After the publication of the article 15 Times Cartoons Ripped Your Heart Out, which limited its selections of heartbreaking animated moments to those in American TV animation, many people have been asking “What about animated movies?” Well, you demanded it, so here’s a list of 15 animated movies that do their absolute best in bringing out the waterworks. What can we say except “You’re welcome” (and no, Moana didn’t quite make this list, though it’s worthy of an honorable mention)!
This was a tough list to narrow down as there’s just so many great sad moments in so many animated films both new and old. More films in consideration worthy of honorable mentions include the likes of Finding Nemo, Lilo and Stitch, The Prince of Egypt, Song of the Sea, Kubo and the Two Strings, Anomalisa, Mary and Max, Millennium Actress, and pretty much everything Makoto Shinkai ever directed. Particular mention goes to Waltz With Bashir, which didn’t quite fit the list as a hybrid documentary where the most heartbreaking scene is live-action, but is nonetheless an incredible piece of experimental filmmaking. The following list of 15 balances childhood favorites, modern classics, and iconic anime, all of which will have you reaching for tissues.
SPOILERS for all listed films
15. MONSTERS INC.
Thank goodness there was never a Monsters Inc. sequel. Yes, there was a prequel, Monsters University, which was actually good and quite emotional in its own right, but not a sequel. And well there shouldn’t be, because the ending of Monsters Inc. is as perfect an ending as you could possibly imagine.
As with many of the most affecting Pixar films, the emotional core of Monsters Inc. is based in a parent-child bond. Sully becomes a caretaker for Boo as she gets lost in the monster world, but when she’s returned home the door connecting their worlds is destroyed. But then, long after Sully had abandoned any hope of seeing her again, his best friend Mike accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of repairing the door. Sully walks through, Boo calls for her “Kitty,” and the audience is left both smiling and sobbing.
14. THE LAND BEFORE TIME
Don Bluth’s philosophy as a filmmaker was that kids could handle absolutely anything in a movie as long as it had a happy ending. Films like The Secret of Nimh and An American Tale were darker than most American animation in the ’80s and were popular because of it. If one has to pick the most heartbreaking moment in his filmography, though, it has to be the death of Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time.
One wonders if this film would rank even higher on this list had the producers approved the original plan to make it as a more brutal PG-rated film without any dialogue gone through. Still, the toned down, more typically kid-friendly final version of Land Before Time managed to pack a punch.
13. CHARLOTTE’S WEB
E.B. White’s classic children’s novel Charlotte’s Web is the first book to make many a young reader realize the power of literature to bring one to tears. It’s a testament to the sheer power of White’s story that 1973 Hanna-Barbara cartoon adaptation is also one of the all-time childhood tearjerkers in spite of being, you know, a 1970s Hanna-Barbara cartoon — not exactly the most promising descriptor.
As a whole, the film can be criticized; the animation’s the weakest of the films on this list and White notably hated the movie for its constant musical numbers. Yet even these weaknesses are unable to to dilute the story’s emotional honesty in regards to unexpected friendships, humble unsung heroism, and the painful process of grieving lost loved ones.
12. WOLF CHILDREN
Anyone who isn’t usually into anime but makes an exception for the films of Hayao Miyazaki should carve out another exception for Mamoru Hosoda, the up-and-coming director who best matches both Miyazaki’s high quality of artistry and family-friendly sense of awe. Wolf Children is Hosoda at his most sentimental, a love letter to single mothers doing their best raising wild children.
The film begins as a fairy tale romance between college student Hana and a werewolf. They have two half-wolf, half-human children, but the family faces tragedy early on as the wolf father dies in a hunting accident. Hana moves to the countryside with her children, whose paths diverge as they grow; elder daughter Yuki tries to fit in with humans, while younger son Ame embraces his feral nature. The kids age and eventually Hana has to let them both leave to live their own lives.
