It generally goes without saying that the content of a children’s movie is going to be much tamer than a movie meant for adult audiences. There are times though when all of the cute characters and colorful animation are really just used to disguise some pretty disturbing stories. When described in a particular way, many children’s movies reveal themselves to be just as unsettling as adult movies that are meant to challenge our sensibilities. Children can’t keep their innocence forever, but considering how dark these 10 movies actually are, it’s likely that they’ve already lost their innocence well before adolescence anyway.
10. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The Dark Plot Summary: An eccentric, reclusive owner of large candy company invites five children to his factory with the promise of a life-changing experience and systematically disposes of them one-by-one with elaborately grotesque plans and the assistance of a race of creepy humanoid dwarfs who run the plant.
The Movie: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a beloved children’s classic about a young boy who gets the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Wonka candy factory. Based on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 adaptation featured a gleefully-unhinged Gene Wilder as the titular Willy Wonka. To be fair, the film is pretty creepy no matter how you describe it, particularly the nightmarish, psychedelic river boat scene. However, when you take a deeper look at what’s really going on in the film, the plot resembles a straight-up horror flick.
9. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
The Dark Plot Summary: A child is born with a unique deformity and is labelled an outcast by his peers and even his own family. Eventually, his community discovers that the child’s deformity can be exploited for their own gain, so they put aside their hatred of his differences and convince him to help them without offering much of an apology for his years of mistreatment.
The Movie: One of the most famous Christmas specials ever made, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been an annual holiday viewing experience for many for over 5o years. Although it’s thought of as a “timeless” classic, Rudolph is a product of a different era and it definitely shows in some of the film’s more problematic scenes. Rudolph is horribly ostracized by his fellow reindeer and even Santa Claus (who is nowhere close to jolly in this depiction) is indignant at the young fawn’s very existence. Rudolph is meant to teach a lesson about not judging a book by its cover, but the moral is more akin to using that book to further your own means, no matter how you actually feel about it.
The Dark Plot Summary: An intelligent young girl from a broken home dreams of one day being able to go to school where she can learn and read books. Her parents eventually send her to school, but it’s run by an abusive headmistress who rules over the students with intimidation and fear. After awhile, the girl discovers that she has telekinetic powers, which she uses to take revenge on her tormentors.
The Movie: Matilda is one of the most beloved children’s films of the 90s and also happens to be based on a story by Roald Dahl — so naturally, it’s also rather dark. While the film is full of magic and whimsy, it’s also a depressing portrait of a gifted child being held back by an emotionally-abusive family until she turns into a preadolescent version of Stephen King’s Carrie and is able to get back at everyone who’s wronged her.
The Dark Plot Summary: A grief-stricken elderly man, who recently lost his wife of many years, breaks a number of laws in order to fly his house to another continent in order to fulfill one of his wife’s dying wishes. To make matters worse, he also kidnaps a precocious young boy and endangers both of their lives when he seeks out his childhood hero, who is revealed to be a senile, gun-toting psychopath.
The Movie: Up is arguably one of Pixar’s best movies and tells an inventive and surprisingly emotional story (its opening scene is one of the most memorable tear-jerkers of all time). While the adventures of Carl Frederickson and boy scout Russell is a sweet tale of emotional maturity and bravery, there’s no way an old man would be able to rip his house off of its foundations, fly it to South America, and take a child who is unrelated to him along for the ride without getting thrown in jail.
6. Mrs. Doubtfire
The Dark Plot Summary: A father loses custody of his children after his wife files for divorce. Unable to bear seeing his children only once a week, he instead hatches a scheme that involves his fetish for cross-dressing and disguises himself as a older British woman in order to spend time with his kids, who don’t realize that their new nanny is actually their father.
The Movie: One of the late Robin Williams’s most well-known family-friendly films, Mrs. Doubtfire is remembered fondly by many as an outrageous family drama involving Williams dressing up as a nanny in order to spend more time with his children after he gets a divorces his wife. The film is memorable mainly because of Williams’s performance as false-nanny Mrs. Doubtfire, as his ridiculous feigned British accent and mannerisms are charming and hilarious. Although Mrs. Doubtfire’s antics seem innocent enough, viewed from a different perspective, they’re actually rather distressing and look more like the actions of a mentally-unstable person.
