PLEASE NOTE: Each entry contains spoilers for the film concerned.
For the most part, when a film is billed as being ‘fun for all the family’, you know what to expect. Good old fashioned PG fun with an upbeat ending and a strong positive message to take home with you. This message can be anything from believing in yourself, being kind to those you love, or simply that tying a lot of balloons to your house will result in a joyous high-spirited adventure.
However, one of the other fairly regular aspects of a beloved family film tends to be an occasional moment of borderline inappropriate trauma. These are the moments your parents fast-forwarded over when you were really young to save you from the anguish. The moments that even now, decades down the line as a fully-fledged adult with a council tax bill and a sensible coat, you remember with an all-too crystal clear clarity.
For every clean-cut hero there’s a terrifying villain, and for every uplifting and heart-warming underdog story, there’s a dead Disney parent right around the corner. There’s only 25 moments covered here, but the list could probably have been double that amount. Nearly making the traumatising cut were Lampwick’s transformation in Pinocchio, the Horned King in all his glory in The Black Cauldron, the frankly weird Great Owl in The Secret Of NIMH, and the startling vision of doggy hell in All Dogs Go To Heaven. There’s a worryingly large range to choose from, but here are 25 of the most traumatic moments from beloved family movies.
Note: to give other films a chance, we’ve moved The Iron Giant down the list…!
25. Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest – Hexxus on fire
While it may not go down as a bona fide animated classic, Fern Gully is a bright and enjoyable tale, and one often looked back on with fondness by those of a certain age. Its main antagonist however is pretty terrifying to witness as a youngster, given that it is a smoggy embodiment of oily evil voiced by Tim Curry.
Curry’s voice lends an unmistakable element of wickedness to proceedings, as the demonic ‘Hexxus’ stalks and threatens the natural world. Hexxus is a malevolent spirit fuelled by pollution who at one stage leaves the rainforest a smoggy smoking wreck. He also at one stage sings a trippy demonic and inappropriately raunchy ditty called Toxic Love. The peak scariness, however, comes when he emerges from a machine, now an oil-coated skeleton with flames burning within him. As terrifying as he may be though, Hexxus may just have turned more kids on to environmentalism than all other animated baddies combined.
24. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – Sirius fades to black
I’ll hold my hands up here and admit that I’ve still not read all of the Harry Potter books and as a result, when I first watched the films, I didn’t know what to expect at all. As the series raced on, it took a decidedly more adult turn and went from magical kids movies about wizards and witchcraft to an intense fight for survival filled with death, misery and actual child torture.
There’s any number of traumatic deaths to choose from for this list, but the one that really got me was Harry’s newfound father figure Sirius Black being dispatched by his own cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange. Sirius had just made Harry’s year by accidentally calling him James, then suddenly the last semblance of family that Harry had left was cruelly snuffed out as Sirius was suckerpunched and floated away through an enchanted doorway. With an Avada Kedavra out of nowhere, Harry had yet another parent figure yanked away from him.
23. Inside Out – Bing Bong
Oh Bing Bong. Yet again Pixar delivered a moment here that none of us saw coming. Inside Out is an immensely smart and extremely moving film about a girl called Riley and her experiences growing up as told through the medium of her anthropomorphised emotions. Amy Poehler’s Joy is the centre of the piece and when she gets lost in Riley’s Long Term memory, her and Sadness come across one of Riley’s forgotten childhood friends, Bing Bong.
He’s actually pretty annoying at first, but then he slowly becomes utterly endearing as his deep affection for Riley shines through. When he and Joy get stuck in a memory dump, the duo team together and use Bing Bong’s long-discarded wagon rocket to escape and get back to HQ as soon as possible. Except, the wagon can’t make the necessary jump with their combined weight.
Like all the great cinematic heroes down the years, Bing Bong makes the ultimate sacrifice for someone he loves, leaping off the back of the wagon at the last moment, dooming himself for all eternity but helping Riley in the process. A true hero.
22. The Iron Giant – Superman
Brad Bird’s beloved animated adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel is a charming and involving story set squarely in America at the peak of Cold War paranoia. It’s the heartfelt story of a young boy, Hogarth, and how he befriends a huge hulking robot from out of space. Its Cold War setting adds an extra edge to the fear of the unknown that spreads throughout the town once the giant is discovered.
