Animation is typically a medium that is associated with sparking joy and creating content for children primarily. In a sense, Animation is normally seen as anything made by Disney or other popular studios marketed toward children, and nothing really beyond that. However, the medium extends way further than “just for kids.” It’s a truly creative and remarkable form that anyone can enjoy. There’s animation that’s made entirely for adults; animation that’s made entirely for children; and animation that all audiences respectively can enjoy and connect to.
This is the same with the many genres animation explores. “Animation” in itself isn’t a genre of film, it’s a style of film capable of creating its own stories within various genres. Well, a majority of animated films are typically joyful and accessible, there’s animation that’s also violent or consists of mature themes, and there’s also sad animation. These sad animated movies convey genuine and emotional themes and imagery, no matter the age group or targeted audience.
Updated on May 19, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
Toy Story 5 may be in the horizon, but for many fans of the franchise, things really ended with one of the saddest animated movies ever made, Toy Story 3. Fans looking for similar tear-jerking masterpieces will be glad to know there’s no shortage of emotional animated films to choose from.
12 ‘Anomalisa’ (2015)
Charlie Kaufman never fails to capture the sad reality of human struggle, even within the medium of animation. Anybody familiar with Kaufman’s work knows that there is always a level of absurdity and subtext within his films and Anomalisa is no exception – the word “anomaly” in the title itself even suggests this. The film tells the story of a man (David Thewlis) who lives a dull and monotonous life, but things start to become hopeful when he meets a lively woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whilst attending a business trip. It’s an extremely impressive indie animated film, made even more special by the fact that Kaufman had never done anything like this before.
Despite being an animated film, it feels extremely real and comments on themes of identity and consciousness. Anyone with a keen eye may have noticed within the film that everybody shares the exact same face except for the two main characters. This expresses ideas of standing out amongst the crowd, or even being self-centered and not caring for your surroundings. The film has some phenomenal animation and voice performances that make it feel very authentic. The choice of making it in stop-motion, as well as not editing out audible expressions such as breathing just makes the film feel so alive. It tells a greatly concise story about two characters that have immense depth and a sense of relation.
Watch on Paramount+
11 ‘Watership Down’ (1978)
Watership Down will probably leave you cowering under the sheets, rather than diving for the tissue box, because, it’s known as one of the most violent and horrifying animated movies ever made. The story follows a small group of rabbits that leave their community to find a new haven after their homeland is destroyed by human beings. However, humans aren’t even the greatest threat to these rabbits as they face vicious predators and evil variants of their own kind.
It’s a very haunting film, consisting of a lot of brooding visuals of spectral rabbits and bloody plagues and that doesn’t even include the immense amount of gore within the film. There are a lot of violent character deaths that don’t shy away including blood and carnage and the fact that this film was marketed towards kids during the time is quite concerning. Despite its infamous bloodshed, it’s still a very sad film about the struggle of these rabbits in a nasty and unforgiving world.
Watch on HBO Max
10 ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008)
War is brutal, unforgiving, and… sad, and Waltz with Bashir conveys all of that in an animated documentary that recounts the lost memories of a man named Ari Folman, and several others during their time as soldiers in the mists of the 1982 Lebanon War.
The film highly excels in its animated medium as it manages to easily capture the personal emotions, memories, dreams, and traumatic experiences that many people faced during this horrific war. There is some truly striking, yet frightening imagery within this film, which makes just the thought of being in those combat situations even more haunting. This is probably the most graphic film on this list as it doesn’t hold back on expressing the raw and uncensored horrors of war.
Watch on Mubi
9 ‘Perfect Blue’ (1997)
The title of this film speaks for itself. Perfect Blue is perfect at being ‘blue’, as in sad and dreary. It’s a Japanese psychological thriller by the mind-bending mastermind of Satoshi Kon, who is also known for Paprika and Paranoia Agent. The film follows a popular idol musician who retires to pursue a career in acting. However, this path doesn’t seem to be a pleasant choice as starts to lose her sense of reality whilst becoming a victim of several heinous acts.
It’s a really impactful film that comments on the sad reality some famous entertainers have to experience, such as exploitation and poor treatment in the workplace, as well as problems with stalking and fans getting too attached. The film has excellent themes that are still apparent within modern celebrity culture, told in an interesting dark manner by blurring the lines between the illusive nature and the harsh reality of one’s thoughts.
Watch on Shudder
8 ‘Mary and Max’ (2009)
Mary and Max is a very stylized stop-motion animated film from Australia. It was the feature-length directorial debut by Adam Elliot, who previously won an Oscar for his animated short Harvie Krumpet. Mary and Max is a very wholesome story based on true events, following an unlikely long-distance friendship between two pen-pals. Mary (Toni Collette/Bethany Whitmore), an 8-year-old girl in Melbourne, and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 45-year-old man in New York. Now don’t be misled by this description. This is a genuinely pleasing story about their friendship over the course of their lives.
The film is very light-hearted and joyous, but also quite bleak in some regard. Despite being a very feel-good film, it also touches on some very impactful messages about various topics such as family problems and the perspective of life through the eyes of different age groups. Mary is someone who has plenty of family trouble which affects her life drastically and Max is a neuro-divergent person and a proud Aspie, but still struggles in many social situations. The film never disrespects any of the qualities of the characters and provides profound messages of connection, trust, and creating a positive self-image.
