Welcome back to Dark Side Cinema, you sick bastards. Today we’re taking a look at some animated atrocities – cartoon movies that disturb and disgust. Since there are so many films that fit into this category, this post is going to examine just those films starring cute, fuzzy animals. These are movies that look like they’re for children but, in most cases, are definitely not. All of these films are western, as disturbing anime is a subject for another day.
Just about everyone has that childhood film that blew their minds and ruined their dreams for weeks. For many, this first trip into nightmare-land came at the hands of Walt Disney, through early animated features like Dumbo, Pinocchio, or Fantasia. These films had moments that could prove traumatizing to young minds. The “pink elephants on parade” scene in Dumbo is surreal and frightening, Pinocchio’s experiences inside the giant whale is a bit scary, while the scene in which he and all of his friends are turned into donkeys is horrifying. The final scene in Fantasia features a great number of demons and intense music that can be far too much to handle for some young viewers (five-year-old me included).
Fortunately for many children, these scenes are relatively brief in otherwise “safe” movies (the racism in Dumbo aside). Unfortunately for some kids, there are movies out there that are far, far more upsetting. Some of these are even rough for adults.
The Secret of NIMH (G, 1982)
The Secret of NIMH is probably the most mainstream title on this list, but that does not exclude it because this little Don Bluth gem has some seriously discomforting moments. Based on the children’s bestseller, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, this movie tells the story of a field mouse trying to relocate her home because her child is too ill to move on his own before the farmer tills the fields. She enlists the help of the rats of NIMH, rodents who live in a rosebush on the farm that escaped an animal testing facility and were thus incredibly intelligent. Her own late husband was the only mouse to escape the same facility. The rats reluctantly help her and there is all kinds of adventure and craziness involving cats, crows, owls, creepy old magic rats, and a magical pendant.
What makes this film particularly disturbing is how cute the animation is. The mice, rats, and other creatures are drawn in a way that makes them appeal to children, including the animals being tested on in the NIMH facility in flashbacks (two Beagle puppies stand out in particular). However, The Secret of NIMH is less disturbing and more frightening for young audiences, making it appealing for older children and adults. The “G” rating is appropriate for the 80’s, although there are absolutely scenes that should make the film “PG” instead. Mrs. Brisby is nearly killed by a giant venomous spider, an owl, and a cat, all in different scenes. In addition, there is a flashback scene in which the rats and mice are caught and put into cages for scientific testing. There is an extended bit in which the rats and mice are injected with large syringes and then suffer from the pain, clawing at their throats, stomachs, and faces while swirling on a surreal green backdrop.
Entertainment Value: 8/10 This is a beautifully animated movie with a good story and fantastic voice acting.
Appropriate for: Ages 8+ Not for very young children, but alright for older kids.
How disturbing is it? Mild. This is honestly a good “child’s first scary movie”. Most of what’s scary about the film takes place in the natural world, and even the source of the animal’s problems (humans) are not entirely villainized. The animal testing flashback scene will require discussion with children, but the rest is pretty fantastical in nature.
Watership Down (PG, 1978)
Bunnies are cute, right? They eat grass and carrots and have twitchy little noses and are fluffy and sweet. Not according to Watership Down, the British film based on the Richard Adams’ novel of the same name. The film tells the story of Fiver and his company of rabbits as they try to find a place to live after Fiver has a vision that they will all die if they stay in their current field. There’s bunny murder, implied bunny rape, and lots and lots of bunny hallucinations.
Fiver and his comrades endure quite a difficult journey while trying to find Watership Down, a place where they will be safe from humans, predators, and other rabbits. They cross a road (with less than pleasant results), rescue pet rabbits from a farm and nearly get eaten by a cat, and they move into Efrafra, a rabbit warren run by the evil dictator rabbit General Woundwort. Eventually the protagonist rabbits decide to try and escape Efrafra, a bloody and tense experience. When they finally do reach Watership Down, Woundwort and his officers track the rabbits down and go to battle.
Watership Down is interesting because the rabbits have their own language (Lapine), culture, laws, and religion. Their world is fully fleshed out, making them that much more anthropomorphized. Legends of the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah are displayed prominently in the movie in a different animation style, similar to tribal artwork. Fiver is treated like an outcast in the beginning because of his visions; only after they come true do the other rabbits begin to value him. Scholars have criticized both the novel and the film for being sexist, as the does (female rabbits) do very little in the film other than act as victims or trophies.
Entertainment Value: 7/10 The animation is sort of strange, with a pencil-sketch quality to it that can either be appealing or distracting. The story is very good and the voice acting does what it’s supposed to.
Appropriate for: Ages 13+ This one’s definitely for preteens on up. There’s enough blood and creepy hallucination scenes to keep younger kids awake at night for weeks.
How disturbing is it? Medium. Fiver’s visions are strange and uncomfortable, the way rabbits are treated like slaves at Efrafra is disconcerting and hints at a possible political message, and there’s a good bit of violence.
Felidae (?, 1994)
(Note: Felidae never received an American release and therefore does not have an MPAA rating attached to it. In it’s native Germany the film was rated FSK 12, which is similar to PG-13.)
Germany’s most-expensive animated film to-date, Felidae, is the story of a cat named Francis who moves into a new neighborhood in France only to discover that someone or something is murdering all of the neighborhood cats around him. The strange thing is that all of the male cats killed smell like sex and all of the females are pregnant. In this tribute to noir films, Francis investigates the murders and discovers a religious cult that requires its followers to electrocute themselves, the horrors of animal testing through feline folk stories, and a cat hell-bent on creating the ultimate race of felines. (Yeah, basically Cat Hitler.)
