There’s nothing like lying in bed after a long day of work, doing your best to turn off your churning, tired thoughts, and suddenly having a traumatic childhood memory shoot into your brain. Bonus, it’s not anything bad. It’s a glimpse of some shockingly dark kids’ movie you watched when you were nine, and it still haunts you at the worst times.
The only thing that sucks more is sitting down with a kid’s movie as an adult, hoping to chill with your microwaved nuggets and some comfortable nostalgia, only to get punched in the face by a bag of emotions you did not ask for. Sometimes the movie does it on purpose, like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which understands that kids are built differently when it comes to spooky stuff. But most of the time it’s a thwack out of nowhere, an assault from some charming, all ages movie that has chosen emotional violence. These are the biggest offenders: top shelf animated films with at least one moment that will have a grown-up running for cover. Grab your favorite stuffed animal. You’re an adult, and you deserve one.
If you are over 20 and can make it through Carl’s prologue in the Pixar film Up without cracking a single tear, consider a career as a profiler for the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. You can probably take the hazing required to survive the job with your mental health somewhat intact. The rest of us start bawling about two minutes in, and maybe need a break before the rest of the movie takes off.
It’s some of the most adult stuff ever dealt with in a kids’ movie. There’s nothing wrong with Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie’s relationship; it’s as mature and healthy as can be. But life has a way of getting in the way of the plans we make, and Carl—no joke, we’re crying as we write—never manages to take Ellie on the trip he promised her. The rest of the film is joyfully about Carl coming to terms with regret and living a full life again. But married adults watching this thing? Yeah, we gotta go lie down for a while.
If we had a nickel for every time Vin Diesel could make us cry with only his voice, we’re up to, probably, three nickels (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 count for the other two), and frankly, it’s getting weird. He’s also the titular Iron Giant, who is possibly built for violence, but choses love and friendship instead.
The Iron Giant is an all-ages cult classic for its nostalgic art style and emotional richness. The Cold War-fueled plot is akin to The Day the Earth Stood Still, if the robot Gort accidentally crashed on Earth by itself and had to decide how it felt about organic life. The Iron Giant comes to its own firm conclusion, deciding to become Superman in the hour of his friend’s need. Amazing how a single noun can devastate an audience, rumbled in Diesel’s methodically paced voice.
There have been arguments since the novel’s publication in 1972 about whether or not Watership Down is suitable for kids. The fighting got louder after the 1978 animated film release and has never, ever stopped. What is confused for a charming tale about bunnies seeking a new home is actually a war-tinted epic on the scale of The Vinland Saga, with intricate rabbit mythology and bleak oracles guiding a faction of separatist rabbits off to settle a new warren. On the way, they make an enemy of the nightmarish General Woundwort.
Watership Down is not even in the vicinity of screwing around with its visuals, and a set of frames of a dark rabbit baring his teeth at the sky, his mouth bathed in red blood and foaming spittle, is something a kid is going to carry with them for 30-plus odd years. As an adult, Fiver’s shivering terror of his own visions is equally upsetting. Elegiac and almost alien in places, Watership Down is still worth the trauma.
The Lion King
Long live the king! We know you’re hearing Jeremy Irons’ iconic snarl in your mind, releasing his brother, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), down into the stampede to die. The Hitchcock zoom onto young Simba is hell on a kid, but as an adult? All of this is engraved on our brains, sure, but the scene where Mufasa’s memory guides Simba from the clouds? Oh, that hurts our aching, aging bodies. Like Peter Parker wishing he could talk to Uncle Ben one more time, many of us have someone we lost too soon who could’ve guided us through our hardest hours.
Disney is something of a meme when it comes to offering engaging narratives about traumatized children and shattered families, and the Encanto kids of today are growing up with parents doing their best to “Hakuna Matata” their way through life. There is no live action remake. Repeat it with us. There is a crappy knock-off, and we do not acknowledge it.
The Fox and the Hound
Being an ‘80s kid had so many weird hurdles, and we don’t mean what the Stranger Things kids were going through. The Fox and the Hound, for example, originally released in 1981, came out on the cusp of the fledgling home video era. That meant we could watch this bittersweet, traumatizing friendship from the comfort of our couches, whimpering as the old dog gets hit by a train—he lives, kids—and full on crying when these two friends have to let each other go.
