The Animated Movie Sadness Index: A Brief History of Dead Parents, Sad Robots, and Devastated Animal Children

Photo Illustration by Bob Dominguez

This contains a mild spoiler for Big Hero 6, an animated movie that was released wide this past Friday. Sorry about that. Also, there are some mild spoilers for The Lion King, The Iron Giant, Finding Nemo, Up, and a handful of other similar movies. I’m less sorry about those. They came out years and years ago. You should’ve seen them by now. Don’t be a dolt. Don’t be the person at the party who’s like, “Hi. Um, excuse me, everyone. Can you all please stop talking about The Usual Suspects? I haven’t seen it yet.”

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The protagonist in Big Hero 6 is a 14-year-old boy named Hiro Hamada. He is a charming, likable genius, and eventually creates his own team of superheroes. That’s cool. That’s a fun thing for a movie to be. What’s not cool, what’s not fun, is why he makes his superhero team.

He does so because his older brother, Tadashi, is killed in a suspicious building fire while attempting to rescue a professor the boys care about. That’d be an almost unbearable tragedy in and of itself, but it’s compounded in Big Hero 6 by about a billion percent because Hiro’s parents are also dead. There was a point in Hiro’s life when he had a mother, father, and older brother, but about 10 minutes into the movie they are all dead and Hiro is alone and, oh, great, now I’m crying all over again.

My wife and I took our sons — twin 7-year-olds and a 2-year-old — to see Big Hero 6. When Tadashi died, which was not that long after it had been revealed that the brothers’ parents were already gone, my wife leaned over to me and asked, “Why are they doing this poor boy like this?” I was thinking the same thing. That’s not what I said back, though. What I said back was, “You wanna make out?” That’s a little thing called bad timing.

Hiro is the latest in a string of sad characters from animated movies.1 So that’s what’s this is. This is the Animated Movie Sadness Index. It’s very simple, though perhaps easy to get confused by. This is not a ranking of sad moments from animated movies. For example: Charlotte dying in Charlotte’s Web was a sad moment. But Charlotte wasn’t a sad character, nor was Wilbur, so they aren’t here. Because this Sadness Index charts characters with sad backstories — tragic figures with dark histories, who endure the most awful of circumstances.

It rates from 1 percent — which is a little bit sad, like when you drop your phone and the screen cracks — to 100 percent — which is a devastating and brutal sadness, the kind of debilitating sadness that, even just watched and experienced indirectly, makes putting your head in an oven sound like not that bad of an idea.

wreck-it-ralphDisney

Ralph, Wreck-It Ralph
Sadness Rating: 6 percent

He wants people to love him. He’s tired of being the villain. He’s not a villain; he’s just doing his job, he says. But people don’t love him. Instead, they pick him up and throw him off the side of a building every night. :‘(

Tod, The Fox and the Hound
Sadness Rating: 8 percent

Tod is an orphaned fox. He makes best friends with Copper, a puppy who lives in the house next door, and it’s all very sweet. Then they grow older and Copper big-faces Tod, telling Tod they can’t be friends anymore because Tod is a fox and not a dog, and Copper can be friends only with dogs, so get your fox bitch-ass outta here, basically. Copper grows to hate Tod after Copper’s main dog companion is hit by a train while trying to chase and kill Tod. Poor Tod. Fox oppression is very real.

Coraline, Coraline
Sadness Rating: 9 percent

Coraline’s parents are too busy to pay any attention to her. She finds a door that leads to another universe with parents who truly love her. She decides she maybe wants to live there instead, because every child wants and deserves to feel loved. Only — surprise — her alt-parents in the new world aren’t real. The Other Mother is a witch that’s really a spider monster, with sewing needles for hands, and is interested in stealing Coraline’s soul and ALSO HER GODDAMN EYEBALLS. The poor girl just wanted someone to ask her how her day was.

Doc Hudson, Cars
Sadness Rating: 11 percent

He was the most dominant car in racing history (three Piston Cup championships, and the most wins by any racer in a single season in history). Then he was involved in a crash on the final lap of the 1954 Piston Cup championship that nearly killed him. After rehabilitating himself, he returned to the track only to be told to piss off, that he was too old, that he’d been replaced by a new class of cars. He quit the sport, then moved to a small town to become a doctor who’s paid so little that he also has to work a side job as a judge. Long fall from glory.

Beast, Beauty and the Beast
Sadness Rating: 15 percent

Persecution is always so sad.

frozen-elsaDisney

Elsa, Frozen
Sadness Rating: 17 percent

She has so much mystical power that she feels like she needs to quarantine herself for all of forever so she doesn’t hurt anyone. (She nearly killed her own sister.) She’s a monster, basically, and she hates herself for it.

