The genre of the kids movie is a lifesaver for parents. For two hours, the theory runs that you can pop your kids down in front of a film, and it’ll keep them quiet and entertained for a little while.
Only things don’t always go to plan. Because every now and then, parents get unlucky, and stumble across the high profile film that had a veneer of friendliness, but actually would terrify their offspring for decades to come. Such as the films we’re about to discuss.
Some ground rules: we’re looking for fairly major films here – that means we can’t include the nonetheless upsetting The Magic Sword (1962) – and we’re also looking for films that induce the kind of trauma you could feasible spill out in the psychiatrists’ chair 20 years later. E.T. was upsetting, therefore, but it was a straight bat. The ones in this list? They get to you, for a variety of reasons, in different ways. Some upset, some scare, some really get under your skin. And, arguably, none of them could be made today.
Before we begin the full top 10, we have to cheat, and add in a number 11 that – given the kind of site this is – we’d be remiss to not include. And then it’s down to business…
11Transformers: The Movie
There are some reading this site for whom this will easily be the top of the list, not least because it’s perhaps the last thing you expected from an animated Transformers movie. The element of surprise, as we’ll see, plays quite a part in the films that follow on this list. It’s the falling of Optimus Prime that etches trauma into the brains of many, though, a character perhaps the last you’d expect to see buying it on the big screen.
That box firmly ticked, though – and we know of at least one person who sobbed their eyes out to Transformers – let’s hit the top ten…
10The Fox & The Hound
Early 80s Disney movies barely had a bit of edge to them, and The Fox & The Hound is arguably no exception. However, I distinctly remember the continual sounds of sobbing at the screening I went to, as the film became more and more about Tod the Fox having to survive being killed. To this day, it’s a film my wife won’t rewatch, because it upset her too much as a child. Intimidating small animals, it seems, is a good way to attack a child’s mind, and it’s not the only film on this list to use such tactics. What makes it so impactful in The Fox & The Hound is that you’ve little idea from the marketing materials that it’s going to be that kind of film. Surely this is just a cosy adventure about two animals? Heck, most kids who were taken to see it didn’t even realise that hounds were supposed to kill foxes in the first place. That took a bit of explaining.
On a different note, I hadn’t appreciated that Kurt Russell lent his voice to the film, though. Didn’t make it any easier to watch for the animal lovers in the audience, expecting a charming tale of an unlikely friendship…
9 The Dark CrystalAppreciating there’s an argument for Labyrinth to be slipped into the list, it’s nonetheless Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy movie that gets the nod. The Mupper-meister brought to the screen some gruesome looking creatures that you probably weren’t expecting to see in a PG-rated film. It’s not, as with many films in this list, that it wasn’t a PG-movie, more that the Skeses were the kind of creation that could linger and terrorise your dreams for some time. Those who saw the name Henson on the poster and were expecting something Muppet-alike got the shock of their lives…
8Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Two words: Judge Doom.
Christopher Lloyd has always been a family-friendly performer, and he’s loved by a generation for his work as Doctor Emmett Brown. But as the lawgiver of Toontown, he was 100% sinister, and the darkest part of a film that could already push the edges of what you’d comfortably expect a young child to sit through. The fact that it was that nice Christopher Lloyd wearing the hat, glasses and dark suit made it all the more unnerving.
7The NeverEnding Story
Forget the talk of a remake that recently surfaced, because you just know that any such production would feel a whole lot safer and more cuddly. And you can bet it won’t have a moment like the 1984 version, that puts the chill into small children. We’re talking about the moment Atreyu’s horse started sinking into the Swamps Of Sadness. It works particularly well because it’s got a child actor in it who can actually act, who makes you buy what’s going on. And the slow death of a horse proves to be a deeply traumatic moment for the film’s audience to sit through. Let’s not forget too G’mork, the wolf assassin of the Nothing, which adds a healthy dose of added fear factor. But for now, we’ll screw your head up all over again with the death of Artax the horse…
6Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Sometimes, all it takes is a mighty fine bad guy to upset the kids, and in the case of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, that was just the case. He’s short, his nose protrudes, and he could have quite easily walked out of a horror movie.
