Children’s cartoons are typically crafted to tell a fun and whimsical story in an engaging way so that children are entertained, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some heavy lifting behind the scenes. These cartoons are, after all, written by adults whose writing not only has to entertain children but has to keep parents from switching off the TV. Still, this doesn’t mean children’s cartoons are always lighthearted and endearing – every once in a while, they can get deep, dark, and even depressing.
It doesn’t happen often, but when a great deal of time and effort is used to craft characters like the ones seen in children’s cartoons, odds are that sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. Constant sunshine and rainbows would get boring pretty quickly, which is why there are several examples of children’s cartoons that are just plain disheartening.
In the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark,” Fry and his friends discover his old pizza joint, which was recently unearthed by archeologists. Upon visiting, he finds the fossilized remains of his dog, Seymoure, and through some protests and picketing, he manages to regain possession of him.
As Seymoure was flash-fossilized, a small portion of his DNA remains intact, meaning Professor Farnsworth can clone him. However, when Seymour is placed on the cloning machine, they discover he was 15 when he passed.
As Fry realizes his dog lived a long life after Fry himself disappeared in 2000, he smashes the Professor’s machine in order to let his dog rest. The episode closes with a heartfelt montage, which shows Seymoure waiting in front of the pizza shop day after day, year after year for Fry’s return, but Fry never arrives. The episode closes as Seymoure, now an old dog, lays his head down and closes his eyes for the last time.
In the Rugrats episode “Mother’s Day,” Chuckie recalls the few memories he retains of his mother, who passed shortly after he was born. The kids later discover an old photo of Chuckie’s mom, which prompts his saddened father to tell him of his mother’s passing. He takes him to her graveside and explains that she loved Chuckie very much. Chuckie even learns from a poem his mother wrote that she planted the flowers in the family garden for him.
This prompts Chuckie to take his friends into his garden and motion towards the beautiful flowers, saying, “See guys? I do have a mom! She’s right here in the flowers…”
On its surface, Tom and Jerry is a cute series of animated shorts featuring a rascally mouse and the cat who will stop at nothing to catch him. Most of the time, the results are hilarious, but the episode “Blue Cat Blues” features a much darker tone than the series’s typical fare.
The episode begins with Tom sitting on a railroad bridge, and while his purpose isn’t explicitly stated, the setting implies he is waiting to be run over. Jerry looks on and recalls Tom’s heartbreak, resulting from his love interest running away with another cat.
Jerry revels in his love for his own girlfriend, Toots, but he soon sees her leaving him for another mouse. This prompts him to sit beside Tom on the tracks. The episode then fades to black as a train whistle grows increasingly louder.
While the pair apparently survived to appear in further episodes, the depiction of the characters’ hopelessness is a fairly drastic departure for a show about cat-and-mouse antics.
The Thomas & Friends episode entitled “The Sad Story of Henry” was eventually renamed “Come Out, Henry!” for its American release. The episode begins on a rainy day as Henry runs into a tunnel and stops. He refuses to leave the tunnel as he doesn’t want to get rusted by the raindrops, which leads to an argument between the engine and his driver. When Henry won’t budge, the passengers and conductor all try to push and pull Henry from the tunnel, but he refuses. Thomas arrives and tells Henry that the rain has stopped, but he stays in his place.
Eventually, the controller decides to grant Henry’s wish in a horrifying way – the people wall Henry up within the tunnel, leaving only a small gap for him to look through. As the episode concludes, Henry has been rejected by his friends and can never escape the tunnel that holds him.
The episode of Adventure Time entitled “I Remember You” is memorable for its heartfelt moment between Marceline and the Ice King. The sequence occurs near the end of the episode. While sitting on the floor, Marceline sings a song whose lyrics describe a series of flashbacks. The song eventually reveals that Marceline and Simon – the Ice King’s real name – were close friends before he was corrupted by his magical crown.
As the song progresses, it’s apparent that the Ice King no longer remembers their former bond, breaking Marceline’s heart.
In the Hey Arnold episode “Arnold’s Christmas,” Arnold pulls Mr. Hyunh’s name from the boarding house’s Secret Santa draw. He then seeks out the forlorn man to find out what he wants most in the world. Through the course of the episode, Mr. Hyunh recounts the story of his daughter, Mai. He shares that he once lived in Vietnam during a turbulent time.
As the conflict between the North and South was reaching an end, the Fall of Saigon forced Mr. Hyunh and many others to travel to the capital city in a desperate attempt to flee the oncoming North Vietnamese Army.
When the last helicopter is about to depart, it can only take one person, so he holds up his infant daughter to be taken to safety by American forces. As his story unfolds, he reveals that he hasn’t seen her in over 20 years. By the end of the episode, a heartwarming reunion finally brings father and daughter together in an incredibly touching moment.
