10 Unsettling Cartoons From Around The World Meant For Children
Adults can find it difficult to know how to make a cartoon that really appeals to kids, especially when you’re talking about international audiences. How much weirdness should be included? How much “attitude” do you put in to keep it from being too safe and sappy? How scary should the studio make their cartoon?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Misjudge any of the above factors, and a studio can end up creating an animated project like one of the following:
When Squeeze Studio Animation in Quebec City began this series of 52 one-minute cartoons in 2015, it must have seemed like a safe bet. The premise is that an ostrich named Ed must protect his brood of eggs from all kinds of dangers. That sounds like a pretty conventional cartoon. The issue was that in execution, it was filled not so much with fun slapstick antics as scenes of body horror that make the protagonist practically the alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing.
For example, in “Ghost,” Ed has a heart attack at the sight of a crocodile, and his ghost has to ward it away from his eggs by using his dead body as a weapon. In the process, the crocodile tears Ed’s body apart, and the final shot is Ed’s ghost reentering his body and coming back to life as a pile of organs on top of his eggs.
The most bizarre one is “Factory,” wherein Ed ends up rolling on his eggs up a rhino’s backside, being liquefied by going through the rhino’s digestive system in reverse, and somehow being shaped by the rhino’s teeth into an egg carton for his brood. Perhaps the most uncomfortable part is the way the rhino’s eyes pop out while being held by optic nerves during the last step in the process. Bear in mind, all this is featured in a G-rated cartoon.
9 The Treasure Planet
Judging by the English dub for this 1982 Rumen Petkov film, the intent was to try to make it a whimsical combination of Treasure Island and soft science fiction, similar to what the Disney flop Treasure Planet would do 20 years later.
The plot is a rough approximation of Treasure Island, the characters have the same names, and everyone has the appropriate voices. Indeed, during a scene where the characters travel through time, their ship becomes a literal wooden ship of the line, and Robert Louis Stevenson and his classic tale are explicitly named. However, the character designs are so bizarre and inconsistent that it’s hard to tell if they’re even supposed to be human. The pacing is so haphazard that half the time, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening. (The recycled animation doesn’t help.)
Speaking of the animation, it’s often so choppy that some will find it uncomfortable to look at. The movie also features a surprising amount of bloody violence for an attempt at a kid’s movie, not to mention racist caricatures. The result is all the creepier and more perplexing for the doomed attempt to make it “fun.”
8 Hedgehog In The Fog
A 1975 short by Yuriy Norshten that won Best Animated Film at the Tehran Children’s Festival, this cartoon is about a hedgehog trying to make his way to a dinner party through fog. Along the way, he’s stalked by a bat and an owl. Eventually, the chase causes him to fall into a brook. He floats with the current on his back, and with eerie calm he says, “I’m soaked. I’ll drown soon.”
It’s rare for a children’s film to have the protagonist so resigned to death during the story’s climax. He’s eventually rescued by his friend, a bear, but it’s not a simple happy ending. All the hedgehog can think about at the party with a haunted expression on his face is a horse he saw in the fog. Adding to the disquieting nature of this existential story is the cutout animation, with heavily textured character art that often moves in unnatural ways, particularly in the owl’s case.
This animated short from 2012 by directors Gary Fouchy, Yohann Bernard, and Sebastien De Oliveira Bispo was seen more than a million times on a channel called The Kids Club. Presumably, the majority of child viewers were left confused, and more than a few were disgusted. The plot of this dialogue-free story is that a farmer and his wife go about their day as things around their farm get inflated. First, it’s the odd farm animal, then even implements like a tractor or a pitchfork blow up like balloons, and finally, it happens to the wife.
The fact that there isn’t even an attempt at a humorous explanation makes it weird and unsatisfying, but the fact that the humans don’t seem even bothered by the development is off-putting in its oddness. The image of the wife being so engorged with air that she fills their farmhouse seems like it’s supposed to be cute, but it ended up being more grotesque. There’s also a scene where the farmer is milking a cow, and it accidentally gets switched out with a bull while the farmer is looking away, a gag which is more gross than anything else.
6 Toell The Great
For those unfamiliar with Estonian folklore, this 1980 short film is about the exploits of a giant named Toell, who brought soldiers into battle on wheels. He was decapitated in combat, placed his own head on his sword, and then walked to his grave, swearing to rise again in the event of another war against Estonia.
