Plenty of the movies your parents plopped you down in front of as a kid had some surprisingly dark moments, such as sudden, shocking violence, or plots that become bone-chilling when you think too hard about them. How many of these secretly dark movies did you love growing up?
The Karate Kid
The original The Karate Kid provides down-to-earth childhood wish fulfillment. What kid wouldn’t want the ability to take down their bullies with awesome karate skills and win the heart of their current crush? Yet things get a little too real when you stop and analyze what’s going on with the movie’s senseis.
First, Sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) of the Cobra Kai dojo is definitely dealing with some psychological spillover from his time in Special Forces during the Vietnam War, carrying his aggression over to his students. Then it is revealed that Mr. Miyagi’s (Pat Morita) wife died during childbirth in an internment camp as Miyagi served in the U.S. Army during World War II. It’s no wonder those two men sought serenity through combat training and offered it up as a violent therapeutic technique to the next generation.
The Goonies was a great film for wannabe treasure hunters. Featuring a band of misfit school kids from all different social ladders, it feels like a fun inclusive-for-the-80s adventure for children. But in the words of Cyndi Lauper, some quirks are good enough for the Goonies but not good enough for the rest of us when you start to think about them.
First, the economic disparity and issues with home ownership among the adults is so bad you’d think this move took place today. It’s up to the kids to save their homes? How badly did their parents fail for the future of the neighborhood to depend on a bunch of 12-year-olds finding lost pirate treasure? Plus, an elementary school child shouldn’t have any say or right to adopt a fully grown strongman with special needs, yet that’s exactly what Chunk (Jeff Cohen) does with Sloth (John Matuszak) at the end.
The Sound of Music
This classic musical movie features fun whimsy and lovely singing by Julie Andrews. Yet when the hills aren’t alive with the sound of music, they are clad in the foreboding rise of the Third Reich.
The last portion of the film has our main characters on the run from the Nazi party out of Austria and into Switzerland as a safe haven. If you take away the music, The Sound of Music is a World War II film set during the Anschluss. It’s about to be a dark couple of years for the Von Trapp children, is what we’re saying.
The Indian in the Cupboard
This 1995 film about a boy with a magic cupboard that brings his toys to life is much more perturbing than you’d think. Even if you put the cultural insensitivity aside, the movie has a lot of elements that make you question why this story was written for children.
Making a plastic Native American toy sentient is one thing, but having that now-sentient-mini-Iroquois talk about being a widower and survivor of the French-Indian War is a bit weird. It’s still not as weird as depicting a child with godlike powers who brings sentient life to toys, and can scare living toys to death via a heart attack upon the toy’s initial shock of existence. Yes, that happens.
The NeverEnding Story
Many children related to Bastian (Barret Oliver) finding refuge from his painful day-to-day life in a book. Many adults do the same thing. Yet the cold reality found in The NeverEnding Story that can be as disturbing as a horse drowning in a swamp or a villain that’s a metaphor for the death of imagination.
The reason why there are so many wondrous elements in the movie is so Bastian can escape from his grief and depression. His mom is dead, his father neglects him, he’s bullied at school, and he’s battling everything within alone inside a dirty attic. Can someone just hug this kid and get him some actual counseling and love, please?
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
A lost alien just wants to find his way back home from Earth. That’s the simple, kid-friendly story of E.T. But beyond the scariness of the quarantine scene, there’s a bit more uncomfortableness to unravel.
Aside from the typical “Parents, why don’t you know what your kids are doing at home?” issue, the fallout of this movie is troubling. The government knows aliens are real. Not only are they real, they have an innate ability to heal other creatures and bring things back to life. If you don’t think Elliot (Henry Thomas) is going to be massively interrogated by the feds, and NASA isn’t going to be funded as a science army to capture those aliens for medical cures and possible immortality, you are incredibly naive.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Our first introduction to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is full of swashbuckling adventure, treasure hunting, and Nazi punching. While it isn’t really a kids movie, many of us saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as kids, and it is a great movie for kids and kids at heart. Yet there’s still some dark points that often get overlooked.
The fact that Indy and Marion (Karen Allen) first hooked up when Marion was 15-years-old and Indy was in his 20s is very cringey. There’s also disturbing reality that the Ark of the Covenant is real, it can melt faces, and “top men” within the U.S. government are keeping it locked up for what would surely be altruistic reasons that will benefit mankind, right? Right?
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
Who can make the sun rise? Make your mind askew? Use chocolate to cover up a kid murder or two? Willy Wonka, the candy man, can. While generations were entertained by Gene Wilder’s eccentric Wonka, no one can ignore the dark morality tale hidden under the candy coated shell.