Lotso, Toy Story 3
Sadness Rating: 19 percent

He was supposed to be every kid’s favorite toy. Then he got left at a rest stop. He trekked about a thousand miles, all the way back home to return to his kid, only to discover he’d been replaced. His whole world was destroyed. He eventually became the toy slaver in a day care. He was all evil, but only because after you suffer the sort of heartache he did, there’s really no direction to grow but down toward hell.

the-iron-giantWarner Bros.

Iron Giant, The Iron Giant
Sadness Rating: 23 percent

A truly tragic character. He’s a Russian warbot who crashes into small-town America. He doesn’t remember who he is or even what he is. He befriends a 9-year-old boy, but is eventually cast out by ignorant people. He’s attacked by the Army after he saves the lives of two children. He tries to fly away, but is shot down by a missile. After he crashes, he thinks his young friend is dead. He blames the Army, so he starts destroying them. The U.S. Navy fires a nuclear missile at the Iron Giant, which will kill everyone in the city if it hits him there. He sacrifices himself, flying out to sea and detonating the bomb over the ocean, where nobody else can get hurt.

Fa Mulan, Mulan
Sadness Rating: 25 percent

Mulan is a 16-year-old girl living in oppressive China. She is told by her town’s matchmaker that, despite her beauty, nobody will ever love her. Mulan joins the military, though she has to pretend to be a man to do so, because if a woman tries to join the army, she is murdered as a punishment. She saves a bunch of people and defeats a bunch of others, but she’s discovered as a woman and so, basically, GTFOH, they tell her. Sad, sad.

Rapunzel, Tangled
Sadness Rating: 28 percent

She’s a princess, but she’s been kidnapped and stowed away in a tower for 18 years by an emotionally abusive woman who wants her only so that Rapunzel will sing to her, which keeps the older woman looking young. This lady literally ruined Rapunzel’s whole early life because she didn’t want to get wrinkles.

Genie, Aladdin
Sadness Rating: 33 percent

Eternal servitude. He just wanted to be free. :(

cinderella-sadDisney

Cinderella, Cinderella
Sadness Rating: 36 percent

Her mom dies. Her dad, hoping to have his only daughter raised into a woman by another woman, marries again. His new wife turns out to be a wretch. Cinderella’s dad dies, and then Cinderella’s whole princess-ly existence devolves into indentured servitude. Her only friends are animals. She hears about a ball the prince is throwing, asks if she can go, is told yes, makes a dress out of trash, and then her ugly stepsisters destroy that dress out of pettiness. I just right now at this moment as I’m typing this realized that Cinderella’s stepsisters were the original haterz. Wow.

Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sadness Rating: 39 percent

Very sad. Her mom died after Snow White’s birth. Her dad married a woman who eventually became the evil Queen. Her dad died. The Queen tried to have Snow White assassinated. (She for real told a man to take Snow White into the woods and kill her and bring back her heart in a box as proof that he’d done so.) The Queen did this because a mirror told her that Snow White was prettier than she was. When the Queen found out the man she’d told to kill Snow White had not done so, she went into the woods herself, found Snow White (who’d been forced to move in with seven dwarfs), and poisoned her. And I’m just now realizing right at this moment as I’m typing this that Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t the original haterz, the evil Queen was. Wow. The Dracula of haterz.

Ariel, The Little Mermaid
Sadness Rating: 41 percent

Her father, the king of Atlantica, has his soul stolen by a sea witch (right in front of Ariel). The sea witch tries to kill Ariel and Ariel’s fiancé, Eric. Eric kills the sea witch by ramming the splintered bow of a ship into her chest. Recap: Ariel’s mom was captured and killed by pirates (which we see happen in The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning), her dad was violated by a sea witch, and she’s about to be married to a violent murderer. Not that great of a life ahead for her.

Wall-EPixar

WALL-E, WALL-E
Sadness Rating: 44 percent

A loved-starved sentient robot trash compactor meets and instantly falls in love with a fancy female robot. He woos her, eventually sharing with her his most prized possession: the only living plant on the entire planet Earth. As soon as he gives it to her, she locks it away in her chest (where her heart should be, BTW) and literally shuts all the way down. She wasn’t there to love WALL-E. She was there to steal his plant. True heartbreak.

Lilo, Lilo & Stitch
Sadness Rating: 47 percent

Lilo is an adorable 7-year-old Hawaiian girl. She lives with her older sister, because guess what? Her parents are dead. Both of them. They died in a car crash. And so a portion of the movie’s plot is about how a social worker (voiced by Ving Rhames) has determined that Lilo’s sister isn’t capable of caring for the younger girl, which, really, she isn’t, as she almost lets Lilo drown, and, oh, also, LILO BECOMES BEST FRIENDS WITH A REFUGEE ALIEN BEING CHASED BY INTERGALACTIC BOUNTY HUNTERS. Very sad.

