Think It’s for Kids? Think Again: Films With Unexpectedly Mature Themes and Scenes

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Kids movies often operate on two different levels of interpretation—one for the kids, and one for adults. Some family-friendly movies, however, are hardly family-friendly at all. This leaves us to view kids movies from the 80s as a different breed altogether for often including inappropriate, if not outright traumatizing, material.

There have been a select few children's films that have made us turn our heads and check the MPAA rating. These are the most infamous examples.

1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Ah, Willy Wonka. The charming childhood hit that dazzled us with its chocolate river, strange oompa loompas, and infectious songs. It was set within the factory of a psychopathic child-kidnapping murderer who picks off the children one by one until one virtuous final boss of the golden ticket children remains.

Most viewers report a sense of extreme uneasiness watching the original Willy Wonka, whose interpretation is much more menacing than the silly, wondrous Tim Burton adaption.

My favorite part is when Gene Wilder takes them into a terrifying tunnel that quickly turns into a sensory nightmare as Wilder repeats the lines of an ominous poem against a psychedelic backdrop of flashing lights and images.

2. Coraline (2009)

Coraline
Image Credit: Focus Features.

The sight of Coraline's “Other Family” is disturbing in itself, but the dread and horror the movie inspires is a mix of haunting visuals, threatening confrontations with the Other Mother, and an underlying tale about abuse.

The Other Mother becomes a repulsive spider, trapping Coraline in her web and threatening to trap her in the Other World forever. This comes after she threatens to sew buttons into Coraline's eyes. But why was Coraline drawn to her in the first place?

Her negligent mother drove her away into a seemingly idyllic world that was harboring ugly monstrosities beneath the surface. A deeper reading of Coraline would suggest that her “real” and “other” mothers are the same person, two sides of the same coin.

“Her world” and the “other world” are metaphors for the deceptive facades within abusive homes. It makes for one of the best surface-level readings for children and a more mature reading for adults, allowing children to internalize its messaging subconsciously without overwhelming them with overt brutalities.

3. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Where The Wild Things Are Paul Dano, Sonny Gerasimowicz
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Spike Jonze adapted Where the Wild Things Are from the 1963 children's picture book. Jonze was an odd choice for the film adaptation, given his propensity for mature, adult themes. Where the Wild Things Are was no exception.

The book contains less than 200 words and, as you can imagine, struggled to get made into a film for quite some time. But Jonze had a vision that had more to do with the infantilization of adults than children.

It follows a young boy named Max, who deals with emotional problems at home. After arguing with his mother, he runs away to a strange land inhabited by creatures known as the Wild Things.

While it maintains a sense of childlike wonder and whimsy known from the book, it is more of a cautionary tale for adults about the consequences of self-indulgence and refusing to grow up, with each Wild Thing representing a different part of Max's psyche. The movie struggled to find an audience, as kids found it thematically and visually a little too disturbing, while adults didn't quite pick up on its underlying themes.

4. Spirited Away (2001)

spirtied away
Image Credits: Studio Ghibli.

Spirited Away is an anime classic and a Studio Ghibli staple adored by adults and children. On a surface level child's reading, it's a coming-of-age film about ten-year-old Chihiro, who is moving houses with her parents. After they wander into a new town, her parents sit down to eat food that isn't theirs, which transforms them into pigs.

The rest of the movie follows Chihiro's journey to rescue her parents amid an amusement park of supernatural beings. Underneath it all, there are profoundly dark and morbid themes, such as greed, death, and figures like No Face. No Face represents isolation, loneliness, and loss of identity. The visuals and atmosphere are also pretty disturbing.

5. The Witches (1990)

Anjelica Huston in The Witches (1990)
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

The Witches, a Roald Dahl classic, was first adapted into a movie in 1990 and terrified children everywhere. The sight of Anjelica Huston peeled off her face to reveal a ghastly, repugnant witch underneath makes the 2020 adaptation look incredibly sanitized. Luke comes across this convention of witches and learns that they want to exterminate all of the children in the world.

The horrid sights of the witches represent the true nature underlying the seemingly beautiful women. The horrific sights get across the message on a visceral level to children, likely inspiring nightmares, but the true implication behind the tale is not to trust strangers because you never know what their true dark nature is (the monster lying within).

The predators are witches within the context of the film, but it's a metaphor for the real world's child predators.

6. Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Gremlins is at once a treat and a terror. Just like children. It bestowed upon us the ever-cherished elite Mogwai (and presumably, Furby-prototype) Gizmo, but also a gang of feral Gremlins who, when wet, exposed to light, or fed after midnight, become uncontainable, erratic hooligans destroying everything in their wake.

The scene where the evil Gremlins take over the house and attack is utterly spine-tingling as a child, with their furry, adorable appearance being replaced with leather skin and a demonic aura.

In a more cynical, adult interpretation of the movie, Gremlins is a satirization of unchecked consumerism, especially around the holidays. The contrasting idyllic image of Christmas with the malevolent, out-of-control Gremlins puts a damper mood on the consequences of unchecked desires.

By all means, play Gremlins for the whole family; just be warned that your children may have nightmares and develop an irrational fear of Furbys. Definitely not me, though, in case anyone wants to know.

7. Wall-E (2008)

WALL-E Ben Burtt
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Despite being a child-friendly story without any inappropriate or graphic content, the themes explored are incredibly grown-up and depressing for children. Humans have trashed their own planet and walk-no, hover around in their floating rascal scooters aimlessly. They're apathetic, over-indulgent, and completely consumed by their computer screens. A deeper life purpose is notably absent from these characters' lives.

If anything, WALL-E, the sentient robot, and his robot girlfriend seem to be more human than the humans themselves. When WALL-E cleans up Earth, it's reminiscent of the monotonous 9-5 jobs many of us find ourselves toiling away at.

This film presents a tragic juxtaposition between the thankless grind of work and how the excess of a cushy, technologically advanced society that caters to our every need strips us of our humanity.

8. The Goonies (1985)

the goonies
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

An action-comedy classic, The Goonies is an ode to childhood adventure. Its distinct 80s sensibilities are a bit grittier than modern family films.

A group of friends are desperate to save their neighborhood from being turned into a golf course. After discovering a treasure map in Mikey's attic, they go on a quest to find the treasure. Along the way, they encounter mobsters, deformed monsters, and creepy underground tunnels.

With crass language, violence, and intense scenes, The Goonies can be described more aptly as an 80s PG movie but not a 2020s PG movie. Nevertheless, show this one to your kid if you want them to toughen up.

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon
Image Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Tim Burton and Henry Sellick's works lay somewhere in the kidult genre, with grotesque visuals and disturbing plots set within animated worlds that may catch children's eye. The Nightmare Before Christmas was among the first of these movies to walk the tightrope between childlike wonder and a dreary atmosphere.

The Nightmare Before Christmas may be rated G, but it was hardly targeted at children. Disney, at first, wouldn't even release it under their studio name; instead, they used their more adult-oriented label, Touchstone Pictures.

Jack Skellington's mid-life crisis leads him to venture into Christmastown, where he fails to merge Christmas's wonders with Halloween's spooks. The entire film has a macabre feel and explores Jack's depressing identity crisis as he grows tired of “the same old thing.” The film is like an existentialist meditation on the mundanity of life but with enchanting visuals and total bops for songs.

10. Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Adventures in Babysitting (1987) Elisabeth Shue, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Only in the 80s could this raucously inappropriate comedy be considered a family-friendly movie. From drug use and cheating to frat parties and 17-year-old ladies of the night, it's more like Superbad than it is Home Alone.

I didn't even get to the shooting and stabbing yet. Thank god I never got into babysitting if these are the quirks of the job. 

11. The Dark Crystal (1982)

The Dark Crystal e1699030736513
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

This fantasy film populated by Gelfings, played by horrifying puppets, is about Jen. Jen is a Gelfing on a mission to find a missing piece of an enchanted crystal known as the dark crystal to restore balance in Thra.

While a struggle between good and evil is a staple of most children's fantasy stories, the nature of the Skeksis was bordering on too complex and unsettling for young kids. Its Tokienesque worldbuilding and fantasy plot were also too convoluted for children to follow, with its intricate fantasy world filled with mythology, races of mystical creatures, and lore. 

12. Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fantastic Planet 1973
Image Credit: Argos Films.

This 70s French animated sci-fi film is a bizarre experience involving enslavement and genocide and is anything but child-friendly. Ter, a human, escapes from his extra-terrestrial rulers on the planet Ygam, having gained access to their advanced technology.