Augustus Glump nearly drowns in a chocolate river. Violet balloons up into a gigantic blueberry. And remember that one psychedelic scene on the boat featuring close-ups of insects, eyes, and a chicken being beheaded as Wonka eerily sings a crazy song? Morality plays are one thing, but massive child endangerment is another (and this film has both). It’s a great film, but it is anything but sweet.
Annie is the story of a plucky orphan who wins the paternal heart of millionaire with plenty of song and dance. It’s already toying with darker elements, being that it takes place during The Great Depression. Even so, Annie’s life is much more hard-knocked than it appears.
If you look past the goofy elements of the villainous Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) and her con-artist brother Rooster (Tim Curry), any empathetic adult would feel unnerved. Miss Hannigan isn’t just neglectful and mean, but is an outright drunk and cruel beyond the cartoonish nature of the movie. Later on, Rooster tries to kill Annie. A whimsical musical features a grown man actively trying to murder a child. Oh, and while Annie is okay, there is a minimum of 50 kids in that orphanage with Miss Hannigan that still need families. Remember that you’re never fully dressed without a smile, kiddos!
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Based on the classic children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the tale of the young Penvensie children as they stumble into the magical world of Narnia through a portal in a wardrobe while playing hide-and-seek. It’s fantastical tale of sorcery, swords, and the gospel of Jesus Christ — err, a godlike lion.
Like with many children’s films, it’s not the film itself but the consequences following it that can lead into dark territory. The Pevensie kids spend years being adult kings and queens of a magical realm and then suddenly return back to their childhood lives as if those years growing up never happened. Now they’re back in England, trying to survive through the bombings during World War II. Happily ever after?
Gremlins is another 80s favorite ostensibly made for kiddos. Who wouldn’t “dawww” at the cute little Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel)? Most movie buffs know that the movie helped create the PG-13 rating due to its intense scenes featuring the lizard-like Gremlins, but that’s not what makes this film darker than it appears.
Yes, it is good that all the bad mogwai are gone and the Peltzer family learned a lesson, but what about the rest of Kingston Falls? The citizens that were injured, had property damaged, or had family members killed by the dang gremlins have to go back to their regular lives and have a bizarre conversation with their insurance providers. The Gremlin attack and its reputation could crumble the community at large, forcing people to live in damaged squalor or move away in fear of another attack.
The Dark Crystal
The word “dark” is in the title, so some shadowy themes should be expected in The Dark Crystal. When this movie was created, Jim Henson’s productions were seen mostly as light kid-friendly material, and even today, a Henson production rarely goes beyond an array of primary colors and general niceness.
Beyond the disturbing design and look of the characters is the plot, in which the villainous Skeksis pursue their goal of global genocide and racial superiority. It can also be perturbing for little ones to see a Muppet get stabbed, cute puppets get “mind-drained,” and a beaked abomination get its face crumbled into dust upon death.
Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are was originally a fun book for children, serving as a metaphor for a kid’s need to act out before coming back to reality again. The film version of this story still keeps up with that narrative but has some growing pains thrown in.
While Max (Max Records) obviously goes through the emotional ringer dealing with his parents’ divorce, the damage done to his fort, and the remorse he has for biting his mother, he still has to face some consequences upon returning from the Wild Things’ island. He’ll have to undergo some counseling (hopefully), and probably be punished for all the crazy things he did while simultaneously try to rein in his mismanaged emotions. It’s a very unsympathetic “grow up, kid,” to a child who literally dissociated to an island of creatures in order to cope with his life.
Toy Story (franchise)
The Toy Story saga tugs at the heartstrings with joy and the somber notion that everyone grows up. However, regardless of your age, you still got a friend in your toy, right? Hmm, kind of.
The darkness of the Toy Story reality is more grim than the furnace scene in Toy Story 3. The overarching theme is the fear of being replaced and forgotten, an existential terror we see Woody (Tom Hanks), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Lotso (Ned Beatty), and many other toys experience. The bleak reality is that, ultimately, those fears will be realized – every toy gets lost, or broken, or given away. Also, when/how/can a toy “die”? An alternative message would be “Sure, you got a friend in me. Until I find a different one.”
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) and his hunt for his stolen bike is one of the wackiest children’s movies put to film. The boyish Pee-wee’s cross-country trip to the Alamo to get his bike back has plenty of hijinks but also invites some disturbing questions.
First, how old is Pee-wee? He appears to be an adult, but he behaves and is treated like a child. So if he’s a minor, then where are his guardians? And it’s certainly unsafe for any child or child-man to hitchhike across the country the way he did. Also, Large Marge proves that ghost truckers are real, and that’s not a world anyone should live in.
Spy Kids (franchise)
The two children of espionage experts are tapped in a series of top secret spy adventures. The Spy Kids movies are exciting, humorous power fantasies that allow kids to assume control as ultra-cool spies on secret missions to save the world. It’s cool on the surface, but we all know that most spy missions include a little wet work.
