'INSIDE OUT' (2015)
Inside Out is all about the melancholic passing of childhood and the necessary embrace of Sadness for emotional maturity. Fortunately, the adventure is so fun and full of surprises that it earns the sweet and tender moments without being treacly. But when Bing Bong saves the day, or when Riley comes home, give Mom and Dad a moment to recover, kids.
The granddaddy of every children’s tearjerker movie on this list (save Dumbo), Bambi goes for the jugular when ”Man” shoots and kills the poor fawn’s mother. It’s the one that continues to trigger new ”Is Bambi’s mom okay?” losses of innocence with every viewing.
TOY STORY 3 (2010)
Congratulations, Pixar. You finally broke us. The romantic montage from Up was just a primer for the last scene in Toy Story 3. When college-bound Andy gets down on his knees to show a shy little girl that there’s still plenty of magic in his old toys, something snapped inside every grown-up who once loved a G.I. Joe or Barbie. It’s a flawless ending—one that allows Andy (and the audience) to say farewell to a group of characters we’ve grown to love, while also letting him take a rite-of-passage step toward maturity.
THE IRON GIANT (1999)
Brad Bird is probably better known for his Pixar films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but this old-school animated feature is just as unique and heart-rending. Propelled by Vin Diesel’s excellent voice work (seriously), the titular robot earns our tears when he sacrifices himself to save a small town from nuclear disaster.
There’s a moment in this Disney classic where Dumbo goes to visit his mother — who’d been tucked away in the ”bad elephant” prison car — and the big-eared galoot gets a trunk hug through the bars. Through the bars!
OLD YELLER (1957)
Spoiler alert: THEY SHOOT THE DOG! And children cry and cry and cry.
It’s worth remembering that, along with all the toe-tapping numbers and cute-kid dance numbers, Annie is a film about orphans. Children without parents. Living in miserable, below-poverty conditions. And one little girl who, despite the odds, finds a loving home.
E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
Steven Spielberg has tackled a diverse array of subjects in his career — everything from WWII to slavery to dinosaur fighting — but look closely at most of his films and you’ll notice a common theme: the struggle to build and/or repair a family. Hanky alert! E.T. fits the mold with its story of the friendship between a lonely child of divorce and the intergalactic botanist who just wants to go home.
WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)
A whole gaggle of rabbits, escaping their doomed warren, scampering across the English countryside looking for a new home? It’s like Battlestar Galactica, but with fuzzy ears and fluffy tails. And just as tragic.
THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)
A boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) loses himself in a book called The Neverending Story, which follows a young adventurer named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) who must save his fantasy-ish world from an encroaching darkness. And wouldn’t you know it: the key to victory lies within the boy reading the book itself. Very meta, and very cool.
MAN IN THE MOON (1991)
Young love is a tender, beautiful thing — as two sisters (Reese Witherspoon and Emily Warfield) learn one summer, when they both fall for the same 17-year-old boy (Jason London). And when that love is fatefully ripped away, it leaves both girls cleaving for something, or someone, to help them make sense of their loss.
THE LION KING (1994)
Where were you when Mufasa died? When Simba chased a vision of his dead father across the plains? When life, in all its Elton John-backed glory, returned to Pride Rock? For those in Generation Y, The Lion King resonates as a defining cultural touchstone. For everyone else, it’s simply a very good (and very tearful) movie.
Pixar movies have always done a remarkable job balancing the joys of childhood with the artistic expectations of its adult audience, but none with the profoundness of Andrew Stanton’s dystopian sci-fi-comedy-romance. From its dialogue-free opening to the elegant end credits, Wall·E treads in territory few ”children’s movies” dare to go. Watching Wall·E and EVE dance along the hull of a spaceship? Seal their love with a static kiss? Sorry, I have something in my eye.
BLACK STALLION (1979)
A little like Robinson Crusoe, but with a boy and his horse — shipwrecked off the coast of North Africa, young Alec (Kelly Reno) bonds with the Arabian steed known only as the Black. Together, they survive long enough to be rescued, leading to adventures — and peril — in the English racing circuit.
MY DOG SKIP (2000)
More than once on this list you’ll come across some variation of the ”boy and his __” story, but for classic pairings nothing beats a boy and his dog. Here that’s Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz) and his Jack Russell terrier, Skip, who form an inseparable bond in 1940s Mississippi. No one who’s ever loved an animal can finish this movie with dry eyes.
BORN FREE (1966)
How does the old saying go: If you love something, let it go, and if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with? Based on a true story, Born Free follows Elsa, a lion cub who was raised in Kenya by Joy and George Adamson. When Elsa grows into a lioness, the Adamsons are forced to return her to the wild…which they do, hearts broken. But to tell any more of the story wouldn’t be fair.
CHARLOTTE'S WEB (1973)
Wilbur leads a pretty good life for a pig. He’s saved from the butcher’s block by a friendly, incredibly literate spider named Charlotte who spells words in a web above Wilbur’s pen. The populace, thinking that Wilbur has been anointed from on high as ”some pig,” treat him like a hero. But even Charlotte can’t last forever…and she doesn’t.
”That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” Oscar-nominated for his role as the terse but warm-hearted Farmer Hoggett, James Cromwell’s simple approval of his pig-turned-sheepherder, Babe, left us all reaching for Kleenex.
A LITTLE PRINCESS (1995)
While taking certain liberties with the 1904 novel on which it was based, Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of A Little Princess maintains the basic plot: Sara Crewe is forced to become a servant to her boarding school’s awful headmistress after her father dies and his assets are seized, and imagines herself — and all little girls — a princess to keep her spirits up. Children in peril? (Supposedly) dead parents? An inevitable reconciliation? This one hits a tearjerker homerun.
FLY AWAY HOME (1996)
Long before she became clinically naked Sookie Stackhouse, Anna Paquin starred with Jeff Daniels in a gentle movie about geese migration. Watch her lead a motherless flock of goslings across the sky and try not to cry.
MILO AND OTIS (1989)
Curious tabby cat Milo and worrisome pug Otis are born in a barn, play together, leave home, have adventures, start families, and finally return to the barn older and wiser. It’s nothing short of the cycle of life, as examined through adorable animals.
FOX AND THE HOUND (1981)
They’re not supposed to be friends, foxes and hounds. But Tod and Copper are. At least, until their playful, childhood idyll is interrupted by the real world, and Tod and Copper find themselves on opposite sides of the food chain.