Moana. Frozen. Trolls. Encanto. These are the films our kids get to watch. Entertaining, bright, stacked with fun songs, and very much family friendly. What did we get? Family movies that ruined our childhoods because, among Millennials, only the strong survived.
No matter when you were born or where you were raised, growing up is weird. But growing up in America in the ‘80s and ‘90s was its own unique variety of bizarre. We were in that in-between stage of modern,
extremely hands-on parenting culture and the glorious but often terrifying free range parenting of generations prior. Our parents were terrified (and made us terrified) of razor blades in apples and kidnappers lurking around every corner, but that didn’t stop them from letting us run wild in the neighborhood or leaving us in the car while they went grocery shopping. Family and children’s entertainment followed that same trend. Clearly the people behind these movies had children in mind when they were making them, but also, based on some of their narrative choices, we kind of wonder if they’d ever met a child.
We’ve rounded up 10 so-called family films that still haunt us. Movies that made us cry (or cower in terror) at the time and that, in retrospect make us go “WTAF were people thinking? Why would you show this to a child?”
This list may revive some buried memories. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The Neverending Story
I can write something here, but I probably don’t have to, because half of you just looked at that picture, curled into a fetal position, and started sobbing like a child.
For the blissfully uninitiated, this beautiful horse, Artax, is about to die. He dies because he is overcome by a literal Swamp of Sadness into which he sinks and drowns. His rider, Atreyu, cries as he tries with all his might to rescue his beloved friend, but to no avail.
Honestly, it’s a wonder any of us watched the movie past this point. But watch it we did; what else do you do after all your childhood innocence is shattered? Our sorrow was augmented by the horrors of...
G’mork, the terrifying wolf monster.
- The deadly,
large-breasted Sphinxes that kill people.
- The fact that the “villain” of this movie is “The Nothing,” a creeping sense of desperation and ennui that eventually destroys us all, like something out of a
Werner Herzog film. Return to Oz “Doooooorothyyyyy Gaaaaaaaale...!” Disney+
This is a movie you probably forget all about until someone brings it up, at which point it
all comes flooding back and you spend the next 20 minutes bonding over this shared trauma. There’s certainly no lack of terror in these movies, both in content and the often eerie way it’s lit and shot. Before we even get to the dilapidated Oz of these films, we’re all but bombarded with scenes of eerie horror (attempted pediatric electro-shock therapy) and terror (near drowning in a lightning storm). Once in Oz, the villains are the stuff of nightmares, from to the chaotic and maniacal Wheelers to the stony, ever-changing Nome King. Even the heroes seem off. (Looking at you, J ack Pumpkinhead.)
But probably nothing about this 1985 cult classic haunts our dreams more than
Princess Mombi, the evil witch who keeps a display of disembodied (but still alive) heads to wear as her vanity suits her. When she first meets Dorothy, she decides to lock the young girl in a tower for a few years “until your head is ready... then I’ll take it.” The scene in which Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk of The Craft) runs through a hall of wailing heads while Princess Mombi’s main one deeply growls “Dorothy Gale” has stayed with us to this day. The Land Before Time “Do you remember the way to the Great Valley?” MoveClips
Mostly, this movie was OK for kids. It’s about talking dinosaurs on a quest for food and safety that can only be found in the Great Valley, a land full of “tree stars” (leaves to eat). The dinos, voiced by actual children, are sweet and very cute. And there’s even a happy ending in this tale of adventure, to say nothing of the ‘80s
power ballad, sung by Miss Diana Ross, that plays over the credits at the end.
But we need to talk about Little Foot’s mother.
Little Foot’s mother, who has no name, dies defending her beloved child against a T-Rex. Now, I know what you’re thinking: dead mothers are par for the course in children’s movies.
Bambi pulled the dead mother card back in 1940 and nothing’s going to top that. Au contraire. Little Foot’s mother dies on screen, and breathes her last as she instructs her heartbroken child how to survive in the world without her.
a lot. The Brave Little Toaster We’ll never look at inanimate objects the same way again. MovieClips
If you’ve never seen this movie, think
Toy Story 3, but with appliances. Honestly, a movie about inanimate objects has absolutely no business hitting as hard as this one does.
It goes like this: a vacation cottage full of old appliances await the return of their favorite little boy, but it’s been years. So they go off to look for him. In the meantime, the boy, who has recently graduated high school, heads to the cottage to retrieve the items to take with him to college.
