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Most Depressing Animated Movies of All Time


When we think of animated films, our mind immediately jumps to colorful characters, magical stories, and a world full of laughter and smiles. We think of Disney classics filled with catchy musical numbers, fairy tales where the princess always gets her happily ever after, and feel-good messages about life to lift our mood. Animation is an art form designed for wonder and delight.




However, the reality is that animation is cinema too. And regardless of its format, it offers directors and storytellers a medium to convey the full spectrum of human emotions and channel their feelings. While animation is believed to bring fantasies to life, at its core, its responsibility is also to act as a medium of storytelling that reflects an individual’s reality. And when filmmakers dare to explore this truth, their animated works take a dive into darkness. As novelist Don DeLillo said, “All plots tend to move deathward,” and it is just as true in animation as anywhere else.

There are several animated movies that confront difficult subjects and complex themes, challenge society, and shed light on topics that are seldom discussed, like live-action films do. There are still breathtaking visuals and joyous moments, but their stories are what remain seared in our brain as forever disturbing and bleak. We’ve jotted a list of a select few animated films that are truly very devastating, and here’s why.


Updated Mar. 2, 2024: This collection of the most depressing animated films has been updated with additional content, including where to find each movie on streaming.


20 A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop in a not-too-distant futuristic dystopia. He is assigned to observe Substance D, a dangerous new drug that is destroying the lives of several users. As he infiltrates the drug subculture, he finds his own identity and sanity slipping away. Based on a novel by science-fiction master Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly follows Bob as he falls victim to the dehumanizing effect of these drugs.


Dystopian Living and the Loss of Identity

There are two key elements at play here. The first is the film’s dystopic setting, which as a genre is quite bleak, depressing, and ominous. Then, there is the distorted animation style which emphasizes the protagonist’s fractured psyche under society’s scrutiny. Director Richard Linklater filmed live-action scenes and used rotoscope technology to animate them, resulting in a unique and hallucinatory experience that provides ample paranoia in an already oppressive society. Stream A Scanner Darkly on Kanopy

19 9 (2009)


9 introduces a terrible post-apocalyptic landscape that emerges as a result of a massive war between humans and machines. A solitary rag doll named 9 (Elijah Wood) is stuck in the futuristic rubble of devastation. He comes upon other numbered dolls of varying sizes and shapes, and teams up with them in order to survive their environment. As the small group faces growing dangers and enemies, the ultimate message is about courage and friendship as they unravel the mystery surrounding their existence.

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Rag Dolls and Allegories

Director Shane Acker wastes no time in setting up a desolate, ash-choked world that clearly was not designed by machines. The protagonist himself starts off very grimly as he wakes up next to a dead body and witnesses the aftermath of humankind’s next war. This film doesn’t pull any of its punches: no character is safe from death, and the monstrous machines that fill the wasteland are downright unsettling at points. The whole idea of using rag dolls as some kind of allegory for darkness and limitations also evokes pathos for a world where children should instead be playing with dolls. Though it wouldn’t be a huge hit at the box office, it would receive two Annie Award nominations for Best Animated Effects in a Feature Production and Best Production Design in a Feature Production. Stream 9 on Max


18 Akira (1988)

Akira

Akira

Release Date
June 28, 1991

Cast
Mitsuo Iwata , Nozomu Sasaki , Mami Koyama , Tesshô Genda

A cyberpunk classic that revolutionized animation forever, Akira takes you to a future neo-Tokyo, where 17-year-old Shotaro Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) and his biker gang, the Capsules, rule the city. But political unrest in his neighborhood is rising, and as the powers that govern the city begin to lose control, it is up to the Capsules and a growing resistance movement to do something about it. This becomes difficult when the government captures Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), a friend and gang member with latent psychic abilities, and the result threatens the city of Tokyo itself.