Adults will have a moment of “Wait, is that Kurt Russell?” as the adult voice of the hound, Copper. Savvier folks will also catch up on all the social undercurrent going on in this movie, which hurts more than ever as we and our friends are damaged by today’s renewed insistence on archaic gender roles and minimizing the struggles of our inclusive culture. It’s a cottagecore dream the fox and the hound share where we can all live at peace in the deep forest, sharing a meal and celebrating our differences. Instead of killing each other over them.
The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn is best experienced as a kid first and as an adult later—but also as someone who’s now read the book. With gorgeous animation from a cadre of Japanese artists who would go on to found Studio Ghibli, and the stentorian tones of superfan-of-the-book Christopher Lee as King Haggard, it’s one of the loveliest things to come from the company that also gave you Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
As a kid, the scary Red Bull and the confusing meta-narrative fairy linger in our minds, along with how lucky Molly Grue is to meet a unicorn. As an adult, and especially for us women, oh god, suddenly, we get it. Molly Grue is the heart of The Last Unicorn, a woman who feels the years beyond her middle age, who’s long past dreaming of unicorns. Only to meet the last one in a bitter, heart-twisting irony. And yet, this is the meeting Molly Grue has always deserved, because she no longer needs it. This unicorn ultimately needs her. It’s a movie we rewatch once a year. And we cry, every single time.
The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH has a secret subtitle, did you know? It’s Every Nightmare of a Single Mother, Plus Spiders. It’s a joke, but not really. It’s a great movie for kids who can take a bit of scaring, because not only are the Great Owl and that ooky-gushy spider crush gonna stick with you, but that seemingly massive rat guard in black shadows that tries to keep Brisby away from the rat sanctum is a hell of a thing too. Oh, and then there’s that eerie, Ken Russell-looking acid-fueled flashback, narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, which got us all interested in animal rights.
We’re not going to front, all that stuff is still spooky as an adult. Why did Don Bluth’s team animate that goddamn spider like that? It’s up there with that first jump scare Giant Frostbite Spider in Skyrim for “now that’s just mean-spirited.” But poor Mrs. Brisby’s entire existence is a hell we can empathize with as adults. Everything is big and terrible, your child is sick, and you’re on your own. Two traumatized thumbs up.
An American Tail
Not ready to introduce your kids, much less yourself, to Maus? Too little time in the day for Fiddler on the Roof? Try An American Tail, instead, and grab your hankies. As another Don Bluth production, this time backed by Steven Spielberg, it makes no bones about the troubles Jewish immigrants faced well before that mustached sack of shit took over Germany.
Set in 1885, it was already no fun to be a Jew in Russia. Hurtling toward the fall of the Russian Empire, genocidal pogroms are the reason Fievel and his family are on a boat to America. Separation in a new country unleashes all-new, all-ages terrors, and frankly, there are scenes in this flick as troublingly familiar as the antisemitic fears that fueled the barely alt-history story The Plot Against America. Less seriously, the movie’s anthem, “Somewhere Out There,” is a hassle all its own. This song was inescapable for years after the film’s 1986 release. It’s a great ballad, but some Gen-Xers are at the point where it’s a sleeper activation code, putting us in an annoyed radio rage.
Grave of the Fireflies
Studio Ghibli is best known for its all-ages animated wonders, and when Grave of the Fireflies released in 1988, it was even a double-act with the adorable classic My Neighbor Totoro. Originally done because hey, why not, Totoro was by Hayao Miyazaki and the other by Isao Takahata, today, the real reason is because you’re going to need those Totoros by the time the credits roll on Grave of the Fireflies.
Adapted from one man’s story about his own anguished survivor’s guilt in the wake of the bombing of Kobe in 1945, Grave of the Fireflies is an approachable, empathetic film about life’s horrors. For adults, there’s special emphasis on how Japanese society and its rigid familial structures fail in the wake of tragedy. Watching Seita and Setsuko’s aunt abuse these kids for faults beyond their understanding is hellish. We want to know if we would be different in that hour of need. We also know we never want to find out.
