Since the earliest days of film, animation has always been present. When Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse and then made the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), animation became popular as a medium aimed towards children. But artists and filmmakers flourished in independent and underground markets where adult-oriented animation was welcomed and embraced. In the 1960s, animators around the world began to create animated shorts and films that explored real world subject matter, and dark thematic content. This is also the era in film history when mature animation began to take off, with figures such as Ralph Bakshi and Rene Laloux securing independent financing to create adult-oriented animation that was usually unsuccessful at the box office, but has since gained influential cult status over the years. Adult animation or, “dark animation” more accurately, is nothing out of the ordinary today, but since the 1960s, animation for children has largely dominated the genre, leaving only a limited number of outright dark animated films to view. In this list, we will take a look at 5 of the darkest, and most infamous, animated films since the genre first took off.
Heavy Traffic (1973)
Many lists will cite iconic animator Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972) as the one film of his filmography to include on a limited list like this, but I personally find the follow-up to that film, Heavy Traffic, to be much more direct and intense. This film was Ralph Bakshi’s opportunity to finally make the film he wanted to make thanks to the financial success of Fritz the Cat. Set in early-1970s NYC, Bakshi fills this gritty, and often hilarious slice of life with many memorable characters that represent real, struggling New Yorkers during the Big Apple’s grittiest and most dangerous era in recent American history. Instead of using anthropomorphic animals as he did with Fritz, all the characters in Heavy Traffic are hand-drawn humans who speak and interact just like real people do, with no limitations of using foul language, or being naked and having sex for that matter. The film received an “X” rating from the MPAA, and despite it’s sensationalist reputation, there is more poignancy and drama on display than goofball antics like Bakshi’s previous film. This cartoon is a rough ride, but more than deserves the strong critical acclaim it received.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Long before Japanese anime took off and retro revisits like 2021’s The Spine of Night paid homage to it’s most influential predecessor, Heavy Metal was the undisputed monarch of adult animation cinema. 40 years ago this year, this movie would become the premiere midnight movie of the 1980s, and indeed, well into the 90s before it finally made it’s long overdue debut on home video in 1996. The film largely uses rotoscoping animation, which was a style of drawing that allowed artists to trace patterns over live action film footage for more lifelike compositions, which was perfect for the graphic violence, sex, and rampant nudity that fills the film. Featuring 6 vignettes that combine elements of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, and horror, as well as a wrap-around framing story where a green orb taunts a young girl about its involvement in evil deeds throughout time, Heavy Metal is the type of movie that has to be experienced in lieu of reading a synopsis.
The Plague Dogs (1982)
Watership Down (1978) is the dark animation that typically features highly on these kinds of lists, but another film based on a Richard Adams’ novel is actually much darker, The Plague Dogs. The film is about two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, who were at one time loved pets by random families in the British countryside, but who eventually find themselves inside of a research laboratory that conducts cruel scientific experiments on canines before exterminating them. The duo manage to escape the facility, and the remainder of the film explores their struggle to survive in the wild and to evade their captors who relentlessly hunt for them to bring them back to the facility. This is heavy, dark material that presents no compromise both in it’s depictions of animal cruelty and the need to tone down the darkness for sensitive viewers.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Calling The Black Cauldron a dark animated film may be overstating things a bit, but in terms of Disney animation, and the cult fandom that has grown around this oddity of the Disney canon, it has to seriously be considered for a list like this. The movie is dark when compared to Disney’s other animated outings; it has a serious tone and visual style, with no cheery musical numbers to brighten the atmosphere. The Horned King is quite possibly the scariest Disney villain in history, and his appearance and voice alone is an exercise in creepy macabre atmosphere. There are a few scenes of characters bleeding after fights and scuffles (a first for Disney animation) and the images of the Cauldron Born, the malevolent force the Horned King unleashes from the cauldron, resemble figments of a Tolkien-inspired nightmare. This entry is certainly the lightest of the list in terms of thematic material, but it’s notorious reputation as the film that nearly killed Disney animation due to its dark content has to be respected.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Any fan of serious and adult-oriented animated cinema likely knows about Grave of the Fireflies. This emotionally devastating, superbly animated Japanese drama came out in the late-1980s where it was largely overshadowed by the cultural sensation of fast-paced and action-oriented anime that was sweeping the nation, and soon the entire world. But this anime tones things down a great deal, and focuses on two young kids, a brother and sister, who roam the countryside of a bombed-out, World War II Japan right before the nation’s surrender in late 1945. The children struggle to find food, and resort to stealing and looting in order to survive before tragedy strikes and one of the siblings falls gravely ill. This movie is not an easy watch, but is rewarding just to experience it’s raw power.