24 Popular Childhood Cartoons With Surprisingly Dark Themes

NIMH

Some cartoons disguise tough topics as children's entertainment. Here are some popular animated shows that featured dark, depressing, and painful content throughout their runtimes. Which are your favorites?

1. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)

Avatar The Last Airbender Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack De Sena
Image Credit: Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

While beautiful, whimsical, and brilliantly voice-acted, Avatar: The Last Airbender covered slavery, genocide, totalitarian governments, and racism. Not to mention the in-depth portrayal of psychological abuse regarding Azula and Zuko. The show is amazing to watch as a kid and even better to watch as an adult. 

2. Adventure Time (2010-2018)

Adventure Time Hynden Walch, Jeremy Shada
Image Credit: Cartoon Network.

Colorful, funny, and… horror survival series set in the apocalypse and packaged as a children's show? Yep. Adventure Time frequently referenced the “mushroom wars” that took place in the past. It's not a stretch to think the mushrooms Finn and the gang are talking about are mushroom clouds from nuclear weapons. 

3. Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio Dickie Jones, Evelyn Venable
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

The 1940 film marketed itself as a children's cartoon, but many children, including my uncle, confessed the film terrified them as a child, especially the donkey scene. 

One of the workers in the story specializes in turning little boys into donkeys who serve the men. People find it heartbreaking when the children transform into donkeys and the animals cry about missing their parents and wanting to go home.  

4. Popeye (1933-1942)

Popeye the Sailor
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Popeye has an affinity for spinach, is a strong man, and adores his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, and his child Swee'Pea. Popeye beats up another male figure, Bluto, or Brutus, who tries to take advantage of Olive Oyl. An overarching theme in Popeye is to stick up for who you love and what you believe in. 

5. The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack (2007-2010)

The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack
Image Credit: Cartoon Network Studios.

If you remember this show, you deserve a gold star. Though lesser known, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack covered poverty, trauma, and addictions as perceived by a child. The comedy softened the blow, but viewers still remember the dark undertones of this cartoon. 

6. Hey Arnold! (1996-2004)

Hey Arnold! Toran Caudell, Francesca Marie Smith, Jamil Walker Smith
Image Credit: Snee-Oosh, Inc. and Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

Most characters in this cartoon deal with mental health issues or familial struggles. For example, Helga lived in an emotionally neglectful house, while Stoop Kid maintained his depression which caused agoraphobia. Additionally, Mr. Hyunh was a refugee who dealt with the loss of his daughter in the war. 

7. Casper the Friendly Ghost (1963-1964)

The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper
Image Credit: Amblin Television Harveytoons and Universal Cartoon Studios.

Although the original cartoon refused to provide Casper the Friendly Ghost with a backstory, adaptations of the story following the cartoon say the boy passed after contracting pneumonia while playing outside in the cold. The little boy passed away and decided he'd rather befriend people than other ghosts, making his life a lonely quest. 

8. Over the Garden Wall (2013)

Over the Garden Wall Elijah Wood, Melanie Lynskey, Collin Dean
Image Credit: Cartoon Network Studios.

One of the best-animated shows ever created centers around two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who find themselves waltzing through a forest, unsure of how they ended up there and how they escaped. While they frolicked through the forest, they befriended a bluebird and a woodsman. The boys exist in a dreamlike state following death.

9. The Last Unicorn (1982)

The Last Unicorn Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow
Image Credit: Jensen Farley Pictures.

This 80s film focuses on King Haggard, who wants to eradicate unicorns from existence. One brave unicorn steps up for her species and asks a wizard to assist her in saving the unicorn race from extinction. One person online joked that this film caused their trust issues. 

10. The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

The Brave Little Toaster
Image Credit: Hyperion Pictures.

In The Brave Little Toaster, five appliances have thoughts and feelings and constantly watch the humans who live in their houses. Throughout the film, viewers witness horrifying events such as dark thoughts from a vacuum cleaner, a nightmare about a toaster electrocuting itself, and an AC unit chasing its rage in an unfortunate scenario.

11. Bambi (1942)

Bambi Peter Behn, Donnie Dunagan
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Unlike the other movies and shows on this list, Bambi doesn't have any one set villain or bad guy. Instead, Bambi and his friends are at the mercy of nature. Fires start from human negligence, hunters harm Bambi's mother, and brutal weather threatens the lives of all the other woodland animals. There's a sense of helplessness that comes from watching cute animals be subject to the mercy of reality. 

