Cartoons seem to have a strong reputation for being light, breezy entertainment suitable for almost all age groups — and for the most part this is true. Whether or not they’re aimed at kids or adults, the nature of cartoons is usually to be fun and kinetic, revelling in the bright, colorful scenarios that only the medium of animation can provide. It appears that cartoons aren’t given the credit they often deserve however, as they occasionally manage to provide moments that are truly touching, mature, educational — and downright sad.
This makes sense of course, with kids cartoons hoping to teach kids an important — and often harsh — lesson about life, while more mature cartoons aim to create deep, relatable characters and stories that the audience can really latch onto. In pursuit of these goals, cartoons frequently stumble upon sensitive subject matter and raw moments that can really stir up some emotion inside all of us — and it’s the fun, upbeat stuff surrounding these moments that ultimately give them more weight. Here we’ll take a look at 15 of the absolute saddest moments in cartoons, from the bittersweet to the downright dark, and everything and every emotion in between.
15. STEVEN UNIVERSE – STEVEN LEARNS ABOUT HIS MOTHER
Popular with both kids and adults alike, Steven Universe follows the adventures of Steven and his otherworldly pals known as the Crystal Gems. Having been born from the life force of his mother Rose Quartz — leader of the Gems — Steven’s birth meant the unfortunate loss of Rose, with the event taking a quiet toll on the Gems – and Pearl in particular.
This becomes particularly evident in the episode “Rose’s Scabbard”, which sees Steven and Pearl exploring the Strawberry Battlefield, stumbling across Rose’s titular scabbard in the process. Gradually learning that Rose may have been keeping secrets from Pearl and the Gems, she suddenly becomes distraught, snapping at Steven and running away in one of the show’s most emotionally charged moments. When Steven finds her, the two discuss Rose, with Steven learning more about his mother while he reassures Pearl that she’d be proud of her.
14. TEEN TITANS – TERRA SACRIFICES HERSELF
While Teen Titans is a show full to the brim with great moments and fun characters, Terra’s arc stands out as one of the show’s most memorable stories, managing to be complex and tragic in a way not often seen in a kid’s show. Initially joining the Titans as an ally, Terra forges a particularly strong relationship with Beast Boy, who promises to help her control her unstable earth-moving abilities.
Terra’s insecurity over her powers and subsequent place on the team lead her down a dark path however, eventually joining forces betraying the Titans. Torn between Slade and her former team, Terra’s conflict comes to a head in, when Terra finally comes to terms with Slade’s manipulation and sacrificing herself to save the Titans from an erupting volcano. Her final exchange with Beast Boy is the true gut-punch moment, really hammering home the tragic nature of Terra’s story.
13. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES – MR. FREEZE BEGS FOR NORA’S FORGIVENESS
Critically acclaimed for its dark stories, mature themes and rich characters, there’s a reason Batman: The Animated Series has become something of a legend in the pantheon of kids cartoons. “Heart of Ice” serves as one of the best episodes in an already incredible series though, thanks to its pitch perfect portrayal of Mr. Freeze — one of Batman’s most complex and tragic villains.
The episode sees Freeze commit a series of heists and ice-based murders, hoping to save the life of his cryogenically frozen wife while exacting vengeance on those he deems responsible for her icy fate. Naturally, Batman is forced to intervene and Freeze is eventually foiled, earning himself a cell in Arkham for his efforts. The episode wraps up with one of the show’s most poignant moments, as Freeze stares longingly at a snowglobe, begging forgiveness from his wife for his failure.
12. POKÉMON – PIKACHU LEAVES
While Pokémon is generally one of the more consistently cheerful shows on this list, when the show wants you to feel something, you definitely will. Take “Pikachu’s Goodbye” for instance, in which Ash and the gang happen upon a whole group of wild Pikachu in a nearby forest.
It doesn’t take long for Pikachu to become firm friends with the rest of the group, and Ash senses sparks between his beloved Pokémon and its wild counterparts, questioning whether or not Pikachu would be happier with his own kind. Ash eventually allows Pikachu to stay behind as he flashes back to their adventures together, walking away in tears as he does so. The scene is a real tearjerker for fans of the show, but all ends well as Pikachu ultimately insists on sticking with his partner through thick and thin, joining Ash on his journey once more.
