Generally speaking, children's films are supposed to be filled with fun and adventure. There might be the odd moment or two of sadness, but they're only there to teach kids a life lesson.
But then there are children's movies that are tremendously sad, tragic, and heartbreaking. Here are the saddest children's movies that punched us in the gut with hardcore, unexpected tragedy.
10. Charlotte's Web (2006)
Directed by Gary Winick
Starring Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey
Adventure, Comedy, Family (1h 37m)
Who knew the death of an insect could be so heart-wrenching? But Charlotte isn't some old fruit fly who only lives a day—she's a caring barn spider who promises to protect her cute piglet friend from being eaten.
Julia Roberts voices Charlotte in Gary Winick's live-action adaptation, based on the 1952 novel by E. B. White.
Charlotte's Web is one of the best selling children's books of all time. It helped develop the rhythm-writing technique and highlighted the importance of friendship and putting others before yourself.
Charlotte does this by sacrificing her time and energy to help Wilbur stay alive, and once she's laid her eggs, she dies of exhaustion. But not without weaving one last token of wisdom into her web: "Humble."
9. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Starring Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach
Adventure, Drama, Family (1h 42m)
Wolfgang Petersen's adaptation of Michael Ende's fantasy world in The NeverEnding Story is more melancholy than you might expect.
The snowy, Narnia-like landscape is filled with goblins that are lowkey scary, along with a supernatural force called the Nothing that snuffs out every candle of life.
Atreyu (played by Noah Hathaway) is tasked with stopping the Nothing from turning Fantasia into an empty void.
While adults might find this concept existentially depressing, kids are traumatized by the overt tragedies. Namely, Atreyu's horse Artex drowning in a swamp.
As Atreyu desperately tries to save his beloved companion, we watch him sink into the quicksand-like mud. "You're letting the Sadness of the Swamps get to you," Atreyu cries—and the Sadness is getting to us, too.
8. Old Yeller (1957)
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Starring Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk
Adventure, Drama, Family (1h 23m)
You thought Marley & Me was sad? Get a load of this one! In yet another book-to-movie adaptation, Old Yeller tells the story of man's (or boy's) best friend in post-Civil War Texas.
At first, it's all running through fields and fluffy cuddles, but as Travis (played by Tommy Kirk) and Old Yeller grow older, reality hits. Increasingly aggressive, the yellow Mastador contracts rabies and needs to be put down.
Old Yeller was probably intended to teach kids about death, but having the teenager shoot his own dog in the head was a little much.
And it's not just kids who were torn apart by Robert Stevenson's ending—there's an entire episode of Friends where Phoebe is shattered when she discovers the film's real ending.
7. The Land Before Time (1988)
Directed by Don Bluth
Starring Pat Hingle, Gabriel Damon, Helen Shaver
Animation, Adventure, Drama (1h 9m)
Orphans seem to plague kids films, probably to incite growth and teach them to forge their own identities and relationships. But no matter how noble the intention might be, it's still depressing.
The first installment of Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss's The Land Before Time franchise takes place in—you guessed it—the land "before time." You know, back when dinosaurs roamed about.
The cute little Apatosaurus Littlefoot doesn't start out as an orphan—we watch him become one when his mother is brutally murdered in front of his (and our) eyes. By a T-Rex, no less!
Littlefoot then has to take an arduous journey alone, but not before his mother gives him some advice: "Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen closely." A potent lesson on following our own intuition in life.
6. The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens
Starring Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Pearl Bailey
Animation, Adventure, Drama (1h 23m)
The Fox and the Hound is often referred to as "Disney's most depressing movie," and for good reason!
Based on Daniel P. Mannix's 1967 novel, the animated film follows a red fox and a hound dog who defy nature by becoming best friends. That is, until Copper (the dog) blames Tod for getting his owner hit by a train.
Tapping into their animal instincts, Copper and Tod's carnal rivalry brings them to the fringes of death. The enemies-to-friends-to-enemies-again plotline does resolve, but the road there is paved with tears.