Incredible Animation Complements a Grim Story

Akira is nothing short of a cyberpunk masterpiece, and is considered perhaps the greatest anime movie ever made. The slick visuals, the chaos, the character studies, as well as the graphic violence depicted in the film are not for everyone to digest. And yet, at its core, the question it raises is what happens when power becomes destructive. From Tetsuo’s transformation into a monster to Tokyo’s fragile civilization, everything symbolizes the fact that we’re capable of both creativity and chaos. Combine that with some of the most unprecedented animation quality ever seen in the 1980s, and you have what is one of the most beautifully depressing films ever made. Stream Akira on Hulu

17 Animal Farm (1954)


Animal Farm is directed by Joy Batchelor and John Halas, who adapt George Orwell’s famous novel into an animated allegorical film. It centers around a group of domestic farm animals living on the farm of Joe, a drunkard. When they decide to rebel against their human farmer, they create a safe space for animals where they can be equal and free. But as the revolution gets out of hand, pigs take the reins of leadership and begin abusing their power.

A Careful Examination of Political Upheaval

From wanting to be politically ideal to sinking into an endless void of corruption, the film contemplates every notion a society is built on. To call Animal Farm a children’s film adapted from a children’s book would be a mistake, as it tackles subjects like oppression, dictatorship, and unfair treatment, without shying away from the darker consequences of totalitarianism. In a way, the film is a reminder that power corrupts. Stream Animal Farm on Tubi


16 Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

This film, which mixes animation with live-action footage, provides a fictionalized account of the making of and impact that Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall had on the artist and the people. In the process of creating the album, Pink (Bob Geldof), a famous rock star, finds himself overwhelmed by the pressures of fame and isolation. As he descends into mental illness, he finds himself going back in time and reminiscing, as a wall grows around his psyche.


The Wall, Visualized

Through striking animated sequences, Pink Floyd: The Wall allows the audience to glimpse into an artist’s detachment from reality, their confinement to a prison that is their brain. From Pink’s troubled school days to failed relationships to a traumatic childhood plagued by World War II, everything is exposed against the rock band’s iconic music. It makes the overall experience quite maddening and, considering the tragic end of their first lead singer, Syd Barrett, especially depressing. Pink Floyd: The Wall is not available on streaming

15 Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir

Release Date
June 26, 2008

Director
Ari Folman

Cast
Ron Ben-Yishai , Ronny Dayag , Ari Folman , Dror Harazi , Yehezkel Lazarov , Mickey Leon

Written, produced, and directed by Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir is a first-hand account of the 1982 Lebanon War. In the film, we watch as Folman’s protagonist is haunted by visions of the past, particularly the years he served as a soldier and fought a war. Through hypnosis and conversations with others who share the same memories as his, he pieces together the reality of the period. This film is notable for its incorporation of real-life elements, with several interviews featuring either real-life veterans from the conflict or actors recreating their authentic testimonies.


A Traumatic Recollection of War

The psychological impact that any war has on the people involved is jarring and immense. Sometimes, the violence witnessed is so extreme that the mind ends up blocking out the trauma associated with it. Folman faces the same reality, and by pushing animation into uncharted territories of horror and realism, he unveils a portrait of war that was unseen by many. The film plays with the idea that what our memories preserve is also what they rot and distort. Waltz with Bashir would later go on to secure an Annie Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, in addition to a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Stream Waltz with Bashir on Tubi


14 The Fox and the Hound (1981)

It isn’t every day that you see a Disney film being depressing and outright gut-wrenching. The Fox and the Hound is an exception to the typical Disney formula. It tells the story of a curious fox cub named Tod (Mickey Rooney) being raised by a widow on a farm. He befriends Copper (Kurt Russell), who is an equally inquisitive hound pup. Their friendship is put to test when Tod’s innate fox nature places him in danger, and Copper is forced to choose between their friendship and the nature of their respective species.