12. The Secret of NIMH (1982)

The Secret of NIMH
Image Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment Co. and United International Pictures.

Animated stories about widows hit hard. In The Secret of NIMH, Mrs. Brisby has to relocate and protect her kids from a farmer's upcoming plans to destroy their home. The kids recently lost their father as a cat's meal, and one of the youngest mice maintains a cold, making the move more difficult for the mother to execute. 

13. All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

All Dogs Go to Heaven Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise
Image Credit: United Artists/MGM/UA Communications Co.

Usually, films or television series with dogs make for a tear-filled watch party. That rings true for this film. At the beginning of the film, a bulldog gambler named Carface kills the German Shepherd casino owner, Charlie, but Charlie comes back thanks to a magic watch to seek revenge on his killer. The plots that permeate the film include manipulation, lying, and gambling.

14. Gravity Falls (2012-2016)

Gravity Falls Jason Ritter, Kristen Schaal
Image Credit: Disney Television Animation.

Gravity Falls has a loyal following due to its tightly woven storylines and intricate plot lines. The main plot centers around two kids, Dipper and Mabel, who move in with their estranged uncle one summer. The duo discovers a strange journal with codes and secret messages surrounding the strange town.

The show deals with death, blood, and secret societies, for starters. 

15. Fairly OddParents (2001-2017)

The Fairly OddParents
Image Credit: Frederator Studios, Billionfold Inc., and Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

10-year-old Timmy Turner floats through his days surrounded by his best friends Chester and A.J. and a menacing babysitter named Vicki. His aloof parents leave Vicki to deal with the brunt of raising Timmy, so the child calls upon magical godparents to grant his wishes and spend time with him.  

16. The Animals of Farthingwood (1993-1995)

The Animals of Farthing Wood
Image Credit: Telemagination and La Fabrique.

When humans infiltrate their homes, a gaggle of animals have to relocate to a new location. Fans state the cartoon did not back away from showing how brutal nature can be. Other watchers claim if kids don't watch the show, they'll miss out on crucial information surrounding birds.

17. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2020)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Tom Kane
Image Credit: Lucasfilm Animation.

This offshoot of the popular Star Wars franchise plunges deeper into Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Anakin Skywalker's backstories during The Clone Wars. The characters experience racism, brutal violence, war crimes, and soul-wrenching deaths.

18. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)

Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Animation.

A few main plot lines running through this show were death and resurrection and the idea of not achieving either, existing in a limbo state. Animators even drew the scenes on black paper instead of the traditional white to help with the overall bleak feel of the show. 

19. 101 Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Image Credit: Buena Vista Distribution.

Disney released the live-action backstory about the antagonist of 101 DalmatiansCruella. The villain of the animated feature wants to kidnap the puppies and kill and skin them to make a fur coat from the spotted puppies. So, she enlists two men to do the dirty work for her.

20. Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down
Image Credit: Cinema International Corporation and Nepenthe Films.

You remember the story about the rabbits, right? The bunnies leave their original home in search of a new one after one bunny has a psychic vision about the imminent destruction of his house. The tale throws viewers straight into terror surrounding nature's unforgiving behavior.

21. Invader Zim (2001-2002)

Invader ZIM
Image Credit: Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

Viewers are lured in with the idea of seeing a cute alien learn to fit in with humans, only to find out Zim the alien hates everything about Earth, humans, and their behavior. Naturally, he decides to take over the world so he doesn't have to deal with the parts of it he doesn't like. 

22. The Smurfs (1981-1989)

Smurfs cartoon
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Television.

The wizard Gargamel strives to conquer the miniature smurfs, a nice population of blue humanoids who occupy mushroom houses. Depending on his mood, the wizard may crave the smurfs for a meal, want to use their bodies as an ingredient to make gold, or trap them all to become the strongest, most maniacal wizard.

23. Duck Tales (1987-1990)

DuckTales David Tennant
Image Credit: Disney Television Animation.

Triplet duck brothers Huey, Dewey, and Louie quack around their quarters, playing practical jokes on their parents, but one day, they take a joke too far. The boys place firecrackers under their father's chair. After the father goes to the emergency room, the mom sends the boys to live with their relatives. The parents never resurface.

24. Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan Kathryn Beaumont, Paul Collins, Bobby Driscoll, Tommy Luske
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

The premise of Peter Pan is strange. In essence, Peter kidnaps young boys and then convinces Wendy to come along to act as their mother. And the adult pirates who tried to put a stop to Peter's antics were considered the villains!