12. Adventures In Babysitting (1987)
The basic plot is that Chris (Elisabeth Shue) is stood up by her boyfriend and roped into babysitting by her mother and friend Brenda. Brenda has told Chris that she is unhappy and home and wants to run away to the city, Brenda runs away and gets stuck so Chris has to go and rescue her with the kids in tow.
There’s nothing immediately miserable about that plot apart from that her friend Brenda is desperately unhappy at home so she runs away and nobody seems to care. Brenda is the catalyst to the adventures that happen in babysitting because she’s crying for attention that she never receives. Brenda gets stuck at the bus station because she spent all her money on the taxi fare into the city, stranded and hungry Brenda decides to try and buy a hotdog from a vender who won’t accept a cheque. When Brenda explains that she has no money he replies: “Then I don’t have a wiener!”
This is the only funny thing to happen to poor old Brenda, apparently being deserted in a bus station means being heckled by the homeless, denied a man’s wiener and threatened by a mentalist with a gun – I won’t mention the kitten that she finds. The first sad bit is: they make a joke about Brenda being dead because nobody cares about Brenda.
En route to save Brenda the tire blows out on the expressway and Chris has forgotten her purse, this is where the mayhem and misery really kicks off. Everyone they meet is dodgy and the film suggests that their lives are most likely made worse by Chris and the kids. Collateral damage means nothing to this merry gang of misfortune and soon people are most likely being murdered off screen because they get mixed up in a world of organised crime and car theft. The second sad bit: the singer in the blues club most likely got shot because the car thieves didn’t look like the singing type and the subway ticket guy might have got his legs broken.
Although it isn’t a tear jerker, Adventures in Babysitting is definitely a bleak children’s film in disguise and while you’re laughing and revelling in the feel good aura this film projects, look a little deeper and realise everyone in it is miserable.
11. Harriet The Spy (1996)
Harriet The Spy directed by Bronwen Hughes, stars a teeny tiny Michelle Trachtenberg (aka Buffy’s little sister) and she has been raised by her nanny, Golly (Rosie O’Donnell) because her parents are always out at fancy parties or arguing, so she occupies her time spying on people and writing down everything she sees in her private notebook. She has two best friends, Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester aka the gymnastic kid from The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and Sport (Gregory Smith aka the kid from Small Soldiers) who are also considered outcasts like her and they spend most of their time making fun of the popular girl, Marion Hawthorne.
Harriet’s nanny is fired because of a misunderstanding but when she is offered to be rehired she decides that Harriet is old enough to take care of herself and leaves the family, which is fairly bleak because this is Harriet’s only real mother figure. Her own mother has already abandoned her for a career and now she has to lose another and look after herself. Ultimate sadface.
If that wasn’t bad enough Harriet loses her notebook in a game of tag and the queen bee Marion Hawthorne reads her notes out loud to everyone, what was once a private observation has now been turned into malicious jibes against her and her best friends. This of course sets off an avalanche of bullying and injustice towards Harriet that proves how cruel children can be, Harriet is now the child version of Bridget Jones but without the sex and vodka (thankfully), this film is so upsetting you’ll want to dive into a bath of ice-cream and never resurface.
10. Home Alone 2
Home Alone isn’t usually a film that would be considered bleak, but Home Alone 2: Lost In New York is fairly distressing. Kevin McAlister’s family care so little about him that none of them noticed he was missing the first time around, but now they’ve done it again, and if I were Kevin I would be taking it personally.
Kevin falls out with his family because his older brother Buzz publicly humiliates him at the school production and annoyingly enough, nobody sticks up for him, so naturally he renounces his family and once again gets stuck by himself. This wouldn’t be an issue because we all know how resourceful Kevin can be in a tight spot, but the ‘wet bandits’ have got out of prison and just so happen to be mooching around all the same places Kevin is, in New York, what are the odds?