Director Rein Raamat brings this tale graphically to life in this 14-minute film, which features not only an unflinching look at the hero’s demise but shows such graphic battlefield deaths as soldiers being stabbed through the face. But at the time, it was the nationalist tone of the film instead of the violence that compelled the Soviet Union to withdraw it from circulation.
5 Popee The Performer
A person dressed like a clown in white, red-striped pajamas torments a purple wolf wearing a variety of expressive masks. That’s essentially the plot in this 2001 show from Kids Station, another dialogue-free production. Beyond the highly unpleasant 3-D animation (Popee is often uncomfortable to look at even when he’s smiling), the sheer irrationality of the things shown can be more disturbing than it seems like it should be.
Take episode 4, where the pair of characters perform a knife-throwing act, and both of them get a knife embedded in their face. Or episode 10, in which Popee fires a gun, the bullet ricochets, and Popee hides behind the wolf. The bullet goes through the wolf multiple times, exits his posterior, and then flies into Popee’s mouth. Nevertheless, the series went on for 40 trippy episodes.
4 The Animals Of Farthing Wood
According to Denofgeek.com, this 1993–1995 series was broadcast on BBC at 4:00 PM in Britain, meaning that it aired at the prime time to catch children just coming home from school. The plot of animals needing to relocate from their old home because it’s set to be cleared by humans is reminiscent of the book and 1978 film Watership Down. The series also shares that story’s outsize reputation for graphic violence, though Farthing Wood does go a bit farther, as evidenced by a viral compilation of animal deaths.
By far, the most impactful one is a scene where baby mice are impaled on thorns by a shrike (a scene that’s completely true to life). The show ultimately had a happy ending and relatively bright and colorful artwork, making the violence all the more jarring.
3 Squirrel And Hedgehog
This propaganda show, which began in 1977 and is technically still in production today, seems like SEK Studios practically intended for it to backfire embarrassingly. In the series, a group of creatures defend their home, called Flower Hill, from hordes of better-armed invaders, obviously a metaphor for North Korea’s constant threat from the US and Japan.
The Koreans are represented as squirrels, hedgehogs, and ducks, while Americans are wolves with laser gunships who are strong enough to throw jeeps, the Japanese are weasels, and the South Koreans are mice. Russia is portrayed by drunk bears, a stereotype you’d think they’d want to avoid considering North Korea was a client state of Russia.
It isn’t just that the cartoon is full of lethal gunfighting, but as seen in the sample clip above, it is no more shy about impaling creatures alive than Animals of Farthing Wood. It also contains large amounts of casual profanity. Still, it remains culturally ubiquitous, with the characters decorating nursery walls.
2 Ringing Bell
Forty-seven minutes in length, this 1978 film by Sanrio feels like two vastly different movies in one. The first is a bucolic pastoral of a lamb and his mother on a farm. Then the second one starts when the lamb’s mother is killed by a wolf while they’re cowering in the barn. The lamb hunts the wolf down. When he’s inevitably unable to kill it, he bewilderingly demands the wolf take him on as an apprentice, which the canine does. When Ringing Bell is fully grown, the two attack the farm, and he takes the opportunity to kill the wolf. He then finds that his experience in the wild has left him too frightening for the sheep to accept him, and he leaves the farm forever.
The downbeat message of the movie feels a bit muddled. Obviously, it’s a critique of living for revenge. However, since the story indicates the sheep were still at the wolf’s mercy until Ringing Bell killed it, was he supposed to just live in fear? It’s not a conundrum addressed by the story. Beyond that, the movie also features surprisingly graphic scenes of animals being killed, despite its considerably cute-looking advertising.
1 Fun Kids Smile
It was inevitable that we’d include an American film on this list. But who would have thought that entry would be the one with the worst animation? In fact, Fun Kids Smile is arguably a scam. What the YouTube channel does is take popular characters such as Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, or the birds from Angry Birds and have them move stiffly through repetitive stories without a hint of permission from their copyright owners.
As reported by Baby Center, these cartoons feature such child-unfriendly antics as Mickey Mouse’s nose being chopped off by a baby. Speaking of baby characters, you can see in the above embedded clip that there’s also a segment where Mickey Mouse’s toddlers are chased by a dog, which leaves them dirty and bloody, and the segment ends with Mickey and Minnie Mouse standing over their injured kids laughing at them. It isn’t just the fact that these cartoons are being deliberately advertised for young children that is inappropriate; their content sometimes implies mentally unhealthy people attempting comedy.
Dustin and Adam Koski also wrote a fantasy novel about fairies turning into monsters.