Kids’ films. They run the gamut from animated to live action, from sci-fi to comedy and everything in between. Harmless fun to keep your kids entertained, right? I mean they’re films for children, it’s not like there’s anything in there that might traumatise them and psychologically scar them for life? RIGHT? Certainly nothing to be found in them that, years later, might inspire an adult who grew up with these films to write a list on a geek media website pointing out just how unbelievably fucked up some of them are?
Anyway, here’s a list of five “kids'” films that scarred me, and pretty much everyone else who grew up in the 1980s, for life.
Released 1978 – Rated U
Ah, Watership Down. Based on the book by Richard Adams, this is a lovely, carefree story about fwuffy wittle cute bunnies who have to go on an adventure to find a new home when one of them has a vision about the bunny apocalypse descending on them.
Problem is that along the way they have to contend with ALL THE THINGS THAT WANT TO KILL THEM. Including snares, poison gas, dogs, cats, cars, owls, humans and even other rabbits! Yes indeed. Watership Down is a fun, happy place filled with death around every corner and sanctuary in the form of a fascist junta of bunnies run by the truly horrifying General Woundwort.
The film is filled to the brim with rabbits being suffocated, mutilated, smushed, torn to bits and otherwise generally made to feel like they’re the bottom of the food chain, and even ends with the death of one of the main characters. But for some reason this film was trotted out every bank holiday for naive, innocent kids to have their innocence crushed by the lesson that death comes for us all, communicated through the medium of cartoon rabbits.
The BBFC, after years of complaints from parents, finally took steps in 2022 to reclassify the movie… as PG.
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The Secret of NIMH
Released 1982 – Rated U
One of Don Bluth’s finest works, it tells the story of an adorable, red-shawled mouse called Mrs Brisby who must venture out to a colony of surprisingly intelligent rats to petition their aid. Her son is ill with pneumonia and can’t move, and unless they can somehow move the house then the horror of THE PLOUGH will descend on their little home.
Seems innocuous enough, right? Well, yes and no. Because while it doesn’t rival the unrelenting horror of Watership Down, this is definitely not a movie for younger kids. The art design is dark and foreboding, with Mrs Brisby so much smaller than virtually every other creature she encounters to hammer home how weak and vulnerable she really is.
You want more specifics? Let’s talk about her meeting with The Great Owl, a massive creature with glowing eyes and claws as big as she is, draped in cobwebs and surrounded by the bones of all the other little animals, just like her, that he’s killed and devoured.
Then there’s the scene where they try to move her house and instead it ends up sinking into the mud, leaving her howling and weeping that her children are all dead, begging the rats to help her. Add in a liberal sprinkling of violence and murder and what you have is an amazing story, but one that’s likely to leave your kids with a lot of questions and one or two nightmares after.
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The Dark Crystal
Released 1982 – PG
Jim Henson! He’s the guy who gave us the Muppets! The Muppets are adorable and funny and cute. That means this must be adorable, funny and cute, right? What do you mean it’s actually a story about genocide, murder, betrayal and creatures having their “living essence” forcibly drained from them which turns them into barely-sentient zombies?
What do you mean the main villains are a cabal of twisted, vulture-looking things called Skeksis that send giant, hulking beetles called “Garthim” to destroy entire villages while they feast on living, squirming critters? What do you mean one of the Skeksis dies on screen and crumbles away into dust in a way that’s totally all kinds of horrific? Yeah. The Dark Crystal is kind of messed up.
Ostensibly a story about our young gelfling hero, Jen, going out to save the world and restore balance by healing the Crystal that gives the Skeksis their long lives and power, The Dark Crystal sprinkles on a lovely, thick layer of violence and horror that’s likely to ensure you never quite look at the Muppets the same way again. Definitely one for the older kids who can deal with the occasionally nightmarish visuals and bleak themes.
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The Neverending Story
Released 1984 – U
The Neverending Story, based on the superb novel by Michael Ende, tells the story of Bastian, a bullied little boy who one day finds himself in possession of a book with a strange medallion on the front cover in the shape of two snakes. Fleeing to an attic to escape the bullies he settles down to read the book, to follow the story of Atreyu and the world of Fantasia, a world slowly being consumed by a strange, creeping force known only as The Nothing.
This is, mostly, a fairly safe and straightforward fantasy story. Sure there’s the bullying aspect, and Bastian’s not-great relationship with his dad, not to forget the existential dread of watching your friends and your entire family vanish into nothingness one chunk at a time, and there’s that bit with the Sphinxes that will obliterate you if you suffer any sort of self-doubt as you pass between them.
Sure, there’s all that, but anyone who has seen this film remembers that scene. That one scene. You all know the one I mean. The Swamp of Sadness. Artax. An absolute gut-punch of a scene at the time, especially if you happen to be a horse lover, and one that resonates to this day.
Return to Oz
Released 1986 – PG
Ah, The Wizard of Oz. A whimsical, technicolour tale of singing, laughter and dropping houses on people you don’t think are socially acceptable because they’re green. An absolute classic of children’s cinema that, along with the aforementioned rabbit murder movie, gets trotted out without fail every holiday season. But we’re not talking about that one, oh no. We’re talking about its dark sequel which starts off strong by deciding that our heroine, Dorothy, needs to be committed to an asylum and lobotomised.
And from there, it somehow manages to just keep getting even darker. There’s the Wheelers, who are just nightmare fuel, the deadly desert that kills you the moment you touch it, and shall we discuss the lady who keeps spare heads in her cupboards and wants to keep Dorothy around until she’s old enough to decapitate? Mombi is just… she’s wrong.
BUT WAIT, as the man once said. THERE’S MORE. We’ve got the existential horror that is the existence of the Gump, poor old Jack Pumpinkhead who just wants a mother, and oh yes, the Nome King who meets his end in one of the more horrifying ways on this list. Folks who grew up with the bright colours and sunshine of the original really didn’t know what to make of this film when it first came out and even today opinion on it is divided, even though it’s arguably more true to the books than Wizard of Oz is.
So there it is, that’s the list. It’s by no means complete or definitive as the 1970s and 80s were definitely the golden age for some deeply disturbing kids films. Honourable mentions would include films like The Watcher in the Woods, Coraline, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Transformers the Movie and so many more.