5. The Little Mermaid
The Dark Plot Summary: A teenage girl rebels against her father and makes a deal with the devil so she can gain a pair of legs and marry a prince that she fell in love with after saving his life. Unable to speak, the girl’s affections are ignored by the prince, who instead falls in love with the devil in disguise. Only after risking the life of herself, her friends, and family does the Prince finally notice her.
The Movie: The Little Mermaid is considered by many to be the starting point for Disney’s early 90s animation resurgence and it’s easy to see why. The film is gorgeously animated and features a lovable cast of characters and a number of truly classic songs. When you look a little closer at it though, The Little Mermaid is really just the story of a naive girl risking everything for a man she doesn’t even know, which is not exactly the best message to be sending to impressionable young girls. At least the Disney film made some necessary changes from the source material, as Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale saw Ariel have her tongue ripped out and ended with her becoming a ghost after the prince marries someone else. Now that’s dark.
The Dark Plot Summary: Two sisters, who were best friends when children, become virtual strangers when the eldest develops incredible magical abilities and is locked in her room by her paranoid parents. When their parents are tragically lost at sea, the sisters grow even further apart in their grief. When the eldest comes of age, her stunted emotional growth causes her to unleash her powers, plunging her kingdom into perpetual winter, and turning her into a social outcast who is hunted by the frightened populace and almost kills her sister twice.
The Movie: Frozen became a cultural sensation when it was released in late 2013. Focusing on royal sisters Elsa and Anna, the film explores how their relationship is put to the test when Elsa’s magical powers plunge their kingdom into perpetual winter. Frozen was a massive hit with critics and especially young girls, as the relationship between Elsa and Anna was depicted authentically and was the central dynamic holding the movie together. As much fun as the songs and adventure are in Frozen, the Disney film is really quite messed-up when taken at face value.
3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Dark Plot Summary: A disfigured child is taken in by the man who murdered his mother and is sheltered and controlled by the murderer from childhood to adulthood. Eventually, the emotionally and physically-stunted man is able to venture beyond the confines of his imprisonment and falls in love with a gypsy woman. The murderer, ashamed of his sexual urges for the woman, tries to kill her and ends up burning down half the city in his attempt. Eventually, the murderer is vanquished, but the woman spurns the disfigured man’s love for a stronger, handsomer man.
The Movie: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a pretty bleak story to begin with and while the Disney version is admittedly a lot tamer, it’s still without question one of their more disturbing films. It’s actually incredible that a film with this many dark themes is aimed at children; not only does it feature violent religious zealotry and racial discrimination, its messaging surrounding physical deformities is extremely shameful. Quasimodo doesn’t end up with Esmerelda at the end of the film specifically because he is not attractive, which is a terrible lesson about beauty standards to teach impressionable children.
2. Finding Nemo
The Dark Plot Summary: A serial killer brutally murders a mother and almost all of her children while her husband watches, leaving only one child alive. The father raises his only remaining son, who as a result of the killer’s attack is born with a physical impairment. One day, the son is taken from his father and kept as a prisoner in a foreign land. The father must travel far from home to find him and can only rely on the aid of a mentally-handicapped woman for help.
The Movie: Yet another Pixar film to appear on this list (sensing a theme?), Finding Nemo is easily one of the studio’s best. The tale of Marlin the clownfish’s quest to find his son Nemo after he becomes part of a dentist’s office aquarium is rife with heartfelt family drama and a colorful, often hilarious cast of sea creature characters. As far as plots go, Finding Nemo seems rather tame and straightforward, but when described in a different light, it sounds more like massacre horror than a Disney film.
1. Toy Story 3
The Dark Plot Summary: A group of persecuted companions are transported against their will to an enclosed location where they face further persecution and are forced to do hard labor. They eventually escape their imprisonment but are recaptured and almost burned alive in a furnace.
The Movie: The summary above sounds like how someone would describe the plight of the Jews in Nazi-Occupied Europe, but it’s actually the basic plot outline for Toy Story 3, a children’s movie made by Pixar and Disney. To be sure, Toy Story 3 is already one of the darkest movies the studio has ever produced, but the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toys reads more like Schindler’s List than a movie targeted primarily at children.