A Tearjerker Story About Friendship

Considering how many children were scarred by the brutal death of Mufasa in The Lion King, it isn’t surprising that there is another beloved film from Disney with the same traumatic undertones, ultimately tugging at the heartstrings of its viewers. The central theme of The Fox and the Hound is friendship, and how it is destroyed by artificial divisions. It’s up there as one of the best ’80s kids movies due to the exploration of these themes, and its tumultuous production schedule would indirectly play a role in the eventual Disney Renaissance. Stream The Fox and the Hound on Disney+

13 Perfect Blue (1997)

Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue

Release Date
February 28, 1998

Director
Satoshi Kon

Cast
Junko Iwao , Rica Matsumoto , Shinpachi Tsuji , Masaaki Ôkura


In Perfect Blue, a young Japanese pop star decides to leave her profession and switch to acting. Mima (Junko Iwao) begins her career transition with a role in a murder mystery TV show. But, when an obsessed fan named Mamoru Uchida (Masaaki okura) sees this as a betrayal, he starts to stalk her online and in real life. This leads to a deterioration in Mima’s mental health, and she soon develops a dissociative identity disorder, not knowing what’s real and what isn’t.

Celebrity Obsession and Mental Illness

Considering how digitized today’s world is, Perfect Blue serves as a poignant example of how sad and dreary the celebrity culture is. Living a life of fame comes with its own cons, and director Satoshi Kon focuses on this issue in the most unsettling way there is. As the film progresses, the difficulties of determining what’s real and what’s a product of Mima’s imagination start to surface, effectively gaslighting its viewers as it builds to a haunting climax. The film’s animation and grim visuals also balance out the haunting portrayal of truth versus fantasy. Stream Perfect Blue on AMC+


12 Song of the Sea (2014)

Directed by Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea takes its audience to Ireland, where Ben (David Rawle) and his little sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) are sent to live with their grandmother after their mother’s death. After uncovering Saoirse’s heritage as a selkie, a creature with the ability to shapeshift into a seal, the two decide to return home by sea. But on their adventurous journey, they are drawn into a world of faeries and mystery. Now Saoirse must use her abilities to restore balance between the fairie world and the real world.


An Irish Tearjerker

The lush visuals, precise animation, and heavenly soundtrack of Song of the Sea itself is enough to suck you into its beautiful and heart-rending story. But the movie is largely about the fallout of the loss of Ben and Saoirse’s mother, and the deep depression their father falls into, to the point where he can’t take care of his own children.

Ben is angry and often takes it out on his sister, though he reluctantly helps her and takes care of her too. In the end, we find out that their mother isn’t dead, but the tearful goodbye the three of them have to give her is absolutely heartbreaking, making the ending a bittersweet exploration of love and loss in families. Rent Song of the Sea on Apple TV

11 Up (2009)

up

Up

Release Date
May 28, 2009


A movie that famously made audiences weep from its opening montage alone is Pete Docter’s beloved film Up. It centers around a 78-year-old widower named Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner), who wants nothing more than to fulfill his late wife Ellie’s dream of moving to Paradise Falls in the wilds of South America. So he ties a thousand balloons to his house, in order to fly the entire house there. Unfortunately, as he executes his plan, he’s inadvertently accompanied by a young wilderness explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagal).

An Iconic Intro Sequence

Pixar has created a number of films that are sentimental, but none manage to be so whimsically adventurous and exquisitely beautiful as Up. Carl’s profound grief and solitude is portrayed with the kind of care that evokes an immediate appreciation of our dreams, and the relationships we have in our own lives. Ellie and Carl’s flashback showcases a lifetime’s worth of love, and it is simply heartbreaking that they never got to experience Paradise Falls together. Conversely, Carl’s gradual climb from his own self-loathing into happiness is an incredible journey to experience. Up would later go on to become the second animated film in cinematic history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Stream Up on Disney+


10 Mary and Max (2009)

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Release Date
February 9, 2009

Director
Adam Elliot

Charting toward the stop-motion animation space, we have Mary and Max. Set in the 1970s, the film centers around an unlikely friendship that blossoms between a lonely and deprived eight-year-old girl in Melbourne and a forty-four-year-old depressed man in New York City. As pen pals, both Mary (Bethany Whitmore) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have similar stories — one struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s syndrome and the other with loneliness and neglect — and that’s what binds them together.