Unico in the Island of Magic
Osamu Tezuka was one of Japan’s greatest artists, giving the world everything from Astro Boy to Black Jack. He also created one of the cutest unicorns in fantasy history, Unico. Tezuka’s manga follows the lil guy as the gods deem him too happy to be allowed to live. We’re barely exaggerating; the gods are pissed that Unico’s special gift is to bring happiness to others. To survive, the West Wind drifts him away from every new friend he makes, and every good deed he leaves behind. How… fun.
Unico in the Island of Magic is the second film adaptation of Unico’s stories, and it’s one of the top films to make an adult question their childhood memories. We unfortunately promise you that the horrible floating orb that wails “Toby” from the shadows and the tortured stone villagers happened. Kuruku is a childhood nightmare that will 100 percent scare the shit out of adult you too.
There is one story on Earth that will make even the twitchiest, itchiest arachnophobe accept its eight-legged heroine, and that’s Charlotte’s Web. Based on E.B. White’s novel, the 1973 movie is a strange little cult classic that took 20 years to find a loving audience in us VHS-ravenous ‘80s and ‘90s kids. Transformed into a musical, it loses some of White’s narrative charm but adds some up close empathy for animals we might’ve considered mere vermin.
Oh yeah, and it’s an unrelenting treatise on mortality’s presence in our lives and how nothing can ever be the same after a great loss. From the lingering threat of Wilbur the pig becoming Sunday’s roast to the brief lives of spiders and the family they leave behind, the topic of dying is never far from the story’s fore. There’s bittersweet happiness in the story’s finale, sure, but once you hit 40 or so, hoo boy, this is a story you gotta revisit with a stiff drink in hand.
All Dogs Go to Heaven
Hey, speaking of dying, how about a movie about dogs that’s so wrenching in multiple places that it could’ve put John Wick on director Don Bluth’s ass? Charlie (voiced by Burt Reynolds) is a sketchy street pup who gets hit by a truck in the first act of All Dogs Go to Heaven. Website doesthedogdie.com should have this sucker on its homepage banner, because Charlie sure as heck does.
Further, not only do we witness a horror movie-style resurrection—watch closely and you’ll see that Charlie’s a gray corpse dragging himself back to life—but we also ride along during a Hellish nightmare sequence that’ll make you look back at the Pink Elephants scene in Dumbo almost fondly. The uncut version of Charlie’s vision of Hell is Event Horizon for the kiddie set, no joke, and frankly, we’re not feeling too great about it either.
The Land Before Time
This is the point where we realized that Don Bluth made four animated movies in the 1980s, and every single one of them is on this list for damn good reasons. The Land Before Time is mostly known today as the dino franchise that wouldn’t quit, with 14(!) movies—and a TV series, and multiple video games, and more—you can drop your kid in front of and get on with your day. It deserves to be remembered for more than that.
Like the rest of the Bluth soulcrusher collection, the original Land Before Time is also a banger; a landmark of animation, empathy, and the occasional harrowing scene that makes you question your existence on this blighted Earth. Littlefoot’s mother—oh, you remember—protects her child from a Tyrannosaur attack at the cost of her life. But it’s not quick and easy. Like Littlefoot himself, we watch, anguished, as Mom tries to comfort her child with each failing breath. Do you want any ice cream? Maybe a nap, after that? We’re going, right after we text our therapist.
Toy Story 3
If we’re lucky, Lightyear’s middling reception will slow down a franchise that’s on the verge of undermining its own rich impact on pop culture. Even if we’re not, nothing will ever take away the sensation of watching Toy Story 3 for the first time and asking ourselves if the filmmakers are okay. Because we’re not.
Toy Story 3 is a relentless meditation on loss, taking what Charlotte’s Web offered and adding the melancholy of growing up. And like All Dogs Go To Heaven, it offers its own take on Hell, tormenting these toys we’ve loved by dangling them off the edge of an incinerator. Worst of all is Lotso (Ned Beatty), a cuddly bear whose personality is somewhere between Nurse Ratched and Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde. Yeah, the cop-killing, ear-cutting one. We said what we said. This is a movie for the tortured child inside of us, the one that threw up after reading The Velveteen Rabbit, and still thinks our plushies hate us every time we pack. Psst: They don’t. Go hug Mr. Waffles. He still loves you. Even though Lotso would kill you in your sleep.