Felidae deals with the subject of eugenics by having its villain be a cat that was extensively tested on by humans only to realize that specific genes in cats allow them to be better than others. Francis discovers the history of this particular animal testing facility when he finds a video tape that documents the experiments done on the cats. The video is extremely graphic, detailing all kinds of vivisection as well as brutal experiments. This is not the most graphic part of Felidae, however, as the murdered cat victims are shown in real CSI style, guts strewn about and heads removed from their neck-holes.
Just like Fiver, Francis has prophetic, super-freaky dreams. The dream sequences are the stuff of nightmares, like a Tool music video, but with lots of dead cats. In addition to all of this violence, uncomfortable social commentary, and freaky dream sequences, there is a lot of sexual dialogue and an actual sex scene. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – there is a three minute scene of two cats getting it on.
Entertainment Value: 5/10 The noirish animation style is really neat and the story is actually pretty interesting, but the script meanders a lot. It’s good but not great.
Appropriate for: Ages 16+ There’s a scene where a murdered pregnant cat has its little kitten fetuses strewn around it like someone tried to decorate the lawn with their corpses. Also, you know, cat sex scene.
How disturbing is it? High. Sex, violence, gore, and Hitler Cat. This one will definitely make you feel gross inside.
The Plague Dogs (1982)
The Plague Dogs, another animated film based on a Richard Adams’ novel, is easily one of the most difficult to watch animated features of all time. The film is the story of Snitter and Rowf, a Fox Terrier and a Lab mix who manage to escape the testing facility they are being held in only to discover the outside world is just as cruel.
This film starts right off in animated hell, depicting the facility where Rowf and Snitter undergo various sorts of tests. The very first scene is Rowf drowning and then being resuscitated by scientists to test his brain activity once he’s revived. After he returns to his cage beside Snitter, the two of them manage to escape into the lab itself, seeing all of the other animals undergoing testing. There are monkeys hooked up to machines screeching, rabbits in metal boxes with only their heads exposed, and a little rat who keeps furiously mashing a red button when it spots the dogs. They find their way into a metal room where they believe they can escape, only to discover that it is the furnace when the corpse of one of their dog friends is dropped upon them and they smell gas. They escape, but just barely.
The dogs explore the British countryside, killing sheep for food and generally being okay for a while. They become friends with a fox named The Tod and the three of them survive in whatever ways they can. Things seem to be going alright when Snitter finds a hunter in the woods who calls him over. In his excitement to jump up on the human, Snitter knocks the trigger on the man’s shotgun and shoots him in the face.
The viewers soon find out that they were testing bubonic plague on animals in the facility and now everyone is trying to hunt the dogs down. They survive a brutal winter, slowly starving to death, only to be chased down by men of all kinds. The Tod is killed while helping them escape and they eventually make it to the beach, where they will attempt to swim out to the “Isle of Dog”. It looks like they drown and the end credits roll.
Entertainment Value: 2/10 Every time the film feels like the dogs might catch a break, something else terrible happens. It’s a constant downer. The animation is alright, the voice acting is pretty good, but this movie is about as fun to watch as documentaries about genocide.
Appropriate for: Masochists. No child should ever see this movie, and few adults really should either.
How disturbing is it? Soul crushing. In all of the other movies listed here, things turn out at least somewhat alright in the end. Mrs. Brisby and her children relocate and are fine, Hazel dies of old age with lots of baby bunnies around him, and Francis kills the evil cat and survives. Nothing good happens to anyone in this movie. Nothing.
Two other films worth mentioning are Don Bluth’s 1989 film All Dogs Go to Heaven and Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 film Fritz the Cat.
All Dogs Go to Heaven has some adult content, including gambling, murder, extortion, and kidnapping. However, there is only one genuinely frightening or disturbing scene, in which the protagonist, Charlie Barkin, dreams that he has gone to Hell. Demonic creatures rise from a lava pit and attempt to eat him alive. While it’s definitely frightening and the movie isn’t 100% for kids, there’s not enough there to really make it fit on this list.
Fritz the Cat is absolutely demented. Anthropomorphized animals that look like they belong on PBS’s Arthur do all kinds of horrible things to one another. There’s graphic sex, lots of swearing, racism, and violence, and a savage rape scene involving a rabbit and a donkey. The reason it does not make this list is because no parent could ever mistake this for a children’s movie and accidentally give it to their kid. Fritz the Cat was clearly marketed for adults only and flaunts its X rating on its cover.
Fritz the Cat has a lot of questionable content, but it’s honestly just an entirely different kind of monster.
I found a lot of recurring themes throughout these films. Humans were usually portrayed as lazy, careless, or even evil. The theme of animal testing was present in three of the four films, each time presented as a horror that the animals were forced to escape in some way or another. While animal testing has always been a touchy subject, these films take it on headfirst.
I was fortunate that the only film on this list that I saw as a child was The Secret of NIMH, though I did watch certain scenes through carefully parted fingers. I encountered all of the other films as a teen or an adult, although The Plague Dogs depressed me for days despite viewing it in my early twenties.
I wonder what it is about talking animals that automatically makes us associate something with childhood. Is it a sense of suspended disbelief that children are more likely to have or is it just because they’re cute and cuddly? What makes a perversion of those ideas so horrific to us, that cute animals doing terrible things is that much more shocking? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that I’m never watching The Plague Dogs again.
(Edit: A user pointed out that it is Hazel, not Fiver, that dies of old age at the end of Watership Down.)