to be up in its entirety on YouTube, cut into many parts. The storyline is strong and the characters are both flawed and likeable, so seek it out if that sort of thing floats your boat.
The Plague Dogs
John Hurt does his voice, so get ready to be dead. Just like the guy on the ground.
I almost put Watership Down on this list too, but later decided we only needed one Martin Rosen adaptation of a Richard Adams book to keep us all drowning in our own tears.
Ladies and gentleman: your opening scene. The “hook” if you will.
It pretty much just gets better from there. And by “better” I mean “so goddamned awful that I vowed, as a child, to never let my own children rent a movie and watch it without watching it first, even if it is animated.” HOWEVER. When I was young I used to dream of being an animator, and it was films like this one (and Fire and Ice, American Pop, and The Hobbit) that made me want to do it. This movie is rated PG-13, and rightfully so. A savvy 13-year-old would have much to gain from watching this film, as would his or her fully grown counterparts.
When the Wind Blows
I didn’t really know any of my grandparents, so I had a tendency to imagine any older couple as being them. Not such a great idea, in this case.
When the Wind Blows is the story of a retired couple who survive a nuclear attack, only to slowly succumb to radiation poisoning afterward. They are generally affable and lovable people, which makes the increasing hopelessness of their situation all that much harder to stomach.
When the Wind Blows and Up, two films that know showing us an older couple frolicking around as their younger selves is the surest way to break our hearts.
It’s based on the graphic novel of the same name by Richard Briggs, the couple is voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, and the soundtrack features music from Roger Waters and David Bowie. It’s a wonderful little gem of a movie that everyone should check out. If you’re interested, you can find it in full here.
The Extraordinary Adventures of the Mouse and His Child
“Bodes well,” party of three?
Another animated feature based on a book, the titular mice are two parts of a wind-up toy that get thrown in the garbage after they’re broken. Outside in the real world, they’re forced to work for a tyrannical rat that has his minions do stuff like beat and whip them, witness another toy get ripped apart for being “worthless,” are almost eaten by a hawk, almost eaten by a fish, and then get into a philosophically heavy argument about infinity with a turtle. It’s a lot for a G-rated audience to handle.
This is another animated film that made me draw little cartoons all the time. I really like how animated features in the 70’s and 80’s focused on the little gestures people make (and the ones anthropomorphized animals would make, if they existed) in order to make the overall effect more realistic. No one could animate someone walking like Ralph Bakshi, for instance. But I digress. The Extraordinary Adventures of the Mouse and His Child is also available to watch in full here.
LeeLoo Dallas. J/k, lololol. But seriously, it’s kind of like that.
Plotwise, Wolf’s Rain goes a little something like this: an old legend tells of the appearance of paradise once the world ends, though only wolves will be able to find it. Trouble is, wolves were believed to be hunted to extinction centuries ago. That’s not exactly true, as you may have surmised, and wolves are now able to appear as humans in order to blend in with society. Our heroes are four (fivish) wolves that come together after being attracted by the scent of a Lunar Flower, a key to gaining entrance to paradise (summary very much culled from wikipedia, as I couldn’t fashion a brief enough summary on my own; a lot of stuff goes down in Wolf’s Rain). Like many “let’s journey to heaven” type stories, characters die along the way. Beloved characters. Like, all of them.
I originally checked out Wolf’s Rain due to its werewolfiness. (WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word. Then again, WordPress doesn’t think “WordPress” is a word. My initial ire has transformed to sadness for you, WordPress.) And generally, anime characters tend to look like vampires, so this show was pretty much right in my wheelhouse. If you like anime, this is definitely one to check out.
Grave of the Fireflies
Dear Viewer, this is me setting you up for a fall. Sincerely, Grave of the Fireflies
As far as I’m concerned, this is the granddaddy of all sad animation. An anti-war film produced by Studio Ghibli, this is one of the most powerful movies of any genre I’ve seen, ever. Roger Ebert and I agree on that fact. (He’s still wrong about video games. I’ll fight him to the death on that score.)
This is the first “cartoon” I ever saw that was not meant for kids, and the first one I ever saw that made me realize the medium could be used to evoke emotion more readily than live action. The animation makes the emotional beats hit more heavily, a lot like the way telling the story of a friend’s death with a smile on your face can serve to make the story that much more horrifying. It also doesn’t help that Setsuko, the little girl, is so frigging cute for the majority of the film.
I so couldn’t believe that an animated movie could affect me this much, I watched it over and over again. No joke, on a loop. My mom had to make me stop. If you decide to watch this, have My Neighbor Totoro at the ready as an antidote.
How about you guys, any animated recommendations for deepening the funk I’ve put myself in writing this article? Leave your suggestions in the comments and I’ll be sure to find them. Also, if you can figure out a way to leave any rusty forks in the comments, that would be much appreciated. I need to repeatedly stab my thigh to distract from the pain in my chest.