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5 saddest animated movies ever, ranked

A robot and a boy hang out in The Iron Giant.
Warner Bros.

While some animated movies become acclaimed for being visual spectacles, others earn a reputation for their poignant and even tearjerking stories that can stay with viewers long after the credits roll. And some are the best of both worlds. Most critics and cinephiles know by now that some of the most profound and saddest moments in cinema have come through this medium, with the idea that animation is just for kids slowly, but surely fading.

From the harrowing tragedy in Grave of the Fireflies to the emotional closure in Toy Story 4, there’s no shortage of sad animated films that can tug at the heartstrings. These movies can contain complex tales of loss and grief or even bittersweet depictions of sacrifice and friendships, all presented in gorgeous and artistic ways that ensure these animated masterpieces will continue to stand the test of time.

5. Mary and Max (2009)

Max using his typewriter in Mary and Max.
Icon Entertainment International

Mary and Max is a uniquely animated stop-motion movie that chronicles the unlikely friendship that forms between two very different people. Mary Daisy Dinkle (Toni Collette), a lonely, eight-year-old girl from Australia, and Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a middle-aged, obese man living in New York City become pen pals after the youngster randomly selects a name from a phone book and writes a letter. This sparks a decades-long pen-pal relationship that goes through ups and downs.

With its quirky characters and whimsical atmosphere, it’s easy to initially mistake the 2009 indie film as a lighthearted story about a bizarre friendship. Director Adam Elliot’s movie soon reveals a much bleaker side as it explores Mary’s struggles with mental health issues and Max’s own experiences with anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome, which influences their relationship and leads to misunderstandings. The darkly comedic film all builds up to an unforgettable and somewhat disturbing ending that reminds viewers how short life really is.

4. The Iron Giant (1999)

Hogarth and the Giant in Iron Giant.
Warner Bros. Animation

Director Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is a nostalgic sci-fi film set at the height of the Cold War era. It follows a young boy, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), befriends a colossal robot from outer space. Despite initial fears from the townsfolk and the military, Hogarth learns that the gentle giant isn’t as scary as he seems, and can learn about life and humanity. Their bond is soon threatened by a paranoid government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who becomes determined to destroy the Iron Giant because he believes it to be a threat to national security.

The 1999 movie is a beautiful adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel titled The Iron Man. It perfectly captures the anti-violence message of the source material by portraying how hope and optimism can persist even in the darkest of times. Hogarth’s friendship with the iconic sci-fi movie robot shows how crucial it is to choose empathy despite fear, which is precisely the giant’s motivation during the film’s tearjerking ending.

3. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Copper and Tod in the forest in The Fox and the Hound.
Buena Vista Distribution

The Fox and the Hound is a beloved Disney classic that depicts the unusual friendship between a young fox named Tod (Mickey Rooney) and a hound dog named Copper (Kurt Russell). The two characters meet when they’re young, unaware of the societal expectations that pit them against each other as natural enemies. Not understanding their differences, they form a deep bond and enjoy many adventures together. However, as they grow older, they are forced to confront the harsh reality of their respective roles in the world.

The 1981 film tells a heart-wrenching story of two innocent best friends ripped apart by a cruel world and its harsh expectations. Tod and Copper shared something pure, which couldn’t stand against who they eventually grew up to become. There are several scenes in the animated movie that will leave audiences ugly crying, with The Fox and the Hound‘s bittersweet and emotional ending certainly cementing it as an unforgettable part of many viewers’ childhoods.

2. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Several toys stare in horror in a scene from the Pixar film "Toy Story 3."
Pixar / Pixar

Those who grew up with the Toy Story film series already know there are numerous moments from the franchise that had fans’ eyes welling up with tears. This is especially true for Toy Story 3, which sees Andy (John Morris) preparing to leave for college, while his once-treasured toys are accidentally left on the curb with the trash. They soon end up in a dangerous daycare center where Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the group have to work together to find their way back.

Toy Story 3 is full of heartbreaking moments, including the incinerator scene, which sees the toys bracing for a painful death and eventually accepting their fate, holding on to each other as they head toward the fire. Of course, the critically acclaimed Pixar movie also shows the emotional moment when Andy decides to give his toys to a little girl named Bonnie. The handoff felt like the end of an era for many fans, and although they’re still making more Toy Story movies, the third installment is remembered as a sort of closure for an entire generation of viewers.

1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Setsuko carrying an umbrella in Grave of the Fireflies.

Studio Ghibli is no stranger to creating mature, profound, and often emotional animated films that can often leave viewers sobbing violently. None provide quite as painful of a viewing experience as director Hayao Miyazaki‘s Grave of the Fireflies, which is a drama film set in Japan during World War II. It follows two siblings, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), as they struggle to survive and fend for themselves while firebombing raids destroy homes and communities around them.

Grave of the Fireflies is Miyazaki’s most devastating work, with the movie capturing the human cost of war through the eyes of two innocent young characters. Robbed of their parents, security, and safety, the siblings go through terrible loss, hunger, and death at every corner. This hard-hitting narrative is animated in Studio Ghibli’s signature way, with beautifully hand-drawn frames portraying eerily unsettling moments. The 1988 movie is a haunting cinematic masterpiece that fans of the genre should see at least once, especially since its anti-war message is unfortunately still relevant today.

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Hannah Saab
Saab whips up SEO-optimized articles as a writer for Digital Trends and updates top-performing articles on Collider.
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