What kind of spy work did the Spy Kids’ parents do? Why were they so keen of hiding their past from their children? Did they kill people? It’s our responsibility to assume that yes, they’ve probably killed tons of people.
Also, their uncle is Isador “Machete” Cortez (Danny Trejo), the same murder-happy Machete from Machete and Machete Kills. One could argue that both Machetes are from alternate universes, but that type of high-level justification doesn’t work on fourth graders.
The 90s Christmas classic has everything a kid would want: slapstick and Macaulay Culkin. The story of young Kevin McCallister defending his home from the Wet Bandits after being left behind by his family has become a holiday staple. And it’s bleak.
First, Kevin is lucky that Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) was around to hit the Wet Bandits with a shovel, or else that third act slapstick funhouse would have quickly turned into a burglary/homicide. Second, Kevin would be psychologically warped being the only one out of fourteen McCallister children to be left behind. That has to affect a kid’s self-esteem about his place in the family as no one noticed him gone for hours. And it happened twice!
Harry Potter (franchise)
The world of Harry Potter is chock full of wonder. It has a magical train going a mystical boarding school teaching children how to fly, turn invisible, and make candy that decides to have gross flavors for some reason. Yet any parent that wishes to introduce their child to this film franchise should probably let their kids grow between installations, much like how the movies were originally released.
Dead parents, tragedy, and so many occult elements show their face in the Potter films. Several characters are killed and shown being killed in the films that half of them acquired a PG-13 rating due to their intensity. Dumbledore and the whole school seems to be training children to be an army of magicians. As he grows up, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) also displays signs of PTSD, which can be a little too real in this children’s fantasy story.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in the 1990s always had some darkness and grit to it in spite of its ridiculous premise. That didn’t stop kids from getting their dose of “TURTLE POWER!” But even looking past the gruesome death of the Shredder (yeah, yeah, he “got better” in the sequel, but the fact remains he is crushed in a trash compactor at the end of this movie), there are some harsh realities that face the four shelled brothers and their friends.
First, April’s (Judith Hoag) apartment building is burned to the ground and utterly destroyed within a densely populated New York City. Cops are going to look deeper and O’Neil needs a new spot to live. Plus, hundreds of criminal teens and ninja goons can vouch for the existence of mutant turtles and a rat among the populace. Realistically, the TMNT are quickly going to find themselves being pursued by every authority agency and scientific organization in the country. Also, in this version of NYC, the parents of teenagers are uber-neglectful, as Shredder was able to assemble a child army of disaffected teens quite easily.
A movie about a supernatural board game should be adventurous fun, right? This modern children’s classic stars Robin Williams and was good enough to spawn a sequel spin-off with The Rock over 20 years later. But there is still an enormous mindscrew inflicted upon the film’s main characters.
At the end of the movie, Alan Parrish (Williams) has two adult lives, one wherein he lived within the game and one lived through his reclaimed childhood. It would have to be a giant mental adjustment to go through 26 years of living as an independent survivalist wild man then go back to being a school kid in 1969. Same with Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who went through life being told she was crazy for telling everyone that Alan was sucked into a game, to being correct that the game stole her childhood friend, to becoming a child herself again. That’s… a lot to process.
When a group of British children in the late-1800s need a whimsical, magical nanny to “pop in” to their lives and keep them in line, there is only one person to fill that role: Nanny McPhee, of course!
While Ms. McPhee has a bit of a harder edge than Mary Poppins, her very nature presents some perturbing questions. As Nanny McPhee is needed less, the less ugly and more beautiful she becomes. Does she revert back to ugly every time she’s needed? What sin did she commit that cursed her to a life of servitude in exchange for a prettier face? What kind of lesson is this for kids?
Matilda is a brilliant story that can empower little bookworms everywhere. The smart and book-loving Matilda (Mara Wilson) using her wit and telekinetic powers can give children a dose of hope and fantasy to free themselves from the wicked wiles of evil adults. However, looking past the cartoonish villainy of the antagonists, Matilda becomes a little too real.
If you take away Matilda’s mental powers along with the goofiness of her parents and Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), it’s a heartbreaking story from local news. How many times have you heard of a child being horribly neglected, verbally and physically abused, and blocked from quality education due to the cruelty of the parents or harshness of the teachers? Even the FBI threatens to put Matilda into an orphanage if she doesn’t narc on her swindler father. Thank God Matilda has Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), or else this movie would be a relentless downer.
Mary Poppins / Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Poppins and its sequel are the epitome of whimsy, featuring the magical nanny Marry Poppins (Julie Andrews/Emily Blunt) going on roundabout adventures with the Banks children for two generations. It’s delightful, but upon scrutiny you’ll find that Poppins provides more bitter medicine than a spoonful of sugar can cover up.