Mowgli, The Jungle Book
Sadness Rating: 50 percent

Mowgli is orphaned, placed in a basket, and left in the jungle. He’s raised by wolves and makes friends with a bunch of animals, but then is eventually abandoned by them as well. I don’t understand why nobody wants to love Mowgli. He seems like a good kid.

Quick note: How is “the jungle” the best answer you think of when you’re wondering where to abandon your baby? That’s gotta be, like, second-to-last place on the list, beating out “Satan’s butt hole” by just a smidge.

James, James and the Giant Peach
Sadness Rating: 53 percent

Both of James’s parents are killed by a rhinoceros. He moves in with his gnarly and loveless aunts. They make fun of him for his parents having been killed by a rhinoceros. He’s so all the way lost that he rides a giant peach to New York. His aunts follow him there. They try to kill him when he reveals their abusive nature. Then he plans to spend the rest of his life living inside the peach pit in a park. I can’t imagine he made it further than, say, 11 or 12 years old before either the city condemned his fruit home or homeless men broke in and robbed and strangled him.

bambiDisney

Bambi, Bambi
Sadness Rating: 61 percent

His mom gets shot. This was the second real devastation I experienced as a kid, losing out only to the time my dad told me he was taking me to El Paso to visit my cousins for a little bit and then left me there for four weeks. I was 100 percent sure I’d been abandoned.

Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Sadness Rating: 63 percent

His mother is a Gypsy in Paris in 1482, which was maybe the worst time in history to be a Gypsy. She’s captured and murdered by police. Quasimodo, deformed, is a baby at the time. The man who murdered his mom describes Quasimodo to his superior as “an unholy demon” and says he plans to “send it back to hell where it belongs.” He literally says that about Baby Quasimodo. Quasimodo is eventually spared, though he is castled away in a cathedral alone for 20 years because he’s too deformed and ugly for anyone to ever love or care about him. When he finally decides to come out, the townspeople ridicule him, throw things at him, make fun of him, hate him.

the-lion-king-mufasa-deathDisney

Simba, The Lion King
Sadness Rating: 67 percent

Oh no. Simba’s father, king of the Pride Lands, is killed by Simba’s uncle while Simba watches. Then Simba’s uncle blames Simba for the death and encourages him to run away (after Simba tries to wake up his dead father). When Simba agrees to run away, his uncle sends hyenas after him to kill him, too. Then his uncle (I’m assuming) beds Simba’s mom and takes over as king, eventually unraveling all of the goodness that Simba’s father had brought forward.

Hiro, Big Hero 6
Sadness Rating: 71 percent

Mom: dead. Dad: dead. Big brother: dead. Hopes for a happy, normal life: dead.

Littlefoot, The Land Before Time
Sadness Rating: 75 percent

HE WATCHED HIS MOTHER GET EATEN BY A T. REX.

Geppetto, Pinocchio
Sadness Rating: 81 percent

A childless woodworker is so desperate for human companionship that he builds a marionette and then wishes for it to become a real child. Against all odds, life is blessed into the doll, only the little guy isn’t fully a real boy, he’s a puppet still, and he’s stricken with an ultra-rare disease that causes his nose to grow each time he lies. The marionette is eventually kidnapped into a puppet show. He escapes from there, only to be tricked into going to an island where young boys are turned into donkeys (which I think is a metaphor for molestation, though I’m not quite sure). While there, the marionette develops a drinking and smoking problem. Geppetto, heartbroken at the thought of having lost his wooden son, sets out to find him. He gets eaten by a whale.

Marlin, Finding Nemo
Sadness Rating: 87 percent

Marlin is married and about to be the father of 400 children. Then a barracuda shows up, kills and eats Marlin’s wife, and eats all but one of the babies. The one baby that survives is born disabled. After rearing him in a life of safety and shelter, Marlin lets his disabled child attend school. His child is immediately kidnapped by a human. Marlin is kind of the worst dad.

up-old-manPixar

Carl, Up
Sadness Rating: 100 percent

Jesus. No hyperbole, the marriage-to-death montage we see Carl and his wife go through at the beginning of this movie is the most devastating 4:18 of any movie of all time. I can’t even post the video. I can’t even think about it. It’s too real. It’s way too real. It’s way, way, way too real. There aren’t any aliens or dragons or fake characters to rub away the hurt here. Carl is the saddest. Oh, great, now I’m crying again.

Filed Under: Movies, Up, finding nemo, bambi, pinnochio, coraline, cars, snow white, cinderella, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, The Iron Giant, The Land Before Time, big hero 6, Disney, Pixar

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Shea Serrano is a staff writer for Grantland. His latest book, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, is a New York Times best seller and is available everywhere.

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