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Why Are Great Kids Movies So Sad?

We all remember that first cry at the movies. Whether they are tears of joy or sadness, it is quite astounding that human emotion can be contrived by moving images on a screen cut together in a sequence. This emotional manipulation is written, planned out, and purposefully meant to evoke strong feelings out of a targeted audience member, especially one who has been conditioned to be drawn to sad movies. Films are as methodical as they are artistic. It all comes from a plan, and that plan is to tell a story. The kind of story is subjective and means something different to each individual. But what about those heart-wrenching stories… for kids?

Kids’ movies seem to range in a variety of emotional beats. They could be over the top with silly slapstick humor, while others maintain a certain sophistication to them and don’t sugarcoat the realities of the world our children will eventually come into as they age. Perhaps this is why these films exist. Since the early days of Aristotle, we have been searching for reasons why we seek out tragedy. A quote by the philosopher from his Poetics may answer why: “Tragic plays have the capacity to purify the spirit and aid us in coping with aspects of life that cannot be reconciled by rational thought.”

Perhaps the main reason we seek tragedy is to cope, to understand and to heal. The hardest lesson to teach a child is how to cope with tragedy and loss, especially if it is sudden. Films made by Disney are loaded with tragedy… and trauma. Especially in animation classics like Bambi and The Lion King.

In the 1994 animated film The Lion King, which is based loosely on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of Hamlet, we get our first account into the tragic loss of Mufasa and how that affects his cub Simba. Kids see themselves in Simab’s character. He has dreams, he has a desire to grow and be a part of a bigger world. But it turns much darker, as many of us could remember seeing Mufasa’s death on screen for the first time. Boy it was traumatizing!

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So why is a film like this so beloved when it makes kids cry? The lesson it teaches is to overcome adversity and to move on. Hakuna Matata! It truly is a wonderful phrase. Yes, it means ‘no worries for the rest of your days,’ and it is rather catchy, with some of Disney’s best songs. However, the true message of a film like this is to teach kids that it is okay to move on from tragic loss and not to let it define you. It is an important lesson that many of us learned at a very young age. Sadness should not be overlooked, fear should not be ignored. Perhaps this is why the animated version of The Lion King is widely regarded as one of Disney’s greatest films of all time.

They want us to feel sad, they want us to express emotion. We live in a society that is very open to emotional responses. Social media gives users the opportunity to share their emotions and feelings about a film or a work of art to the entire world. While some may see this as attention seeking behavior, it is a beneficial part of our society. Sadness is an emotion that is almost taboo. It is suppressed from the mainstream and ignored by the public. But films like The Iron Giant and Up don’t give the audience an opportunity to shy away from their emotions. In fact, they force us to feel.

Perhaps the saddest sequence in film history is the opening montage showcasing Carl and Ellie’s life in the opening of Disney and Pixar’s Best Picture Nominated film Up. We see kids growing up together, falling in love, building their book of adventures. Then all of a sudden, it ends with Ellie’s tragic death, leaving Carl an elderly man alone with nothing but an empty book of never achieved adventures. Yes, this is a kids’ movie. Why must it be so sad? Sadness is real, and even celebrated in another Pixar classic, Inside Out, which anthropomorphizes sadness as an important character.

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It is important to feel sad, and that is why these films are so great. They embrace sadness and make something new out of it. As the phoenix rises from the ashes, we see that happiness is possible even after the darkest of tragedies. It teaches us to cope with the sadness, and understand how it might take a long time to heal.

Characters like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Iron Giant, and even Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, have all taken up residence inside our hearts. To those who remember seeing these films for the first time, these characters create bonds with the audience. We learn lessons and build imaginary friendships with a fictional character. We see ourselves interacting with a giant robot or an alien… or even a spider. They teach us lessons that apply to our real lives. But why must they be taken away with death or absence?

Just as Dumbo was taken from his mother in the classic Disney animated film Dumbo, sometimes these beloved characters die and are taken from us. Why must a film made for kids even touch on a subject about death with characters that feel like family? Well, in Bridge to Terabithia, the Disney adventure film based on the novel of the same name, our young protagonist Jess (played by Josh Hutcherson) loses his best friend Jess (played by AnnaSophia Robb) in an accident where she brutally dies off-screen, but it is told to us in grim detail. This is quite disturbing to kids hearing this for the first time. But it is meant to show the harsh realities of the world, and how one could prevail. Jess learns to navigate his imagination and gains independence.

What is the ultimate message behind a sad kids’ movie? It is meant to teach the audience, especially children, to gain their independence and how to free themselves from tragedy. It is a coping tool used to be a cushion that separates fiction from reality that is just thin enough to feel almost real. Afterall, we felt the loss of Mufasa, we felt the loss of The Iron Giant and Bambi’s mother. These feelings need that cushion when felt for the first time so when they do come for real, maybe the child will know how to deal with it. Or perhaps it might just feel a little less bad if they can stop and just say Hakuna Matata.



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