He employs this newfound knowledge to spearhead a rebellion to free the human population from the oppression imposed by their alien overlords, who are 50-foot-tall giants and view humans as animals that they keep as pets.

Well, the lucky ones, anyway. The unlucky ones are forced to fight to the death for the aliens' entertainment or to become scavengers relegated as pests by the aliens. It makes for an enthralling viewing experience for an adult but a traumatizing one for a kid.

13. Return to Oz (1985)

Return to Oz Hidden Gems
Image Credit: Buena Vista Distribution.

As if The Wizard of Oz wasn't creepy enough, this peculiar dark fantasy film from Disney sees Dorthy's return to Oz. Dorothy, an insomniac who envisions herself back in Oz, now under the control of the nefarious Nome King, joins forces with new companions to rescue the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion.

Dorothy awakens alongside a talking chicken, the Scarecrow is transformed into an inanimate object, and the group encounters the Wheelers, who are individuals with wheels for hands and feet.

Just one peak at the film's chilling visuals will send chills down your spine, no matter your age. An uncanny valley effect characterizes the entire movie, with familiar characters appearing more menacing. It gives the setting an even more sinister atmosphere. There's also a headless queen who steals people's heads and a fiery rock king who looks like he dwells in the pits of Hades.

14. The Neverending Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

A young boy desperate for an escape from his boring life and kids at school finds refuge in the stories at an old bookstore. He enters one of the stories in a Jumanji-esque escape and inhabits the mythical world of Fantasia.

The Neverending Story is admittedly a nostalgic childhood favorite, but it has some dark and mature themes weaved within its narrative. Never mind the spookiness of the Gmork, the wolflike creature who is a servant of The Nothing.

Kids are used to seeing scary monsters embodying evil forces in movies. Let's get back to “The Nothing,” which is an evil, all-consuming force threatening the existence of Fantasia. Oh, and then there's this questionable dragon Falkor who is honestly a little ‘sus. 

15. Little Monsters (1989)

little-monsters
Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Little Monsters is a kids' movie that affirms every little kid's fear that monsters are living under their bed (and apparently can be lured out with Doritos). The more I watch this movie, the stronger my belief that it served as significant inspiration for Pixar's Monster Inc. However, while it's an entertaining watch, it's quite raunchy and scary for young kids, so it's strange that Netflix once said the preferred audience was 5 to 7-year-olds.

Brian is unfazed by the monster living under his bed, Maurice. Brian even befriends him and joins Maurice in the monster world to partake in monster shenanigans. They get into mischief together, tormenting other children, including a baby, but Brian grows discontent when he notices he, too, is becoming a monster.

There's cursing and raunchy references to “hot chicks.” While the monster concept is fun, it's more graphic and gnarly than a modern iteration would ever be.

16. Bambi (1942)

Bambi Animated Movie (1942)
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Perhaps it's a good lesson for children to learn that life comes with tragedy alongside beauty, but I don't think five-year-old me was quite ready to deal with the crushing horror of the death of a loved one, let alone in such tragic circumstances.

Everyone knows the infamous scene where Bambi's mother is shot and killed by a hunter. Her death occurs offscreen, but it's no less heartbreaking as we hear the sounds of gunshots and her insistence that Bambi should keep running without looking back.

Before he realizes what's happened, he turns around and says, “We made it, Mother!” only to realize that she isn't there. He scours the forest in search of her but doesn't find her.

His father tells him his mother can't be with him anymore, and a tear wells up in his eye. They walk off into the snow in somber silence. This could very well be the first time a child ever encounters such a morbid subject, and with a G rating, Bambi is “suitable for children of all ages.”

My fractured psyche as a young child begs to differ. Save Bambi for the older kids.

17. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit Kathleen Turner
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is described as a family-friendly adventure, with its hybrid of live-action and animated toons. It brings together iconic Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, and Buggs Bunny. However, it also features the scantily clad and sexually suggestive Jessica Rabbit.

It's rife with innuendos, a plot about murder, and a graphic scene where Judge Doom is run over by a steamroller, which crushes and flattens his entire body. Don't worry, though; he reinflates himself, which pops his eyes out of his skull. You know, stuff that kids love to see.

18. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland 1951
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Beneath Wonderland's vibrant, fantastical world is a nightmarish run-in with a menacing, suspicious Cheshire Cat, a deranged man known as The Mad Hatter, and a ruthless Queen obsessed with maintaining order who demands her guards chop off Alice's head.

After Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she succumbs to a surreal trip into nonsense, where she drinks mysterious liquids to shrink and grow in size (seemingly a reference to drug and alcohol-induced trips).

The film is strange and existential, as Alice ponders her identity and purpose as well as the absurdity of bureaucracy. Of course, children don't pick up on a lot of the mature themes in the book or movie, but they do pick up on the unmistakable, disturbing atmosphere running throughout the story.

19. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz - dorothy and the witch
Image Credit: Loew's, Inc.

In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road may take Dorothy on a wholesome journey to find a brain, heart, and courage for her scarecrow, tin man, and lion friends, but beneath the vibrant facade are layers extending beyond the innocence of a bedtime story.

Viewers are confronted with moments of darkness and surrealism that can be surprisingly intense for young minds, like the Wicked Witch, who melts before our eyes, or her menacing Flying Monkeys. 

The adversity suffered by actors on set during filming cast a dark cloud over its production, from serious burns and abuse allegations to Judy Garland being plied with drugs to work longer hours. The Wizard of Oz was a truly cursed movie. 

20. Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

bridge to terabithia
Image Credit: Summit Entertainment.

AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson gave us a beautiful tale of a refreshingly platonic friendship. It's imaginative, sweet, and entertaining. That is until the incident happens and breaks your ten-year-old heart. I remember watching this movie and getting utterly embarrassed about crying in front of my sister and her boyfriend.

What begins as an exciting escape into an enchanted kingdom filled with trolls, where the two of them find refuge from their school bullies and family problems, turns into a tragic tale about loss. It hurts so much more, thanks to compelling performances from Robb and Hutcherson and their compelling chemistry on screen. I haven't watched this movie in sixteen years, and it will still be too soon. 

21. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Henry Thomas and Pat Welsh in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Who doesn't love E.T.? A cute little alien befriends the charismatic Drew Barrymore, and the story ends in a feel-good bike ride up into the sky. Yeah, that's something I would say if I were completely out of touch with the body horror of seeing an alien that looks like a rotting worm far too early in my development.

I know it's Spielberg. I know it's a classic. But that thing belongs in a cage, and I'm still terrified of it at 26 years old. I used to have nightmares of E.T. appearing in my room at night, banging on my closet, or clawing at my bed. Why couldn't they have made him cute or, at the very least, inoffensive looking? It's for kids.

22. Shrek (2001)

Shrek
Image Credit: Dreamworks.

Shrek is a masterpiece. Full stop. I will be taking no further questions, comments, or concerns. It's suitable for all ages because the innuendos go over little kids' heads and leave something for the adults to laugh at that will make their children feel ignorant. And that's always fun. It's side-splittingly funny and completely revolutionized animated comedies.

My only argument is that Shrek is best appreciated by adults rather than children. The comedy largely centers around things that require some worldly life experience to understand. You can't really relate to Shrek's pessimism and desire to live far away from people until you've become a full-fledged adult.

23. Bee Movie (2007)

Bee Movie
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Bee Movie became a cultural phenomenon thanks to the meme renaissance that brought it back into relevance, ironically. Bee Movie was a profoundly bizarre 2007 animated “kids” film about a honey bee who becomes aware of human exploitation of bees and decides to sue the human race.

It's the film's strange tone between the human Vanessa and the bee, Barry, that made people turn heads.

Jerry Seinfeld, the voice of the main bee, admitted that the movie's aspect was inappropriate for kids. However, it has led to some hilarious compilations on YouTube.

24. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events 2004
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

This film adaptation of Daniel Hander's book is anything but lighthearted. It takes place in a whimsically macabre world involving three recently orphaned children who fall under the care of a malevolent man known as Count Olaf. However, he's more interested in the inheritance than the well-being of the children.

It's certainly appropriate for children but quite dark and deals with mature themes.

Author: Jaimee Marshall

Title: Freelance Writer

Expertise: Politics, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Pop Culture

Bio:

Jaimee Marshall is a culture writer, avid movie buff, and political junkie. She spends the bulk of her time watching and critiquing films, writing political op-eds, and dabbling in philosophy. She has a Communication Studies degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she flirted with several different majors before deciding to pursue writing. As a result, she has a diverse educational background, having studied economics, political science, psychology, business admin, rhetoric, and debate.