The fact they want to kill Kevin is bleak and Joe Pechi is enough to scare any child but when you think about the poor homeless pigeon lady that Kevin befriends you end up feeling a bit down in the dumps. This woman has become completely homeless and stinks of bird because she got her heart broken and her only friend is a precocious little boy who can’t stop getting lost and can’t keep his nose out of trouble. What a sad life.
9. Annie (1982)
This John Huston all singing all dancing family event is actually quite a miserable tale masked with song, Annie (Aileen Quinn) is an orphan and the evil drunk woman who runs the orphanage, Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) mentally abuses her and her friends.
Eventually Annie gets orphaned by Arthur ‘Daddy’ Warbucks (Albert Finney) but he doesn’t really like her and wants to send her back, can you imagine how awful that would be? All she’s looking for is love and approval but apparently Arthur Warbucks doesn’t care. Then the evil drunk Miss Hannigan gets her evil convict brother, Rooster (Tim Curry) in on the act and he basically tries to kidnap Annie back and murder her but the cherry on the cake for me is that Miss Hannigan is with them all at the end and is supposedly diddling the security guy.
Call me a moody cynic but Annie is fairly miserable.
8. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
This is a definite masterpiece of anime by the recently retired Hayao Miyazaki, Totoro follows the Kusakabe family as they move to the country. The family are made up of the youngest, Mei (Elle Fanning) her older sister, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and their father, Professor Kusakabe (Tim Daly). While this film fills me mostly with joy towards the beginning there is a dark death cloud looming over the lush green anime grass that makes this film both innocent and bleak.
The family have moved to the country to be closer to their mum who is in hospital and naturally the children are having a hard time dealing with the absence of their mother. Although the father is not completely distant or absent, he isn’t really factored in to the kids playtime, or their dealings with the spirits of the forest.
Mei and Satsuki have to deal with their mothers illness but are both still too young to understand that things in life aren’t always fair or right and this causes conflict between them. Luckily Totoro and his friends are there to cheer them and us – the audience up, otherwise this film much like many of Miyazaki’s great works of anime would be a tale of woe about sad and lonely children who are yet to find their place in the big bad world.
7. My Girl (1991)
Rather than spoiling anything about this film here is a summary of the main themes: Dead mother, father works in a morgue, the morgue is in the house, the kid thinks she’s dying all the time, she only has one friend called Thomas. J. (Just like the pigeon lady in Home Alone 2!)
Little Mcauly Culkin and Anna Chlumsky are smiling on the cover, but I can guarantee you won’t be once the credits roll because this films only purpose is to tear your soul apart, and it wasn’t directed by Pinhead. Howard Zieff is the cretin responsible for making this film, My Girl is the My Sisters Keeper of the kid’s film world and it will make you cry. Dead mothers and absent fathers seem to be a recurring nightmare when it comes to bleak children’s films and My Girl is the king of all sad kids films.
There should be more of a description or analysis to go with this movie but if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth not knowing much at all- just reassure yourself that an adult watching a kid’s movie, crying and getting drunk in the process is a healthy experience.
6. Labyrinth (1986)
Jim Henson’s Labyrinth is one of my favourite childhood films and a focal point in my dissertation; this is because it is rooted in childhood trauma. Ignoring the visual delights of Jim Henson’s Creature House and the amazing special effects, Labyrinth tells the tale of a lonely teenage girl who is struggling to cope with her parent’s separation.
In between all the merriment and high spirited songs the film displays a clear conflict between Sarah and Jareth that is at the core of Sarah’s anguish. If you view this film as wish fulfilment and fairy tale structure then it is easy to argue that the labyrinth and the magical realm that Jim Henson created is only real in Sarah’s mind. Sarah escapes her current situation and embarks on a quest of self where she has to confront the man who she blames for the disintegration of her family, Jareth/David Bowie.
