20 Uplifting Movies With Subtle Dark Undertones

Jack (1996)

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Great films take their viewers on a rollercoaster of emotions. But people remember some iconic movies as solely feel-good when, in fact, they’re also filled with tragedy. From Finding Nemo (2003) to The Sound of Music (1965), these films are just as heart-wrenching as they are heartwarming.

1. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)

Homeward Bound_ The Incredible Journey (1993)
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

When three pampered household pets are left behind when the family goes on vacation, they do whatever they can to reconnect with their owners. While many people look back at this family-friendly film with nostalgia, this film is incredibly anxiety-inducing the whole way through. The pets feel abandoned and don’t understand where their humans went, which is exactly what our real furry friends may feel when we go out.

2. The First Wives Club (1996)

The First Wives Club
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

This hilarious revenge movie celebrates rekindling female friendships and finding self-worth after a marriage gone wrong. But many fans forget that this film begins with an immense tragedy. The reason the three college best friends reunite in the first place is because their fourth friend takes her own life after learning about her husband’s betrayal.

3. Jack (1996)

Jack (1996)
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Jack is a dramedy about a child who ages much quicker than usual. By the time he’s ten years old, he looks like he’s forty. While there are plenty of laughs in the film, it’s also about feeling left out and different. Plus, the film implies that the fast-growing child probably won’t live a very long life.

4. Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Everyone knows Hocus Pocus as the silly Halloween movie about wacky witches. But many people forget about the terrifying events that happen at the very beginning of the film. The three witches murder a child, which the rest of the movie brushes off.

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5. Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo (2003)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Finding Nemo is full of hilarious and joyful moments, but it’s also filled with tragedy at every turn. First, Nemo’s mom dies, and then Nemo is abducted by an Australian dentist. Plus, Dory deals with the severe and debilitating problem of short-term memory loss, and her entire family left her behind.

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

When most of us think about It’s a Wonderful Life, we remember it as a heartwarming Christmas movie about one ordinary man who makes a huge difference. But the film is much darker than that. Its themes of poverty, self-sacrifice, and depression make this holiday classic a massive tear-jerker.

7. Matilda (1996)

Matilda (1996)
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Matilda is about a young girl with telekinetic powers who teams up with her teacher to fight back against the abusive adults in her life. And there are quite a few of them. Matilda’s parents treat her like garbage, and the school headmistress treats her students as if they’re in the army.

8. The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

The Sound of Music includes many lovely, positive moments and songs, which makes many of us forget just how dark the film becomes by the end. Once the nanny falls in love with the children’s father, their budding happiness soon dries up when the Nazis hunt down the family, and they only barely escape with their lives.

9. The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios.

This Disney classic hides dark themes behind its adorable animals and light-hearted musical numbers. But when you look closer at the plot, it follows the lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. The wildebeest stampede scene has scarred many a child, that’s for sure.

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10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Memories of the fantastical world inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory let viewers forget just how dark Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s plot is. A creepy, mega-wealthy man runs his extravagant factory solely on slave labor. Then, he invites a bunch of children to compete in dangerous tasks to find the winner. Plus, Charlie only goes to the factory because his family is incredibly impoverished, and he has no other options.

11. Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Known as an inspirational film about a man who tries his best and succeeds against all odds, Forrest Gump gets very dark sometimes, especially with Jenny’s character. Her childhood was a nightmare, which caused lasting trauma that seeped into her adult life. The film’s tragic yet hopeful end is bound to make you tear up.

12. Guardians of the Galaxy Series (2014- 2023)

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios.

Everyone loves Guardians of the Galaxy because of its memorable characters and action-packed space fights but themes of abandonment, abduction, and emotional and physical abuse abound. The main character, Peter, is funny and charming as far as heroes/criminals go, but it doesn’t take long to see the pain he feels from losing his mother and never knowing his father. In volume 3 his toxic father takes that darkness to another level. The heartbreaking accounts of Rocket’s origins and human testing on animals is also hard to watch.

13. The Truman Show (1998)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Reality TV is taken to a whole new level in the Truman Show. Selected at birth by the television studio to unknowingly star in a 24/7 reality show, Truman Burbank lives his life, never realizing his classmates, neighbors, coworkers, and everyone he interacts with are employed by the TV studio, and his whole life is broadcast to the world. Starring Jim Carrey the movie is bound to be funny but as the viewers (and Truman) realize what is actually happening to him it’s a movie that also haunts you afterward.

14. Wall-E (2008)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Set in the 29th century, Wall-E follows the love story of two animated robots, one old and rusty, one new and sleek. Behind the star-crossed love story is an unredeemable, trashed Earth that has been discarded centuries ago. The humans that were evacuated into space have deteriorated into helpless obesity. This bleak and convicting movie seems to predict the future awaiting our lazy, technologically-obsessed society of rampant consumerism and environmental neglect. By the end of the movie the humans work to rebuild the planet but the dire state of humanity is overwhelming.

15. Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Photo Credit: Roadshow Entertainment.

Muriel’s Wedding is said to be an Australian comedy. In reality, it is anything but. Muriel is relentlessly bullied, she is emotionally and verbally abused by her father, and her mom dies. Finally, she finds a hunky swimmer who wants to marry her, only to find out he is only using her. Poor Muriel has had such a rough time that it’s hard to see how this movie is advertised as a comedy.

16. Inside Out (2015)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

So many animated films feature the death of a parent, strained relationships, bullying, and even murder. Inside Out hits on a more personal level by focusing on the bittersweet reality of growing up. While the characters Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong go on a wacky journey inside Riley’s mind, in her real life Riley is struggling with depression, loneliness, and loss of identity. The depth of this movie is certainly lost on most kids who watch it but as an adult this one gets me every time.

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17. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

At first glance, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about a few kids skipping school and having a day of fun. Look closer, and you’ll see a tortured father-son relationship and a boy with no self-worth who is desperate for change. Although overshadowed by all the crazy antics and adventures of the day, he transforms and steps into a new confidence by the end of the film.

18. Up (2009)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

A colorful house with thousands of balloons floating over the city sounds like a fun and carefree theme for a movie: the dreams of childhood are realized by two best friends. In the montage following the start of their unexpected friendship, you see Carl and Ellie get married and struggle with heartbreaking infertility. Then their dreams of travel are dashed time after time, and ultimately, Carl goes on this trip alone after everything he loves is taken from him. While this film certainly is an adventure, it’s not without some deep and emotional themes.

19. Barbie (2023)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Barbie has been a household name since the 50s, and the 2023 movie about this classic toy was sure to be a hit with its whimsical pink hues and light-hearted feel. This movie is actually much deeper than it appears, touching on serious topics of society’s expectations of women, beauty standards, patriarchy,  and human mortality. Many women have found that it even helps them with the grieving process and found it to be unexpectedly moving.

20. Click (2006)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Adam Sandler is one of the funniest actors of our time. That is one reason why it is so shocking that this comedy, Click, is so gut-wrenchingly sad. With the promise of a universal remote that he can use to control his life, the remote ends up fast-forwarding through most of his life and misses out on many important decisions and moments.

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