Loneliness on the Fringes of Society

Critics have accurately praised the film as “remarkable and poignant.” But beyond its heartwarming layer of connection and friendship, Mary and Max digs deeper into themes of loneliness and finding purpose in a world that was not made for misfits. Director Adam Elliot makes sure to infuse the scenes with cheer and comedy, but its bittersweet conclusion is what makes the film so devastating. At the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, Adam Elliot would receive nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design for his work here. Stream Mary and Max on AMC+

9 Anomalisa (2015)


Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker who arrives in Cincinnati hoping to live his best life working as a man who inspires others. But while struggling with his marriage, he ends up finding the city’s routine more suffocating than ever. Shortly after checking into his hotel, he meets Lisa, the only person in the world who does not make him feel uncomfortable. Their connection grows stronger as she urges him to alter his life.

Artificial Human Connections

Charlie Kaufman has a reputation he stands by with Anomalisa. While the stop-motion animation technique adds a whimsical tone to the narrative, Kaufman’s script is actually the winner here. By taking one depressed protagonist and placing him in a situation of inescapable loneliness, he comments on how even the most basic human connections can feel robotic or forced. The film is a deeply real character study that is made even more impactful under Kaufman’s gaze. It would later become the first-ever R-rated animated film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Rent Anomalisa on Apple TV


8 A Silent Voice (2016)

Shoya Ishida (Miyu Irino), the main protagonist of A Silent Voice, is a bully who victimizes a deaf transfer student (Saori Hayami) so much that she changes schools. But the guilt of it follows him for years, and as his life spirals out of control, Shoya reaches out to the same girl and tries to rebuild a relationship with her while overcoming his own demons. The film is based on the original manga series of the same name, with some scenes being slightly adjusted to fit a feature-length runtime.

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An Examination of the Effects of Bullying

Directed by Naoko Yamada, A Silent Voice is a heartbreaking story that addresses the lasting scars of bullying, guilt and isolation. Its emotional storytelling and stunning cinematography showcase how even the smallest act of cruelty in youth can echo into adulthood for both people involved. Ultimately, it is a universally relatable and touching story that stirs the heart, with an ending that’s worth sticking around for. Rent A Silent Voice on Apple TV

7 The Iron Giant (1999)


Taking you to the Cold War era of the late 1950s, The Iron Giant follows the story of a nine-year-old boy, Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), who discovers a mysterious and massive metallic giant in the woods near his home. Having no memory and no agenda, the giant becomes Hogarth’s friend. But in the process, he attracts suspicion from the local government, who in turn informs the military, who eventually decide to capture or destroy the metallic creature.

“You Stay. I Go. No Following.”

On the surface, The Iron Giant is like any other story about an unlikely friendship. However, if you are a ’90s kid, this film probably devastated you. Inspired by the poet Ted Hughes, this emotional sci-fi flick tackles heavyweight themes such as fear, prejudice, and what it means to be extraordinary in a world that is prone to destroy what it cannot understand. Combine that with some impeccably impressive animation from Warner Bros. and direction from Brad Bird, who would later go on to create The Incredibles, and you have one of the most beloved cult animated films ever made. The end of the film is something that can induce tears in any fan with just one word: “Superman.” Stream The Iron Giant on Max


6 Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down is one of those animated films based on a children’s book where both the book and the film are unexpectedly dark. The premise of the movie follows a group of rabbits preparing to flee their warren as it is destroyed by human invasion. Their search for a safe new home is led by two rabbits — Hazel (John Hurt) and Fiver (Richard Briers) — who, along the way, learn of a totalitarian system and a ruthless governor ruling over the eponymous Watership Down.


A Surprising Amount of Violence

An epic action adventure, Watership Down saw some controversy because of its violent content, so much so that it would even be reclassified by the British Board of Film Censors in 2022. People who come to the film without any knowledge of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel are taken aback by the surprisingly realistic and unflinching depiction of the rabbit civilization and their dire situation. The brutal amount of war and death make it rather dark for a family film, but its ultimately positive messaging surrounding the appreciation of life balance out the more intense scenes. Stream Watership Down on Max

5 It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)


It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an experimental black comedy that plays out as a surreal recollection of its main character’s memories. The main character, Bill, is portrayed as a stick figure who suffers from an unknown neurological problem. Hand-drawn vignettes follow Bill as he navigates his encounters with bizarre people, his relationship with death, and the unending struggle to grasp reality. The film itself is an assemblage of three separate short films produced by Hertzfeldt between 2006 and 2011, having been edited together into a single narrative.