Poppins herself is a dark figure. She appears out of nowhere, just says, “Hey, kids, I’m your nanny now,” and every adult is just okay with this. On top of that, she gaslights everyone regarding her apparent magical powers, using forms of mind control to either get what she wants or make people question or outright forget her existence. No need for a Sorting Hat, Poppins is a Slytherin through and through. Or possibly a vampire.
Young Sherlock Holmes
In a way to merge classic fiction with a modern kid flair, Young Sherlock Holmes can be a fun action-mystery for youngsters. Seeing Holmes and Watson as young schoolmates was a unique twist at the time.
That said, there is plenty of dark reality in the flick. Aside from the hallucinogenic druggings from blow darts and cult worship, how many of you developed a literal lifelong arch enemy when you were in high school? Or lived in a world where a series of murders couldn’t be stopped or solved by adults, but by some British teenager? (One of those murders, incidentally, is that of Sherlock’s young girlfriend, which he is powerless to prevent.)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is innocent enough. A tinkering inventor/dad (Rick Moranis) tries to create a shrink ray in his home but it keeps blowing stuff up. However, through a series of mishaps, his children and the neighbor kids are accidentally shrunk by the unguarded shrink ray and have to survive the wilderness that is the backyard.
It seems like fun, but there are several traumatic moments. Droplets of water from the sprinkler explode like bombs hitting the ground. A child nearly dies from being drowned in the mud. The death screech of a pet ant dying due to a sting from a titanic scorpion. They took all the Vietnam War film tropes and inserted them into a family picture.
The Addams Family
They’re creepy and they’re kooky, a model family, the Addamses. Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) definitely achieve couples goals, while Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) are incredibly fun, inventive kids. While the movies are considered “dark” due to the macabre aesthetic, the reality of the films are a bit more grim upon further scrutiny.
While the villains in the film were jerks, the Addamses are a bit too laissez faire (“Tish, that’s French!”) with the outright murder and death of their antagonists. They even bury the bodies in their own yard, openly. Does Gomez pay off the cops and the mayor using his obscene wealth to avoid prosecution? That would also explain how Wednesday is able to set an entire summer camp on fire without repercussions.
The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz film has been an important course in a child’s pop culture diet since 1939. The tale of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) following the Yellow Brick Road with her motley crew to find her way home is a classic. Aside from the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) and some issues with poppies, Dorothy ended up okay, right?
Well, even though Dorothy is happy to be home when she wakes from her dream, she won’t be for long. While the Wicked Witch of the West is dead, Miss Gulch is not. As far as the audience knows, Toto will still be euthanized for biting her in the leg. Plus that tornado did a lot of damage to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, so that’ll hit the family wallet hard. There’s also no telling what the long term effects of the concussion and knockout Dorothy suffered will be. Is it too late to click her heels back to Oz?
Labyrinth has always been a go-to fantasy classic for fans of puppetry, but there are more disturbing elements than the mythical goblins, drugged peaches, and the Bog of Eternal Stench. The real world elements can be a bit harder to look past than the fantastical threats.
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) screaming at her baby brother with an incantation to have him supernaturally abducted can be quite disturbing, even though the ultimate lesson is that she should be patient and caring for her brother. Jareth The Goblin King (David Bowie) is creepy outside the typical goblin stuff, as he appears as a fully grown man with a bulging crotch pining for a teenage girl, which allegedly isn’t much different from Bowie’s real life.
Whether you are a die-hard fan or a critic, the movie Hook is intended for kiddos and grown-ups to revisit the magical world of Peter Pan. However, with every yelp of “BANG-A-RANG!” and imaginary food fight, there is a dark corner lingering in the film.
Aside from the violent death of Rufio (Dante Basco), there are other other grown-up realities in the fantasy world of Neverland. Having Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) suffer severe suicidal depression is a bit much in a fantasy film for kids. Even our hero, Peter Banning (RobinWilliams), “a cold, selfish man who drinks too much,” is portrayed as a neglectful father with a hair-trigger temper in most of the movie.
Baby’s Day Out
The story of a baby escaping from three kidnappers and leading them on a slapsticky, pratfall-fueled chase isn’t the best film, but is surely entertaining for kiddos. It’s undeniably funny how often the baby manages to continuously outwit his abductors and inflict all manner of hilarious mayhem on them.
Never mind the fact that this baby keeps wandering into dangerous situations throughout the entire movie, this kid could have and should have been spotted from a vast number of people passing by. Is the world so self-centered that it is blind to an unattended infant on a bus, on a construction site, or inside the gorilla exhibit at the zoo? Someone should’ve intervened on this baby’s behalf the instant he toddled into traffic, being chased by three obvious criminals. Society has failed.