First, Copper almost dies protecting his little fox friend from a bear attack, then he stands in front of a gun pointed at Tod's head. Meanwhile, Tod is abandoned in the woods by everyone he loves.
5. My Girl (1991)
Directed by Howard Zieff
Starring Anna Chlumsky, Macaulay Culkin, Dan Aykroyd
Comedy, Drama, Family (1h 42m)
My Girl is a coming-of-age drama that's made for the whole family, and it'll definitely have every member crying.
This film was made a year after Macaulay Culkin sent us into a fit of laughter with his Christmassy booby traps in Home Alone, but his performance in this one isn't so funny.
Thomas is one of those sickly kids who whip out their inhalers and EpiPens all the times, and one of his many allergies is bee stings. Spoiler alert: there are bee stings involved in My Girl.
My Girl as a whole is a little heavy on the pop psychology, but what can't be denied is the devastating effect it has on viewers.
4. Bambi (1942)
Directed by David Hand
Starring Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Bobette Audrey
Animation, Adventure, Drama (1h 9m)
Bambi might've been the movie to pioneer Disney's whole shtick where moms die, and that's what makes it hurt the most.
Bambi is notorious for killing off the gentle, loving mother in its first act. Frolicking about the meadow, Bambi's mom is shot by a hunter and Bambi is left shivering alone in the snow. It's kind of like Finding Nemo, but ten times worse.
As Bambi enters adolescence, he and his little woodland friends learn the value of friendship and courage—until Bambi is ready to become the Great Prince of the Forest.
David Hand is trying to teach kids about navigating pain and loss, but must every Disney film have a heartbreaking lesson? We'd have been happy watching Bambi frolic around with his family some more.
3. Up (2009)
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Starring Edward Asner, Jordan Nagai, John Ratzenberger
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 36m)
I think we can all agree that the saddest montage in movie history is the one at the start of Pixar's Up.
In it, we see two childhood sweethearts grow closer together, blossom into marriage, lose a baby, and then grow old, at which point the wife dies without fulfilling the dream they'd saved up for all their lives.
It ends with Carl sitting alone at her funeral as an old man, a balloon in his hand. Hearts are shattered, all within about four minutes.
Bob Peterson's directorial debut whisks us to the fantasy land of Paradise Falls, the ultimate destination for Carl as he flies his family home, just as he'd always promised his wife.
Except, the grumpy old Carl is forced to travel with an annoying eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer and a talking dog. While we're happy for Carl in the end, we can't quite shake the emptiness his wife left behind.
2. Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
Directed by Gábor Csupó
Starring Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel
Drama, Family, Fantasy (1h 36m)
Like in My Girl, the tragedy of Bridge of Terabithia hits hardest because we never saw it coming. You go in expecting a fun family film about magic, and instead you get debt, bullies, and children dying.
Gábor Csupó's coming-of-age drama, based on Katherine Paterson's 1977 novel, stars Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as tween friends who both have active imaginations.
To escape their miserable lives, the two create a fantasy world of giants and castles on the other side of a creek. The only way to get there is by swinging across via rope. We won't spoil the rest.
1. The Iron Giant (1999)
Directed by Brad Bird
Starring Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Aniston
Animation, Action, Adventure (1h 26m)
Brad Bird's adaptation of The Iron Man flopped at the box office but critics were all over it. The Iron Giant is no ordinary children's animated film—it's a complex Cold War sci-fi with something real to say.
Although it doesn't involve shooting any dogs, The Iron Giant's tragedy is layered as it exposes the true hateful nature of humanity.
The giant is basically a metal version of the Big Friendly Giant who loves to play Superman with his best (human) friend Hogarth. This giant is more in touch with his childlike spirit than real humans!
The giant supresses his built-in self-defense mode to save the city through non-violence, and only unleashes his powers when he's led to believe that Hogarth is dead. When Hogarth awakens, he reminds the giant: "You are who you choose to be."
In the end, the giant proves that he possesses more humanity than most, but it comes at a great cost—one that'll have you bawling.