Teen Titans centers around a group of teenage superheroes, and while most of the episodes deal with serious and intense topics, few could be called depressing – except for “How Long Is Forever.” Starfire begins noticing that her friends and teammates are beginning to drift apart. After a time-traveling villain transports her into the future, all of her fears are realized, as she sees what has become of the Teen Titans.
Cyborg, after his last battery has run out of energy, is confined to the tower where he must remain plugged in at all times. Beast Boy has come to fear everything around him, which pushes him to lock himself inside a cage so he can keep others away. Meanwhile, Raven has become mentally unstable and believes she is hallucinating when Starfire arrives from the past.
Starfire must visit Nightwing to return to her own time, but the bleak future she witnesses hopefully serves as an avoidable end as she works to reform the Titans.
In the Looney Tunes episode “Feed the Kitty,” a large bulldog named Marc Anthony cares for a little kitten he loves like his own child. Eventually, Marc Anthony falls under the impression that his beloved kitten has been slain, baked into a cat-shaped cookie. When he learns this, he begins to sob uncontrollably, even taking the cookie and placing it on his back in the same way he did when his feline friend was alive.
The kitten is eventually revealed to be alive, however, and the episode ends on a high note.
In “Phineas and Ferb Get Busted,” Phineas and Ferb abandons all of its typical pleasantness and dives into an incredibly dark place. In the episode, Candace finally manages to get her brothers caught by their mother, which doesn’t bode well for the two heroes.
Their mother sends them to a reform school where creativity is absolutely forbidden. While trapped there, they are subjected to treatments reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange: They are strapped down and brainwashed so every ounce of creativity is sucked out of them.
Eventually, Candace realized she went too far, and she helps them escape. Despite this seemingly happy ending, the two were likely tragically and permanently scarred from the incident.
The Adventure Time episode “Princess Cookie” begins with a hostage situation enacted by a chocolate chip cookie named Baby-Snaps. He demands Bubblegum’s crown to end the tense situation, leading Jake and Finn to sneak into the building. Finn handles Baby-Snap’s group of cookie conspirators while Jake attempts a hostage negotiation.
Eventually, Baby-Snaps is revealed to have grown up in an orphanage. When Princess Bubblegum came to entertain the children, she laughed at the young cookie after he told her he wanted to be a princess like her. Baby-Snaps grew to resent Bubblegum for laughing at him, which culminated in the hostage situation.
Jake helps Baby-Snaps escape, but the Banana Guards track them down to the edge of a canyon. Realizing there is no hope left, Baby-Snaps jumps into the canyon to end himself, but he is unsuccessful. He breaks into several pieces, which are later reconstructed when he is taken to a psychiatric facility. Jake visits him and gives him a grass crown. With Bubblegum’s permission, Baby-Snaps is dubbed the Princess of the Grasslands.
While The Powerpuff Girls features plenty of villains, the main characters were made of sugar, spice, and everything nice. What could go wrong on a series all about female empowerment and child superheroes? That question was answered when the girls embarked on a race in the episode “Speed Demon.”
When the girls inadvertently jump through time into the future, they arrive in a bleak and hopeless world where evil has taken over. As they investigate, they learn that all hope was lost once they disappeared from the past. Without the Powerpuff Girls, no one was around to thwart the world’s evils.
As the girls explore the dark landscape, the hopelessness of their situation is visceral. When they’re finally recognized, the people from the future blame them for the societal collapse, and they must travel back to the past to avert the nightmarish future they’ve seen.
Weirdmageddon comes to Gravity Falls in the form of a three-part series finale. The event begins with Bill the Dream Demon transforming into an enormous, floating triangle who overtakes the town by plunging it into chaos. Fear and terror wreak havoc across the land, and the episode degenerates from slightly moody to terrifyingly dark.
Over the course of the three-part episode, the main characters are all nearly taken out, Grunkle Stan makes a significant sacrifice, and everything devolves into sadness and despair. Numerous aspects of the three episodes leave a dark and disheartening mark on an otherwise witty and hilarious show.
In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode entitled “One Course Meal,” Plankton is still attempting to snatch the secret Krabby Patty recipe. When he detonates the Krusty Krab and captures SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs, he is scared away by Pearl, Mr. Krabs’s daughter, who is a whale. Plankton is then revealed to be terrified of whales.
Over the course of two weeks, Mr. Krabs terrorizes Plankton by pretending to be Pearl. Plankton sequesters himself inside the Chum Bucket, wracked with fear and nightmarish sleep. Eventually, he makes his way into the street, intent on taking his own life by being run over.
At the last moment, SpongeBob saves him and reveals Mr. Krabs’s scheme. Regardless of this resolution, the psychological damage inflicted upon Plankton is difficult to watch.
One of the most heart-wrenching episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, entitled “Texas,” hit close to home for many viewers. Throughout Sandy’s time on the series, she remarks on her native Texas, but the depth of her homesickness isn’t truly apparent until this episode, which features an original song all about her native land.
Even her pained expression while she recalls everything she loves about her home state can stir some deep-set and intense emotions.