11. ADVENTURE TIME – THE ICE KING’S PAST
Often silly and always upbeat, Adventure Time is the kind of show you can watch with the guarantee it’ll make your day that little bit brighter. Even within its perpetually sunny disposition however, you’ll often find a moment or two that manage to strike a strong emotional chord not just with children, but adults too.
“I Remember You” does exactly this, giving the show’s most notable antagonist, the Ice King, some much needed backstory. As it turns out, the Ice King was once a brave and kind-hearted man named Simon Petrikov, who saved and took care of Marceline in the wake of the Mushroom War. A song by Marceline eventually reveals that the magical crown giving the Ice King his powers led to his memory loss and deteriorating mental health, leaving him a shell of his former self — with the scene completely redefining the Ice King as a character.
10. SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS – SPONGEBOB LOSES GARY
SpongeBob Squarepants certainly isn’t a show known for its tender emotional moments, favoring over-the-top comedy and absurd humor over plot and character development. Fans were all the more surprised then, when the episode “Have You Seen This Snail?” managed to stir up some strong feelings after Gary — SpongeBob’s beloved pet snail — leaves his owner after SpongeBob forgets to feed him.
Upon realizing Gary has gone, SpongeBob is a total emotional wreck (as is the audience), putting up posters and public apologies all over Bikini Bottom in an effort to win back his friend. As he searches for Gary and reminisces about the good times, a song called “Gary Come Home” plays throughout, further cementing the moment as perhaps SpongeBob Squarepants’ most emotional in the series history.
9. TOM AND JERRY – TOM AND JERRY WAIT FOR THE TRAIN
While the slapstick violence and visual comedy of shows like Tom and Jerry are an important staple of the genre, they also tend to deflate the possibility of any tension or stakes in a show, with an episode’s end always signalling a return to the status quo.
That only makes it all the stranger that “Blue Cat Blues”, a 1956 episode of Tom and Jerry, ended things on a sour note. Voiced over by Jerry ,the episode tells the story of Tom, who thinks he’s finally found love, only for her to leave him for another cat. Attempting to impress her with an expensive car, Tom signs away his freedom to do so, only for his plan to fail. Once Jerry discovers his girlfriend has also left him, the duo get drunk and sit depressed on the railway tracks, awaiting their inevitable death by train as the episode ends.
8. THE SIMPSONS – HOMER’S MOTHER LEAVES (AGAIN)
Aimed at a more mature audience than your typical cartoon, The Simpsons has a whole host of emotional episodes and poignant moments, but “Mother Simpson” stands as one of the show’s greatest triumphs to date.
The episode focuses on Homer’s discovery that his mother, Mona, who he’d thought dead for the past 27 years, is in fact alive and well. After sharing a touching reunion with his mother, Homer’s happiness is cut short as it’s revealed that Mona is on the run from the FBI following a decades-old misunderstanding, forcing her back into hiding. The two share a heart-wrenching goodbye, but the episode’s saddest moment comes as Homer sits on the hood of his car, remembering his mother as he looks up at the stars.
7. REGULAR SHOW – GOODBYE POPS
One of the most celebrated animated series of recent years, Regular Show follows Rigby and Mordecai, a racoon and blue jay, as they navigate their role as groundkeepers of a park — getting wrapped up in adventures along the way. Running for eight seasons, the show wrapped up memorably in “A Regular Epic Final Battle”, killing off one of the show’s most beloved characters.
The episode pits Mordecai, Rigby, Pops and the rest of the gang against the all-powerful Anti-Pops, Pops’ evil brother who’s intent on destroying the Universe. After being bested in battle several times, Pops finally takes it upon himself to destroy Anti-Pops once and for all, sacrificing himself as Mordecai and Rigby look on in tears. As the gang returns to Earth, Pops’ father grieves as a statue of his son is raised in honor of his actions, while David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays over the scene.
6. THE WORLD OF DAVID THE GNOME – DAVID AND LISA PASS AWAY
Focusing on the show’s eponymous gnome David and his wife, Lisa, The World of David the Gnome sees the pair protect the forest they call home with the help of their pet fox, Swift. One of the most wholesome kids cartoons imaginable, the show is also infamous for having perhaps the most depressing series finale of any cartoon.
