Sad movies exist in every genre. Romance is obviously full of weepers, and plenty of dramas have enjoyed yanking your heart out and showing it to you as you stagger out of the theater. Even an action or sports movie can reduce the tough to tears if done right. ("Field of Dreams," anyone?)
But there's one little genre that seems hellbent on making us cry, and that's animal movies. They're fiendishly clever about it, too, luring you in with promises of being child-friendly, heartwarming and fun before killing off a fuzzy protagonist or two. They're worse than horror movies, because at least horror is honest about the body count.
In honor of taking the plunge (again!) with "Finding Nemo 3D," we here at NextMovie have compiled nine of the most heartbreaking animal weepers in cinematic history. Read it only if you have something soft to hug.
'Old Yeller' (1957)
Disney is a master at manipulating us with cute critters, and happens to be responsible for four entries on this list. But "Old Yeller" is downright legendary for its sad ending. What seems like a jolly story about a boy and his dog is actually a painful coming-of-age story about having to do the hard thing out of kindness. It looms so large in our collective childhood traumas that it's a byword for "heartbreaking dog story."
'Free Willy' (1993)
Whales had been woefully miscast as villains for years ("Moby Dick," "Pinocchio," "Orca") until movies caught up with scientific research, and began casting them as the gentle giants they are ("Star Trek: The Voyage Home"). By 1993, killer whales were cuddly stars in their own right, and none of us doubted that a broken boy and a imprisoned whale could bond. It's hard to pick the big Kleenex moment: Willy being kidnapped? His mournful song for freedom? Or his triumphant jump over Jesse's hand?
'Babe' (1995) and 'Babe: Pig in the City' (1998)
Both "Babe" and "Babe: Pig in the City" keep you on the edge of your emotional seat, unsure whether you're going to be sobbing with horror or sniffling with joy by the end. Babe visits some dark places (the loss of Babe's mother, the threat of being Christmas dinner, the murder of Maa the Sheep) before ending on the wonderful line "That'll do, pig." The sequel also toys with death and darkness (the near drowning of a pit bull, the death of Fugly, the capture of the hotel animals) before ending joyfully, with Babe saving the farm and welcoming more critters to his world. At least this time, we're laughing through our tears.
'Charlotte’s Web' (2006)
It would appear that pig movies rival dog stories in terms of heartbreak. Like "Babe", "Charlotte's Web" is a roller-coaster of will-he-or-won't-he-be-dinner anguish, and much of it is bittersweet. We can barely make it through Fern leaving Wilbur with the Zuckermans before crying with Wilbur over the ugly truth of his destiny. But then Charlotte -- the prettiest spider in the world -- shows up and weaves some magic, and all seems well ... until she whispers to Wilbur that she's completed her "magnum opus" of an eggsack, and he will have to go on without her. You have to be made of steel not to lose it when she fades away at the end.
We're back to Disney, with the other film that became a byword for soul-bruising animal movie. It starts out fine. There's beautiful forest landscapes, adorable babies, evocative songs, the meadow, Bambi and Thumper ice skating ... and then comes a hard, hard winter, the temptation of fresh green grass, and a gunshot that ended our childhood innocence right along with Bambi's. No matter how old or tough you think you are, Bambi's frantic, wavering "Mother?!" will put something in your eye.
'Marley and Me' (2008)
Dog movies are so notorious for ending badly that "Marley and Me" actually chose to capitalize on it, with viral marketing that saw numerous "Marley and Me" posters crudely blazoned with "The dog dies!" It didn't stop people from seeing the film, though ... or completely losing it when John Grogan (Owen Wilson) assures a soon-to-be-sleeping Marley he was, despite years of hearing otherwise, the very best dog in the world. Perhaps you had to be a pet person to get it, but we think you just had to have a soul.
'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar clearly learned how to abuse our hearts from its parent company, Disney. "Up" and "Toy Story 3" might get all of the Kleenex press, but "Finding Nemo" still packs a powerful heartache. It's opening scenes are melancholy -- Marlin gently cradling his one remaining egg --and though there are a lot of laughs and lush tropical sights, it wraps up with the same sense of sorrow as Marlin finally learns to let go. It may be about fish, but it makes you want to call every member of your family and tell them you love them.
'March of the Penguins' (2005)
We've given our list over to the fictional animal weepers, but let's not forget that the real world offers up animal stories that are just as powerful and poignant as anything cooked up in a studio. 'March of the Penguins' feels like fiction; if you were to write a story about birds who devote themselves fearlessly to their eggs, and people cried over it, you'd probably be ridiculed. Luckily, this is nature, so we're allowed to feel sophisticated as we choke up over the father penguins clustered for warmth, the loss of an egg, or the snatching of a chick by a skua gull. At least there are some squee-worthy moments of gray puffballs to make it better.
One sequence is all you need to remember: "Baby Mine." We'd like to say this is the only sob sequence in the film, but far from it. Unlike "Bambi," "Dumbo" offers few comforts as Dumbo and his mother are ridiculed, separated, and abused. "Baby Mine" is actually the happiest moment as they're briefly reunited, touching trunks for one small moment of comfort. As Dumbo buries his face in his mother's trunk and cries with a "Oh Mommy, it's been so awful, I need you!" expression, it transcends the pachyderm, and becomes that universal moment when we all need our mommy.
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Originally published on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011, at 8:00 p.m. ET.