Jim Henson cleverly placed ‘Easter Eggs’ all around Sarah’s room that allude to this alternative bleak ending, the main one being pictures in her scrapbook. The pictures show a woman called Linda Williams who is clearly Sarah’s mother and shows newspaper cuttings of Linda and David Bowie with the headline “On Stage Kiss”. What can be taken from that is that her mother left to go and seek a romance with David Bowie, which is why he plays Jareth in Sarah’s fantasy realm, but what is most disturbing is that in Sarah’s ‘fantasy’ Jareth/ David Bowie/ Home wrecker is in love with Sarah.
There is an alarming display of sexual tension between these characters throughout the film and the only reason Sarah is able to call the goblin king is because he had: “fallen in love with the girl and gave her certain powers.” That is fairly bleak, and is also a strong case for the Electra Complex (opposite of Oedipal Complex) as is suggests that Sarah mentally cannot deal with her mother’s abandonment and is afraid of becoming like her in regards to her feelings towards Toby. Sarah rejects Toby and has to create an imaginary world where she saves her baby stepbrother and rejects the advances of her mother’s new lover – now I have ruined that film for you. You feel that? It is part of your childhood slipping away.
5. Return To Oz (1985)
Given the Technicolor happy sing song land in The Wizard Of Oz (1939) it would be normal to think that the sequel would be a merry occasion to perk you up when you feel down. Don’t do it, put that DVD down and find a more constructive way to cure your blues because as soon as you press play you will realise you aren’t in Kansas anymore, you’re in hell. The original Dorothy Gale (played by cutie-pie Judy Garland) found out that she is truly happy at home and left the land of Oz feeling like a brand new girl, one with purpose and a solid sense of self. When Walter Murch took the reins and revamped this timeless classic he decided that Dorothy Gale (played by creepy Fairuza Balk) would be so scary she could chase Samara back down the well and eat her evil tapes for breakfast. The reimagined Dorothy is now helping her aunt and uncle rebuild the farm and the first sad bit is: natural disasters aren’t fun and they make your Aunt and Uncle depressed.
The bleak and broken farm house is no picnic and it’s no wonder that Dorothy’s mind occasionally flits away to Oz, the place where things were whimsical, but Aunt Em and Uncle Henry view this as a mental condition. Dorothy can’t sleep and is giving off all the tell tale signs of a child in trouble so they ship her off to a mental home where they practice experimental shock treatment. There I said it; there was no easy way to say it so I just threw it in. Are you happy now? No, neither was I when I watched this movie. So the second sad bit is: when the doctor tries to calm Dorothy down by pointing out that his electric shock treatment machine that will fry her brain has a funny face on it.
I won’t spoil The Wheelers or Princess Mombi who are a group of sadistic maniacs enough to give Freddy Krueger nightmares, you’ll just have to endure it and come away from this kid’s film feeling awful.
4. The Neverending Story (1984)
Wolfgang Peterson’s Neverending Story isn’t exactly a feel good film but it seems to enchant children because of the epic landscape of Fantasia, the magical world in which Bastian escapes to through a book. Bastian is having a pretty tough time, he’s being bullied at school and is a classic loner but on top of this is mother has recently died and being left alone with his distant and grieving father has pushed him into a world of literature and escapism.
Losing a parent, especially a mother is symbolic of a child losing their whole sense of security and is a seriously traumatic event, alongside being bullied and getting no support at home makes Bastian a truly miserable child with no purpose or companionship.
When Bastian runs away from his bullies he hides in an antique bookshop which is where he discovers The Neverending Story, so he takes it to school and hides out in the attic, but the more he reads the book it becomes clear that he is a part of the story, and is a vital part in saving the world of Fantasia alongside the books protagonist Atreyu.
This film is bleak because it’s about a little miserable boy who misses his mother terribly but is too young to understand how to deal with grief, his father has become absent and instead of helping Bastian through the worst moment in his life he has fallen apart, so in a sense Bastian has lost both parents. Most children can go either way during grief, they can do badly at school or apply themselves to get over the trauma, but Bastian has had that option taken away from him because of school bullies. Atreyu and Artax make a lot of people sad but a horse doesn’t compare to your mother dying, well maybe, I don’t know your mothers.
3. Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
This film is clearly about the boisterous nature of childhood and putting fun before rules but it has a severe case of the miseries to it. Directed by Spike Jonze, Where The Wild Things Are tells the story of a little boy, Max who doesn’t fit in. His sister has grown up and prefers her grown up friends to hanging out with her little brother, and his mother has a new boyfriend so in an attempt to get attention Max disrespects his mother and demands food. He and his mum have a fight and he runs away, his mum is chasing after him but she can’t keep up but he ends up in a magical land full of friendly monsters looking for a king.
Max has to learn the hard way about friendships and relationships, how easy they can be formed and how much it can hurt when they break. He is exposed to the same elevated status as he treats his own mother, he expects his parent to know all the answers and solve all the conflicts with God-like wisdom but the lesson in this trip is that nobody is perfect and family life is difficult, especially when a father figure is missing.
Max will have to decide if he wants to play the dominant male role that he took on when confronted with his mother’s boyfriend by shouting: “Feed me woman!” or if he simply wants to remain a child and allow another man to be a father figure and look after his family.
2. Bridge To Terabithia (2007)
This is a film that is better without a full description or analysis. Bridge To Terebithia is an extremely moving and sad kids film with all the right elements of escapism and fantasy. While watching the narrative unfold there is always a sense of discomfort like suddenly the worst thing will happen, and it does, but it isn’t expected.
This film deals with adult emotion through fantasy and innocent imagination but juxtaposes the wonder of a fantasy world with despair, heartache and loneliness. Although it is arguably one of the saddest films on this list, the less you know about it the better, it just needs to be watched and appreciated.
1. Drop Dead Fred (1991)
It is appreciated that Drop Dead Fred was never intended for a child audience, however many children did watch this film and I certainly did.
It isn’t difficult to look at this film as a clever portrayal of mental health issues, here we have a young woman who has caught her husband Charles cheating on her, lost her job and moved back to an unhappy domestic situation, that’s enough to make anyone seriously unhappy especially because these things happened one after the other. The bleak part of the film is the suggestion of abuse from her mother Polly, which is seen as the explanation for Drop Dead Fred’s materialisation in Elizabeth’s childhood, he was there to provide an escape from her parents’ divorce and her mother’s hatred of her. Does anybody want a drink?
You can either choose to view this film as a woman who has an imaginary friend, or a woman that thinks she has an imaginary friend because she has totally lost her mind. Drop Dead Fred isn’t a nice imaginary friend to have, and that side of things implies that Elizabeth Cronin has another part of her psyche that wants to destroy things and hurt people, the way that her mother has hurt her over years of mental abuse. Her whole life Elizabeth has been downtrodden and now her husband has broken her heart she has reverted back to having Drop Dead Fred in her life, and he doesn’t help things, he’s a destructive entity but if you were to assume that Elizabeth has no imaginary friend then she is just destroying herself to the point of destroying her own image.
There is a scene where Elizabeth remembers Drop Dead Fred cutting her hair as a child but then she wakes up to see half of her hair has been cut off, this is actually self harm in the ruining of your image. Cutting yourself and cutting your hair can be seen as the same ball park when psychoanalysing behaviour and given the list of events that may have lead Elizabeth down this strange path, it is reasonable to suggest that she is cutting her hair in protest. She is protesting her lack of control, she has no control over her mother and cannot do anything without her permission, she has no control over her husband Charles’ feelings or his behaviour and she now has no control over Drop Dead Fred who is ruining her life.
Ate de Jong, you have directed one of the bleakest takes on having an imaginary friend I have ever seen, makes me want to read Calvin and Hobbs to remember the good times when imaginary friends weren’t symbolic of repressed abuse.