11. INSIDE OUT
The filmmakers at Pixar are such experts at toying with our emotions that there’s an almost meta brilliance to them making a film designed to make audiences feel emotions ABOUT emotions. All the more brilliant is that the hero of the film turns out to be the personification of Sadness. Inside Out is a film about the value of a good cry, one that illustrates the difference between productive sadness and hopeless depression, and manages to address heady psychological concepts in a way accessible to all ages.
And if that wasn’t enough, it also has Bing-Bong. The Toy Story films had already addressed the bittersweet sadness of moving on from childhood, but none of the toys faced a fate quite as dark as the heartbreaking sacrifice made by Riley’s once-beloved imaginary friend.
10. THE WIND RISES
Hayao Miyazaki is currently working to produce another film in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so The Wind Rises is not officially his final film, but as a defining career statement it’ll be hard to top. Miyazaki abandoned his usual realms of fantasy in exchange for a sympathetic but angry biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed Japan’s Zero planes in World War II.
If the romance between Jiro and his terminally ill wife didn’t break your heart, then his realization that all his genius was for nothing, that he was a pawn of a fascist government and that none of his beautiful planes would return home because they were all used in suicide bombings should do the trick. Miyazaki’s original planned ending was even harsher (check out the documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness for the behind-the-scenes details)!
9. THE LION KING
As Bambi’s mom was to older generations, the death of Mufasa in The Lion King was to ’90s kids. Disney movies always involve dead parents, but here was a case where we got to actually know the parent, to look up to him in all his mighty James Earl Jones-voiced majesty, and then we watched him die horrifically being thrown into a wildebeest stampede by his brother Scar. If that wasn’t enough, Scar had to go and push the blame onto little Simba, permanently scarring him for life. What a dick, that Scar.
The Lion King doesn’t get nearly as dark as its inspiration Hamlet, but it captures a fraction of that Shakespearean angst. Taken literally, the messages get a bit weird (it’s un-ironically defending rule by Divine Right), but as metaphor for how we carry on the legacies of those we loved, it remains potent.
Dumbo is one of the weirdest movies Walt Disney ever produced. It’s cutesy and cartoony, but it’s also a parade of horrors and miseries where the primary message is that most people are dicks. Human- and animal-kind in Dumbo‘s world is judgmental, abusive, and all around unpleasant to anyone different. Hell, those racist minstrel-caricature crows probably only get a pass these days because they’re somewhat sympathetic as some of the few characters in the movie who aren’t complete a-holes.
The other sympathetic characters in the movie, of course, are Dumbo, his lone friend Timothy J. Mouse, and his poor suffering mother Mrs. Jumbo. When Dumbo visits his mom’s cage and she sings the song “Baby of Mine,” it’s a tear-jerking moment because it’s one of the rare moments of love and kindness in a place of pain.
After mastering how to frighten children with Snow White, Pinocchio, and the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia, Walt Disney set his ambitions on breaking their hearts with his fourth feature film, Bambi. Disney movies have had some truly evil villains, but is there any Disney villain truly as loathsome as the nameless hunter who shot Bambi’s mom? That the death happens offscreen, and that the movie awkwardly cuts to another happy song afterwards, does nothing to negate the trauma of the moment.
Bambi‘s legendary status as one of cinema’s all-time tearjerkers inspired perhaps the funniest Animaniacs episode, “Bumbie’s Mom.” Bambi itself was also the number one influence on Osamu Tezuka’s art, so you can thank it for all your favorite sad anime as well.
6. THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA
Speaking of anime, one film that’s somewhat overlooked in the Studio Ghibli library but deserves more attention is Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Based on one of Japan’s oldest surviving folktales, it’s one of the studio’s most visually stunning and emotionally devastating films. The first half hour is light and cute, following a family living in the woods raising a girl discovered in a bamboo shoot. When her father decides to raise her as a “princess,” however, life for the newly anointed Princess Kaguya becomes dreary and oppressive.
