For the most part, ’90s cartoons were harmless, escapist entertainment that provided nothing but joy. Yet every so often, the creators of these cartoons must’ve thought to themselves, “You know what I feel like doing? Scarring the hapless kids who watch this. Good luck, suckers!” I aim to showcase several of these moments, but be warned: some feelings gonna get stirred up. Here are the moments your favorite ’90s cartoons got real.
Pokemon – “Bye Bye, Butterfree”
Look, I understand on an intellectual level that it’s good for Ash’s Butterfree to move on. It’s got other Butterfrees to breed with and adventures to go on. But I can’t help but feel like I’m a parent watching his kid leave home for college, and I can’t help but feel like that’s a really intense feeling to ask a kid to feel. True story: this episode upset me so much that I had to stay home from school the morning I watched it. To this day, when Ash puts his head down so his hat covers his emotions and teardrops fill Butterfree’s eyes… well, let’s just say Ash’s friend isn’t the only thing that’s Misty.
Arthur – “Lost”
What a wonderful kind of day? More like what a tragic, hopeless, heartwrenching kind of day, Arthur! Normally, we’d watch our aardvark friend get into some happy, positive shenanigans before learning a lesson, but in this episode, we watch three of our main characters (Arthur, Arthur’s mom, and D.W.) break down and cry in horror as Arthur recounts his tale of getting lost. In the final moment, when D.W. comes into Arthur’s room to make sure he’s still there, I feel like new feelings that never before existed start to rise up, and I feel like I have to name them. Right now I’m workshopping “sorrowcholy,” but I’m open to feedback.
Hey Arnold – “Helga On The Couch”
It’s easy to paint Helga as a garden-variety bully who happens to have a crush on Arnold, but when she sits on the therapy couch with Dr. Bliss, so many complex and harrowing details reveal themselves, we forget that Hey Arnold is a cartoon and not an acclaimed HBO miniseries. Turns out, Helga’s lashing out stems from constantly being ignored by her dysfunctional family in favor of her older sister. It hits on feelings of inferiority we’ve all felt in our lives with surprising maturity and grace — this from a show that regularly calls its main character “Football Head”.
Rugrats – “I Remember Melville”
Conceptually, it was a risk to put the emotional linchpin of an episode on a dead bug. Bugs die every dang day, why should we care? Well, when a sweetheart like Chuckie loves this bug with his entire dang heart and is absolutely shattered when it passes away, we care because it hits on the big fears and experiences of death we face. As Chuckie wails that he’ll never be happy again, we are instantly transported to the center of such hopeless feelings. As we watch Chuckie grow to accept his friend’s fate, and the concept of death, we too are reminded of our own acceptance of such matters. By the way, this is an animated cartoon about talking babies, in case you forgot.
Pinky And The Brain – “Christmas Wish”
At its heart, Pinky And The Brain is a study of a friendship (a friendship based on a single-minded desire to take over the world, but a friendship nonetheless). The Christmas episode puts this aspect front and center, as we see just how generous Pinky is to his big-headed, Orson Welles-sounding friend. I am an unabashed fan of the earnestness of Christmas spirit, and to see it rendered so emotionally and borderline melodramatically in a kids’ cartoon is really something else. If this moment makes you feel nothing, you are very much a Scrooge. Narf!
The Iron Giant – “Superman”
I saw The Iron Giant in theaters as a kid expecting a fun story about a boy and his robot. I got a movie about self-sacrifice, doing good when it’s hard, transcending what other people expect of you, and pure love. I was wrecked, in the best way possible.
Phew! That was quite the emotional journey. Which moment tugged at your heart strings? Which moments did we miss? Also, unlike the Iron Giant’s request of “no following,” you are free to follow me on Twitter.