He’s pretty much the last thing you’d expect in the midst of a happy and upbeat musical (although there’s an argument as to whether that’s a fair description of the film itself), simply the notion of a character devoted to capturing children was probably enough to tip some over the edge. Robert Helpmann’s portrayal then happily iced this particularly unnerving cake…
5Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs
Now this is how you do an animated villain that really gets under the skin. Disney has delivered some terrific baddies over the years, and each had a case for getting their respective films on the list. Ursula from The Little Mermaid? Jafar and the snake sequence from Aladdin? Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians? Heck, there’s an argument for Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, too.
But easily its scariest was its first, as the Queen remains as sinister an animated creation as the Mouse House has brought to the screen. Granted, time has dulled her impact on the current young generation – they’re far too busy watching The Last House On The Left remake – but there’s a reason she’s so iconic a villain, and there’s a reason why many still eye her with a little bit of fear…
You know the score here, but it’s the endurance of the upset that Bambi’s caused that should also be acknowledged. The shooting of Bambi’s mother never happened on-screen. Instead, there was something far more effective: a gunshot, Bambi’s slow realisation what had happened, and the calling out of “mother, where are you” (even though the scene of her actually dying on camera was also mocked up).
Disney mirrored this with Bambi’s pseudo-remake The Lion King, but the early death of Mufasa, but it felt to me like it was treading old ground there. And while it undoubtedly upset its fair share of small children, Bambi rightly takes the place in the list.
3Babe: Pig In the City
The first Babe had a moment or two that could upset the kids, namely the opening scene where a truck backs into the farm leaving parents to answer a series of questions they weren’t expecting. But the sequel? The best sum up I saw of this was that George Miller, who moved into the director’s chair for Babe: Pig In The City, had made a really good sequel to the wrong film. In short, Babe 2 had far more in common with his Mad Max films, than with one of the most charming children’s movies of the 90s.
In Miller’s Babe 2, animals are quite literally brought within seconds of their death (even to the point of their paws shaking as if they’re breathing their last), and Miller has no problem holding the necessary shots to get the full suffering of them across. Reportedly, Universal Pictures had left Miller to his own devices, and were horrified when they finally saw the end result. Again, the screening I saw the film at was punctuated by the crying of the children, and in this case, parents having to take their nippers out to something a bit more friendly instead.
Easily one of the most traumatic movies that any anklebiter could sit through, and a very strong contender for the top slot in this list.
There’s an argument that it’s not a kids film at all, but in the late 70s, a child-friendly certificate and the fact that the film’s animated would give not unreasonable indicators that it was. And so thousands of unsullied youths filed into the cinema, only to be beyond distraught come the final credits. Rabbits with blood pouring from their mouths wasn’t a great start, but it was the death of Hazel the bunny that did it for most. It’s done in a manner that terrorises your brain more than perhaps any other screen death in a kids’ movie, and there’s good reason why so many refuse to ever go near the film again. Then, to top if all off, they start belting Bright Eyes out at you.
Just in case you’ve only just got over it, may we present the moment when Hazel shuffles off this world, after being reassured – and this is the bit that does it for us – that those she’s leaving behind will be looked after…
1.Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
Willy Wonka gets you at a different level to every other film on this list. It’s, quite simply, the most unnerving children’s movie we’ve seen. It shifts tone brilliantly, most notably in arguably the film’s centrepiece mindfuck, the boat scene. One minute, there’s bright happy music, the next the kids are in panic, the Oompa Loompas are powering the boat more and more, and there’s Gene Wilder, simply staring. The images flashing up in the backdrop are utterly terrifying if you’re in the frame of mind. And then Wilder starts singing.
There, right now is why this version is so, so superior to Tim Burton’s surprisingly tame take on the same material. And it’s Wilder’s Wonka that makes the film such a tense watch. Take the final scene, where Wonka sits in a room with half of everything for no clear reason whatsoever. “You lose, sir,” he bellows at Charlie Bucket and his grandpa, leaving the pair to slink out of his office. Just brilliant. And a film that etches itself into your brain for all time. Gene Wilder: genius.
Also see:The Prince Of EgyptThe Secret Of NimhThe Brave Little ToasterOl’ YellerThe Black CauldronThe Wizard Of OzReturn To OzWillowFinding NemoPlague Dogs