Threatened with arranged marriage to the Emperor, Kaguya wishes to leave this Earth. The moon gods grant her wish, and now she has little time left on Earth before she’s swept up to the moon, her memories permanently erased. The film’s final act is a surreal, heartbreaking reminder of the things that make even the toughest lives worth living.
Pete Docter has directed three movies: Monsters Inc., Inside Out, and Up. All three of them make this list. He might be the most consistently great talent in Pixar’s stable of directors, and his films manage to be simultaneously some of the funniest and the most heartbreaking in the studio’s impressive library.
In regards to Up‘s impact, what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said? The film’s most moving four minutes, a montage spanning the lives of Carl and Ellie from their marriage up to the moment where death parts them, doesn’t need any words at all to take viewers on a big emotional journey. The film afterwards is a lot wackier and doesn’t ever reach the artistic heights of those four minutes, but few movies could, and the climax where Carl opens up his dead wife’s “Adventure Book” perfectly brings the film’s emotional arc together.
4. THE IRON GIANT
It’s not too controversial to say that The Iron Giant is the best Superman film ever made, is it? Not to say the original Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve film isn’t also great, but nothing captures the power and significance of what Superman represents better than Brad Bird’s Cold War fable about another lost alien possessing both powers that could destroy humanity and a soul that yearns to save it.
The Iron Giant was brought to life through a combination of expressive cell-shaded animation and the voice of Vin Diesel, who, between the Giant and Groot, seems to be the go-to guy if you want an animated character who says very few words but can break your heart when saying them. As wet-eyed as everyone got over “We are Groot,” though, that final utterance of “SU-PER-MAN” during the Giant’s big sacrifice are still the saddest three syllables Diesel’s ever read.
3. TOY STORY 2
Toy Story 2 was the rare sequel that improved upon its predecessor by taking the theme of the relationship between toys and children and bringing it to a more challenging place, asking how that relationship changes as kids grow up. Woody’s dilemma over whether to return to Andy and be played with for only a few more years or to be displayed in a museum, admired forever if never truly loved, might have an obvious conclusion but there’s still genuine reason for him to feel conflicted.
The saddest part of the movie is easily the “When She Loved Me” musical sequence, showing Jessie’s backstory as the once beloved, then ignored, eventually abandoned toy of a young girl who outgrew her. Sarah McLaughlin’s vocals, Randy Newman’s composition, and the Pixar animators’ masterful visual storytelling combine into a sequence that can make even the most stone-hearted viewer get something in their eye.
2. TOY STORY 3
The promise of Toy Story 2 paid off in Toy Story 3. Andy’s going off to college and the toys have to face life without him. The film’s multilayered metaphor works as both a story about parents learning to live with an empty nest and about religious faithful struggling with the seeming absence of God in their lives. This was a particularly intense experience for audience members who were around the same age as Andy and had grown up with the series, to say nothing of their parents.
The final act is a non-stop tearjerker, entering horrific existential territory in the incinerator scene before coming to a bittersweet ending where Andy passes his toys on to a new owner. If you’re wondering why millennials as a group seem to have trouble letting go of their childhoods, blame this movie. Toy Story 4, please don’t fuck up!
1. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
Dead parents and sad toys are all well and good for a solid cry, but if you really want to feel like shit, how about a cartoon about children starving to death during the firebombing of Japan in World War II? Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest films ever made. Takahata claimed he didn’t make the film as an anti-war statement, his thematic interest instead being the irresponsibility of youth, but it’s still a powerful portrait of the effects of war on civilians. The animation lends it poetic artfulness; it’d be unwatchable in live-action.
If you really want to mess with your head, watch Grave how it was originally released: as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro! Ghibli’s most depressing film was part of a double feature with their cutest. If you try this, maybe watch Grave first and Totoro second as a pick-me-up.
You made it. Now get that dust out of your eye and let us know the most depressing animated feature you’ve ever seen in the comments. Or don’t, we’re fine with that, too!
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