Themes of growing up, outgrowing one’s usefulness, and longing in vain for someone you love are emotional dynamite and absolutely shattered us as kids, to say nothing of scenes involving noble self-sacrifice. “Blankey” gazing at a picture of his beloved boy before bursting into tears is almost too much to bear.
I have no memory of ever having seen
E.T. as a kid, though my mom insists I watched it all the time. So imagine my shock a few years ago, when I decided to visit the “beloved children’s movie.”
It was sometime around when E.T., ashy gray and clearly dying, was being probed and prodded by malevolent government scientists as his human friends cried out for him that I realized I probably didn’t have any memory of this one because I’d blocked it the hell out.
dies?!” I sobbed. “Why?! Why did you make me watch this?! Who makes a movie like this for kids? This is horrible!”
That he came back to life was, frankly, hardly a consolation. The damage was done.
The Secret of NIMH
“You know what’s a great premise for a children’s movie? The horrors of animal testing!”
No joke. And the nightmares don’t stop there. This movie is about a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby who is on a quest to find medicine for her gravely ill son, Timothy. Her quest takes her to the Rats of NIMH. Their mystical leader Nicodemus regales her with tales of animals subjected to horrific experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH... get it?) that left them reliant on human technology.
So, OK, already this is pretty traumatizing, but then there’s the creepy cast of characters, from the mouse-munching Great Owl to the decrepit Nicodemus to the menacing cat (Dragon) and rat (Jenner). It’s dark — literally and thematically — and very violent. But also made a lot of vegans, probably, so there’s that.
The Dark Crystal
Jim Henson went
hard on this movie. We’re talking backstories that never get a second mention and developing multiple, elaborate cultures. And the level of detail and care that went into creating it comes through... but the world of this movie is weird and really creepy for kids (and also the kid inside of us who rewatches it as an adult).
The main villains, the Skeksis, live violent and hedonistic lives at the expense of the other creatures of Thra, a beautiful but creepy fantasy world. In fact, the Skeksis exist by literally sucking the lives and souls out of other creatures, driving one species, Gelflings, into near extinction. And, as is befitting a children’s movie, we get to see this soul-sucking happen on screen to adorable creatures called Podlings.
But it’s not just the villains who are scary. The Gelflings themselves are prominent inhabitants of the
Uncanny Valley. We know they’re not human or real, but they look just enough like both for it to really mess with our heads.
Then there’s Mother Aughra, who looks like old wise roadkill in a wig. Again, artfully and brilliantly done, but little kids are probably less focused on the artistry and more focused on the nightmares.
Willow Madmartigan has looked better... Disney+
This ‘80s classic ticks all the boxes for a fantasy adventure. A quest! A handsome and snarky hero! A hauty lady warrior! An evil queen! Magic!
Oh, and it all revolves around the idea that there’s this baby someone has to kill. Like, it literally begins with pregnant women in cages and a newborn being smuggled out of a dark castle before being ritually sacrificed. You know! Like a fun kids’ movie!
There’s also creepy creatures (trolls, and not the cute singing kind), disturbing magic (like when beautiful, beautiful Val Kilmer gets transformed into a pig), and, again, I cannot stress this enough, attempted child sacrifice.
Labyrinth “Better to stay in here, dear.” Hulu
Other Romper staff members urged me to include this one. Personally, this movie did not ruin my childhood but it’s worth noting that I was a weird little kid. Upon reflection, I can see why it could be low-key traumatizing. For starters, not all children are prepared for the glory of David Bowie, at the height of ‘80s glam, in leggings.
This is Jim Henson’s second entry on the list — the man ruined childhoods, what can we say — where he continues his tradition of sinister and utterly convincing puppets. This particular set of creepy puppets have a penchant for either aiding David Bowie in kidnapping a toddlers or actively try to keep his sister from rescuing him.
Oh, and at one point a creepy dude kills a pretty little fairy. So there’s that.
Fantasia Whose idea was this? Disney+
“You know what kids would probably like?” Walt Disney must have said to himself at one point. “A three-hour movie where no one talks set to classical music where half the cartoons are creepy.”
Fantasia is among Disney’s weirder movies, featuring animated vignettes that, in addition to being super high brow, get a bit disturbing. You get to watch the extinction of dinosaurs set to Igor Stravinski’s “Rite of Spring” and masses of literal demons gathering to Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
Again: who asked for this? It’s cool, but it definitely came at the expense of some childhood trauma.
And yet, horrifying as all of these “family” movies are, a lot of us probably cherish them today as beloved classics. Yes, they ruined our childhoods, but they also made them. So we wouldn’t have it any other way.