In the final episode, the 399-year old gnomes decide that their time on Earth is almost over, heading on a pilgrimage to the Blue Mountains where they intend to pass on. As they say goodbye to the animals they’ve befriended along the way, Swift grows increasingly distressed at the impending fate of his friends, culminating in a tearful goodbye as the gnomes ascend the mountain, turning into trees upon reaching their destination.
5. RICK AND MORTY – RICK HITS ROCK BOTTOM
With its existential themes and focus on nihilistic absurdism, it’s no secret that Rick and Morty has more than its fair share of dark moments. While are lot of these moments are played for dark comedy however, the show occasionally dips into moments of true poignance, as is the case in the episode titled “Auto Erotic Assimilation”.
After a rough break up with Unity, the love of his life, Rick returns home in a hopeless, depressed state. Retreating to his garage, Rick unfreezes a deformed creature, and upon realizing the sheer agony it’s experiencing, uses a death ray to humanely destroy it. Soon afterwards, Rick puts his head between the ray’s terminals, intending to use it on himself. Fortunately, Rick passes out seconds before the laser fires, saving his life, but the episode’s bleak ending still serves as a grim reminder of Rick’s damaged mental state.
4. PEANUTS – JANICE’S DIAGNOSIS
While many of the sad moments on this list are based on fantastical scenarios that are very unlikely to occur in the real world, Peanuts’ “Why, Charlie Brown, Why?” delivers an episode that’s perhaps a little too real — although important — and stings all the more for it.
After making friends with Janice, a new classmate at Charlie Brown’s school, Charlie and Linus notice that she appears to be frail and constantly unwell. Janice is soon hospitalized, where she informs her classmates that she has leukaemia, losing her hair following chemotherapy. Charlie and Linus’ anguish over her condition is sad enough, but Janice is later bullied for her hair loss at school, making things even worse, forcing Linus to step in to ward off the bully. Thankfully, the episode ends on a hopeful note, with Janice revealing a full head of hair after completing her treatment, presumably doing well.
3. AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – IROH SINGS TO HIS SON
Despite serving as a mentor to Prince Zuko — one of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s initial villains — Iroh himself never felt like anything other than a good guy, providing the show (and the characters living within the world) with some light-hearted humor and easy-going wisdom. It’s often the brightest characters that have the darkest past however, as is shown in “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”, where we see Iroh mourn the death of his son Lu Ten years after the fact.
Dying during the Siege of Ba Sing Se, Iroh’s return to the city prompts some strong emotions. Creating a makeshift memorial for Lu Ten, Iroh lights some incense and sings a heart-wrenching rendition of “Leaves from the Vine”, as he breaks down into tears.
2. RUGRATS – CHUCKIE REMEMBERS HIS MOTHER
Generally considered to be one of Rugrats’ best episodes, “Mother’s Day” follows the kids as they attempt to put together the perfect gift for their mothers. When Chuckie reveals he doesn’t have a mother however, the kids go on the hunt to find one for him.
Not quite understanding exactly why he doesn’t have a mother, Chuckie’s father eventually tells him that his mother passed away when he was very young, and that he didn’t want to remind Chuckie of the pain he himself felt after her death. After the emotional explanation, Chuckie’s father gives him a box of his mother’s belongings, commenting on her love for gardening and the outdoors, which helps Chuckie to remember more about what his mother was like. It’s a bittersweet moment, but remains one of the most touching moments in kid’s TV.
1. FUTURAMA – FRY’S DOG WAITS FOREVER
It’s probably no surprise that a scene involving a dog made it to the top spot of this list, but anyone familiar with the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark” knows just how traumatic its final scene truly is. The episode begins like any other, introducing a new sci-fi concept to focus the episode around after Fry finds his old dog Seymour fossilized in a museum.
When Farnsworth informs Fry that he can bring Seymour back to life, Fry considers doing so, but ultimately stops the procedure upon realizing that Seymour lived another 12 years after his disappearance, reasoning that Seymour will have likely forgotten all about him. The final scene paints a different picture however, as we see a montage of Seymour waiting for Fry to show up at work every day for 12 years, until the dog eventually passes away from old age.
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