The Musings of Don Hertzfeldt

Several movies on this list explore existential crises through their protagonists. Perhaps it is because life can be so bleak and uneventful at times. Whatever the reason, director, animator, narrator, and photographer Don Hertzfeldt has his own philosophical musings on the topic, which he showcases with such brilliance that it is impossible not to lose yourself in those moments of nihilism. Hertzfeldt himself provides narration for this surreal tale, and as of writing, it maintains a perfect 100% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is not available on streaming


4 The Plague Dogs (1982)

Another rattling animated film blanketed as an adventure, The Plague Dogs follows two dogs — Snitter (John Hurt) and Rowf (Christopher Benjamin) — who escape from a research laboratory in 1970s England and try to survive in a countryside that is brimming with hunters and violence. Having grown up under the watchful eyes of scientists, they never had a chance to make it in the wild, but when a fox encourages them to do so, they’re only faced with more obstacles.

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A Scathing Critique of Animal Experimentation

Like Watership Down, The Plague Dogs was adapted from a Richard Adams novel. Saying the film is a faithful adaptation tells a lot about the author’s soul-crushing source material, which depicts human cruelty towards animals. To be a voiceless being fighting against a world that opposes their basic rights is already sad, but to include the repeated scenes of torture like drowning and resuscitation in the film is a whole new level of roughness. The film’s ambiguous ending makes the rest of the viewing experience even more upsetting. Stream The Plague Dogs on Tubi


Another animated war drama meant for adults, Barefoot Gen depicts the events leading up to and after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, through the eyes of a child. The film follows 10-year-old Gen (Issei Miyazaki) and his family struggling to survive in the aftermath. As conditions in their war-torn city prior to the bombing grow desperate, they take up small jobs and help their father. But when the infamous bombing occurs, everyone Gen knows perishes before his eyes. The film is based on the manga of the same name, and would later spawn a sequel, Barefoot Gen 2, in 1986.

The Shocking Terror of Nuclear War

Right from the scene where the bomb is dropped, the audience witnesses the undiluted horrors of nuclear war in a way that is terrifying and realistic. Director Mori Masaki uses a surprisingly gory depiction of burns, radiation sickness, and the spread of lifeless bodies, especially as it contrasts to the rest of the film’s cutesy and innocent art style. He draws from his own experiences of surviving the bombing as a child, and the layers of human suffering and the pain inflicted that day in Hiroshima is overwhelming. Stream Barefoot Gen on Cineverse


2 When the Wind Blows (1986)

When the Wind Blows is a hand-drawn animated tale about an elderly English couple who are unaware of the harsh realities of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies. Having taken shelter in an underground bunker, they assume they are perfectly safe from the threat of their nation being annihilated. But as their resources begin to dwindle, so do their lives.

An Intimate Post-Apocalyptic Tale

Whether it is live-action or animation, films based around war usually center around real-life events. But Jimmy Murakami’s project is an anti-war film that takes place in an alternate reality. It is adapted from Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel, and just like the source material, the film gets painfully real in its depiction of the mushroom clouds and the lives affected by the fallout of nuclear war. Stream When the Wind Blows on Tubi


1 Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Set in the final months of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of a teenage Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), who struggle to survive in Japan. After their home city is firebombed, their mother is brutally killed, and their father is away at war, the siblings are left to fend for themselves and deal with the aftermath of such massive devastation.


The Most Depressing Animated Film

Unlike other movies by Studio Ghibli, this one takes a devastating approach toward storytelling. Director Isao Takahata tries to convey how children suffer the consequences in a way they cannot understand. As siblings, they do everything in their power to care for one another, but when resources become scarce, the scenes become more bleak and traumatic, with the ultimate focus on the fractured innocence of the children. This movie is rightly considered to be not just the saddest animated film, but one of the saddest movies ever made. Rent Grave of the Fireflies on Apple TV

Unsurprisingly, some of the most depressing animated films turn out to be the medium’s finest. To see our picks for the most timeless animated movies, check out the video below:



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