The truly heart-breaking moment comes towards the end when a costly error by a government agent means a powerful bomb is on course to hit the town. Comic book stories are referenced throughout the film, with a crucial part of the narrative revolving around the Giant being free to decide whether he becomes the war machine they paint him as, or a hero like he read about in the comics. As the bomb hurtles towards the town, the Giant makes the ultimate sacrifice and after Hogarth tearfully tell him he loves him, the Giant launches himself towards the inbound missile, and utters one final word, “Superman”. Pass the tissues.
21. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 – Dobby on the beach
Oh Dobby. I couldn’t stand you at first. In Chamber Of Secrets I just found you annoying from start to finish. Then, before I know it, you’ve heroically saved your friends’ lives and you’re on a beach, staring Harry in the eyes breathing your last breath, and I’m choking up. It’s a pretty dark film all round by this point in the series, but this ending was really a gut-punch, especially for anyone who wasn’t book-savvy. This weird little creature was another casualty in the war against Voldemort, his whimpered words, “such a beautiful place, to be with friends”, captured the poignant moment perfectly. He died a free Elf guys, a free bloody elf with no bloody master.
20. The Fox And The Hound – Tod gets abandoned
This kids’ movie about two childhood friends being driven apart by cultural differences doesn’t half pack in some truly heartbreaking moments. The message by the end of the movie is basically, if society says you and someone else shouldn’t be friends, well, they are probably right. By all means don’t let anyone kill them, but for the love of god don’t expect to pal around with them anymore.
Perhaps the most traumatising moment, though, comes when our titular Fox, Tod, is driven out to the woods by his owner after his life in the domestic world becomes unfeasible and there in the great outdoors he is abandoned. His owner Widow Tweed drives off leaving Tod looking on bemused, unable to comprehend why this is happening to him. Then, just to compound the whole depressing situation, it starts to rain. Rain being the saddest of all the weathers of course.
19. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom – Human sacrifice
The first few years of me seeing Indy’s exploits in the Indian jungle were tempered somewhat by the fact that I was watching a version recorded off the TV one bank holiday afternoon. As a result it was edited down and very much sanitised for the family audience. Then one birthday I got the trilogy on proper video and I rewatched Temple Of Doom. Ohhhhhh it was much darker than I had first thought.
We are treated to the sight of a terrified sacrifice being strapped to a device and as he rhythmically repeats a mantra over and over again. The poor soul then has his beating heart torn from his body by the terrifying Mola Ram. Mola holds up the still beating heart while the surprisingly still living man is slowly lowered down into molten hot lava. All pretty intense for a fun-packed family adventure.
18. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The Child Catcher
Another bona fide creepy classic here in the otherwise light-hearted and fancy-free 1968 musical about a magic car, a mad inventor and a pretty lady with an implausibly silly name. Many a young dream has been haunted by the child catcher over the years. Just look at him. That nose, the top hat, the garish cape, the bell and just the creepy as hell look in his eyes as he scopes around for children. His whole raison d’être is catching kids and imprisoning them and he does so looking like a walking, talking dictionary definition of nightmare fuel.
17. Dumbo – Pink elephants
What the hell does Dumbo drink here? I’ve imbibed some fairly questionable types of booze in my time, one of which was in a bottle with a foreign label on that we couldn’t read and it had an actual dead snake in it. Even after that awful concoction though, I still didn’t suffer from a hallucinogenic trippy multi-coloured neon nightmare. Still, it’s also a film where an elephant flies and crows are racist caricatures; so maybe an accurate depiction of being smashed wasn’t high on their priorities.
For an early Disney movie and one aimed squarely at young children, the sight of evil-eyed elephants marching around the screen and looming menacingly out towards you is a bit of a shock to the system. There’s luminous squidgy elephants aplenty, a bit with weird pyramid eyes, a bit with lightning bolts being thrown and a bit with some sort of dancing. It’s a wholly surreal experience that even random snake-booze couldn’t replicate.