Watch on Tubi
7 ‘A Silent Voice’ (2016)
A Silent Voice is a gut-wrenching drama about a school bully who eventually becomes a social outcast due to his lack of compassion. However, when he leaves elementary school with a change of heart, he decides to try to rebuild a relationship with a deaf girl he used to horribly victimize and make fun of years prior.
The film covers a lot of fundamental subject matter, that a lot of people can relate to. Despite being about young characters, it conveys themes that anybody can connect to based on their experiences. It’s a coming-of-age film that focuses on elements of bullying, mental health, and disability, but the film isn’t entirely unhopeful about all those topics as it also focuses on connection and forgiveness. It’s a film that understands human emotion and hardship and conveys these ideas in a narratively-compelling and visually interesting way.
6 ‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)
Based on the eponymous 1968 novel by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant is a beloved animated classic that tells the story of the titular character, who crash lands on the planet and is found by the young boy Hogarth. Realizing that the huge intimidating alien creature is actually kind and vulnerable, Hogarth and his friend do what they can to protect him from the government.
Anyone who has seen the 1999 film knows that the iconic ending will bring anyone to tears. It’s the perfect movie that can be shared across generations, and parents who are watching it all over again can expect to cry like they’re watching the film for the first time again.
5 ‘Up’ (2009)
Although there are numerous Pixar films that can bring you to tears, no other manages to do it in the same way as Up. The film tells the delightful story of an old man (Ed Asner) who once had dreams of exploring the world, but due to his elderly state, has begun to relinquish these fantasies. However, when a tenacious young boy scout named Russel (Jordan Nagai) stumbles into his life, things take a huge turn as they go on an adventure together to a magical place known as Paradise Falls.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s only really the first twenty minutes of the film that sets off the waterworks, but those first twenty minutes act as a film on its own. Highlighting the life Carl and Ellie (Elie Doctor) lived together and providing context for their dreams of exploration. It’s truly heartbreaking discovering that they never managed to explore the world together. This is by far one of the most moving opening sequences out of any Pixar film and one that reflects on the entirety of the runtime.
Watch on Disney+
4 ‘Your Name’ (2016)
Your Name tells the love story between a high school boy who lives in the busy cities of Tokyo and a high school girl who lives in the calming Japanese countryside. However, they inexplicably begin to swap bodies and have to live the lives of their counterpart for brief periods of time. The film progresses on their relationship as they learn more about one another based on their daily routines and living life in each other’s shoes.
The film takes what would usually be a very simple romance story, and presents it in an over-dramatized, yet glorified spectacle which works very well for the type of film it is. It subverts the typical tropes used within anime and creates a relatable long-distance relationship. The animation is stunning, the characters are compelling and fun and the film goes into wild directions unseen in a story like this, with an ending that will leave you sobbing your eyes out.
3 ‘The Lion King’ (1994)
The Lion King is an all-time classic Disney film with beautiful visuals, amazing vocal performances, and a soundtrack that people still cherish to this day. The film tells the story of a young lion cub named Simba who will eventually follow in his father’s footsteps in becoming king of the pride lands. However, Simba’s evil uncle Scar also wishes to become King and conjures up a dastardly plan to seize the throne.
While the film does have some sad moments sprinkled throughout, it’s Mufasa’s notorious death scene that gets everyone’s tears running. This is by far one of the most tragic scenes in any Disney film. The Lion King does a fantastic job at characterization which is why you care so deeply for this moment. Simba is distinct as a young determined but clumsy cub; and Mufasa is portrayed as a compassionate and great father figure, which is why his death is so impactful even halfway through the film. We truly get to know the character and his relationship with Simba until his unfortunate demise; making this scene a standout in Disney’s roster of emotional animated movies.
Watch on Disney+
2 ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010)
For fans who grew up with the Toy Story franchise, Toy Story 3 marked the end of an era. The emotional movie depicts the fan-favorite toys’ – including Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Woody Allen) – challenging journey that coincides with Andy’s (John Morris) departure for college.
After seeing the characters transform over the years, Andy’s decision towards the end of the movie is a painful reminder that things end eventually, one way or another. And while the film series is set to continue, Toy Story 3 holds a special place in fans’ hearts.
Watch on Disney+
1 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)
Compared to other many great animated features from Studio Ghibli such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro; Grave of the Fireflies is definitely number one in terms of tugging those emotional heartstrings. The film follows two young siblings living in war-torn Japan, who are struggling to survive during the heat of World War II in its final months.
It’s a truly tragic experience as we watch these characters endure the awful living conditions, immense destruction, and horrid casualties caused by the reign of war. The film serves as a snapshot of Japan’s conditions during the time and doesn’t shy away from focusing on the agony of war. It’s a purposefully gut-wrenching film that starts off somber and ends even more dismally. There is no sugarcoating in this film for the purpose of a more accessible narrative, it’s entirely meaningful and beautifully morbid.
NEXT: The Best Animated Movies of All Time, Ranked According to IMDb