16. Fantasia – Night on Bald Mountain
For the most part, Disney’s dramatic blend of animation and classical music is a vibrant and fun-filled family movie. Sure, there are dead dinosaurs at one point, but for the most part its ballet-dancing hippos and creatures of Greek myth prancing gaily. However, towards the end of the film there’s a sequence that marks a truly drastic change of direction. As night casts its shadow over a remote township, Satan himself awakens and summons all the demons, devils and ghouls from the bowels of hell to dance upon the earth.
As phantoms swirl about and various souls begin burning in the pits of hell, a young child watching for the first time may be forgiven for wondering what on earth was suddenly happening.
15. The Dark Crystal – The Skeksis’ Emperor
While Labyrinth has grown to be one of the ultimate 80s kids movies, even if it does come with its own set of issues surrounding a girl on the cusp of womanhood and David Bowie’s worryingly snug tights, Jim Henson’s other 80s fantasy kids movie has faded somewhat into obscurity. While it certainly isn’t a flawless family classic, it is noticeably darker in tone then most of Henson’s output, especially in the scenes involving the malevolent Skeksis.
These ghastly looking reptilian bird puppets are straight out of a kid’s nightmare, all dark loose skin, piercing eyes and wispy tufts of hair. Everything about these creatures, from their look, the noises they make and the way they move is unpleasent. However, the pinnacle of creepiness comes when the Skeksis emperor graphically and noisily dies and then two rival Skeksis undertake a violent duel in order to assume the leadership. It’s all very far removed from Kermit and Co.
14. Transformers: The Movie – Optimus Prime
Lion-O, Raphael, Captain Planet, Neil Buchanan. For most kids growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, certain TV characters were enshrined as unshakeable heroes that you expect to just always be around. The king of the heroic kids show characters though was the greatest autobot that ever lived, Optimus Prime. A true multitasker, Prime was head transformer, a leader of men, an all-round fighter for justice and a really big red lorry.
Yet in the epic 1986 animated film based on the Transformers series, our great hero, our beloved leader and dare I suggest, our mentor, dies from wounds sustained in battle. As a child under the age of ten, this is basically the equivalent of having all you’ve ever truly known and believed in being stomped to death right before your eyes. Sleep well Optimus. Thanks for everything.
13. The Witches – The reveal
An oft overlooked early-90s kids film here from director Nicolas Roeg, based on Roald Dahl’s beloved book by the same name. The central premise of the story is that witches are very much alive and they really, really want to kill all the children. Now on its own this premise isn’t that scary, it’s been the basis of childhood fairytales since forever. What does prove quite scary however is the moment when Angelica Huston, perfectly wicked as the Grand High Witch, and the rest of the assembled witch hordes, reveal their true horrific appearance.
Huston’s character is a grotesque mix of Nosferatu, the others from Buffy and The Dark Crystal’s Skeksis. Her ghastly features suddenly make her infanticidal tendencies all the more menacing.
12. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory – The boat trip
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is mostly a bright and breezy candy-filled romp filled with chirpy music, a lively Gene Wilder and kids so annoying you are glad they meet a slightly grisly end. However, at one stage, it takes a U-turn out of nowhere into a surrealist tunnel of nightmares. As genial Willy Wonka guides his contest winner on their tour, they eventually come to take a boat ride down a chocolate river. Sounds fun.
As they come to a tunnel, things soon take a turn for the batshit as the tunnel is plunged into a hellish red colour and the boat begins to pick up speed. Gene Wilder stares straight ahead, wide –eyed and maniacal, while the boat races forward, with haunting Dali-esque imagery now appearing amongst the blood red walls. A chicken is beheaded, grotesque creatures appear and a close-up of an eye pierces through the gloom. The, just to top it off, Wilder ups the maniacal-ante and begins to sing a song that includes the lyrics: “so the danger must be growing, are the fires of hell a-glowing, is the grisly reaper mowing?”
Okay, stop it now Willy, I want to get off.
11. Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Judge Doom
Judge Doom was always a pretty unsettling character, however it’s the revelation of his true nature that proves rather distressing. It’s fairly harrowing earlier in the movie when he straight up murders a pair of cartoon shoes in the toxic chemical known as “the dip”. What stuck long in my memory though was the moment where Judge Doom got ran over by a steamroller whilst screaming manically, only to then get to his feet and reflate himself, proving that he was a toon all along.
I vividly remember his red demonic eyes and the horrifying noises he later makes as he is melted to death by a vat of the dip. In an otherwise bright and fun family comedy, this sequence always stood out as a fairly dark turn. It was basically a nightmarish horror sequence that was ok to slip in to a kids’ film because he was technically now only a cartoon.
10. The Land Before Time – Littlefoot’s mum
Proof that it’s not just Disney that thrives on the killing off of kindly parents of central characters, Don Bluth’s 1988 Dinosaur adventure contains one of the most harrowing of all. In this case, our young hero Apatosaurus Littlefoot is saved from an attack by ‘Sharptooth’ by his mother, but at great cost.
As an earthquake adds extra fuel to the fire and creates a ravine that swallows up a few other dinosaurs for good measure, Littlefoot finds his mother at death’s door and all she can do is give him some final words of wisdom and promise she’ll always be with him. This was Mufasa in the ravine before Simba was even a glint in the circle of life’s eye. A valuable lesson in mortality for all 80s kids, as well as the lesson that sharptoothed dinosaurs were mostly all jerks.
9. Raiders Of The Lost Ark – Melting
The Indiana Jones movies are peerless family adventure movies. Raiders Of The Lost Ark especially is a true all-time great, a good old fashioned PG action romp that sees our hero overcome Nazis aplenty as he thwarts their attempts to locate the great ark, you know, by leading them straight to it. Anyway, it’s when the Nazis open up the Ark and the evil spirits found within fly out, that the terrifying childhood moment occurs. After a brief moment of silence, the spirits emerge from the depths of the ark, destroy the electric equipment and then begin dispatching Nazis left, right and centre.
The moment that stuck in my mind as a child though was when Major Arnold Toht, the sadistic Gestapo interrogator, witnesses the evil spirits emerge and then has his face full on melted down right to its skull. It’s a brief snippet of full on gruesome death, and then it’s right back to the romp. Still, he was a Nazi.
8. Bambi – Ah, you know the bit
This is the Disney parent death that set the bar for all those that followed. For a generation, this was the ultimate traumatic movie moment. In what is intended as a sweet kids movie about life in the forest, exists a sequence that haunts many a dream and is always far more graphic in your own head than it actually is on screen. As they try to flee from hunters, we follow Bambi’s escape as his mother guides him to safety before a gunshot rings out off camera and we realise the inevitable has happened.
What makes it all the more difficult is seeing young Bambi, peering out into the snow, calling his mother’s name, and receiving no reply. Mankind really are bastards. Heartless, murdering bastards.
7. Up – The montage
Traumatic doesn’t always have to imply a terrible shock or great terror, sometimes it can simply be an incredibly moving moment that is almost overwhelmingly sad and poignant. None of us were prepared for the opening ten minutes of Up. Kids, adults, OAPs, we were all in this one together.
The opening montage took us through the shared life of Carl and Ellie, a couple who go from young lovers with grand plans, to middle aged couple with bills to pay and then finally an elderly couple with a life well lived. Along the way we see the heartbreaking moment Ellie finds out she can’t have children, the couple continually having to spend their travel savings on mundane things and then finally Ellie falling ill and passing away. It’s powerful and emotive cinema and it’s the perfect example of how at their best, Pixar movies are so much more than simple kids’ films.
6. The Neverending Story – Artax in the swamp
The death of a beloved animal, be it a real-life pet or merely an onscreen character, is always hard to accept. Many a tear has no doubt been shed over a lost goldfish, a runaway cat or that scene involving Fry’s dog in Futurama. However, one of the most traumatic animal deaths ever committed to film came in Wolfgang Petersen’s fantasy adventure The Neverending Story. As our hero Atreyu and his faithful steed Artax continue on their perilous quest they find themselves in the rather ominously named ‘Swamps of Sadness’. Naturally, the poor horse does what any of us would do in that situation, and gets overwhelmed by the sadness, stays stationary and gives up all hope, succumbing instead to the swamp and slowly allowing himself to submerge under the mud as Atreyu screams in anguish. In a kids film. This happens in a kids film.
5. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – E.T. turns grey
We learned a lot from Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic. We learned the importance of friendship, the hilarity of drunk children and that the government are a right bunch of bastards. However, perhaps the most valuable lesson taught was another instance of losing a loved one and how though they may be gone, they never really leave us.
Now, granted, by the film’s end the situation has been luckily downgraded from a full on bereavement to just an extremely long distance friendship, but for a few tear-jerking moments, E.T. proved truly harrowing viewing. After E.T. and Elliot both fall ill and the government agents put them both in quarantine, Elliot appears to get better whereas E.T. takes a considerable turn for the worse. As he turns a crusty grey and his vital signs disappear, Elliott is left truly distraught. Even now, I have to remind myself that all of this will still turn out okay in the end.
4. Watership Down – All of it
Watership Down certainly has the appearance of being a family film, being as it is an animated tale about a band of courageous rabbits searching for a new home. However in reality of course, it’s a harrowing tale of apocalyptic visions, grisly deaths and psychopathic bunnies with a bloodlust. Picking out one specific traumatic moment is hard to do, from Fiver’s blood-soaked initial vision, to Bigwig getting caught in a trap, it’s all fairly alarming.
However, it’s the evil General Woundwort who haunted my childhood dreams and especially his swift dispatching of brave Blackaver. Blackaver knew that to take on the much heavier General was a suicide mission, but the brave bloody rabbit did it anyway. His throat is promptly torn out and his limp bloody body is summarily discarded. He did what a bunny’s got to do. A bunny’s gotta have a code, folks.
3. My Girl – The bees
At first glance, My Girl is a sweet coming-of-age tale starring Anna Chlumsky as Vada and Macaulay Culkin as Thomas J. Two young pals, getting intro scrapes, having some laughs, being kids, doing what kids do. Except, it’s not is it? It’s a painful tragedy which put the fear of bees into every child who ever made the brave decision to watch it.
Thomas J is our main character’s best friend, who goes back to retrieve her beloved ring from the woods and winds up being swarmed by a bunch of seriously pissed off bees. Unfortunately, he is allergic to beestings and the attack kills him. Kills him dead. Culkin. Kevin McAllister. Dead. What really makes the moment hard to take however is when a distraught Vada sees his dead body at the funeral and breaks down completely. “Put his glasses on. He can’t see without his glasses.”
2. The Lion King – Mufasa
For years, Bambi’s mum stood alone as the quintessential Disney parent death. It was in a league of its own, claiming the ’cause of childhood trauma’ gold medal for decade after decade. That all changed when Simba made the fatal mistake of trusting hyenas and his father Mufasa made the mistake of trusting his own brother.
When Simba was put in danger and in the direct path of a wildebeest stampede, his dad charges in and comes to the rescue, only for Scar to fling him back down to his death when he tries to escape.
What always makes this scene extra sad is not necessarily seeing Mufasa falling to his death, it’s poor little Simba not fully comprehending the situation and nudging at his lifeless father’s body afterwards, pleading with him to get up. Congratulations Disney, you did it again.
1. Toy Story 3 – The incinerator
There’s something about this sequence that really gets to me. It’s only when I sat back and reflected on it after first viewing Toy Story 3 that I fully appreciated just how dark and intense it really was for a kids’ movie.
As Woody, Buzz and the gang get trapped in an incinerator, their attempts to escape gets more and more desperate as they near the flaming furnace at its end. Inevitably they turn to their heroic leaders for a way out, but Woody and Buzz can offer none. Buzz can do nothing to reassure Jessie but offer his hand and a faint smile. They accept their fate as one, resigned to at least dying together as friends. They come *THIS CLOSE* to being burned alive.
For a moment in the cinema I genuinely thought they were all goners. This was passed as a U by the BBFC, lest we forget. I know not all adults will necessarily find this sequence quite as disturbing as I still do, but for any child under the age of about 10, this is a truly traumatising moment.
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