Every so often, a movie will subvert expectations. A common occurrence is when a comedy film suddenly turns down a sad path with a character’s death. On a popular movie forum, many filmgoers discuss some of the most devastating deaths ever put to screen. Painful as these are, they also enrich the films immensely.
1. Marley and Me (2008)
What do audiences expect when watching Marley and Me? They think they will be watching a lighthearted film about the misadventures of a family and their beloved dog, Marley. And for the most part, that is what this film entails.
It’s a funny and sweet look into all the shenanigans Marley gets into. But then the film does the unexpected and shows the death of this beloved pet. It’s completely heart-wrenching that many film fans have yet to recover. My father always says, “Nobody warned me!”
2. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a classic buddy comedy featuring two opposites trying to get home for Thanksgiving. But everything during their travels keeps going wrong. It’s zany and hilarious and features the comedic talents of Steve Martin and John Candy.
But then the film adds some gravitas with the realization that the wife Candy’s character, Del, has been discussing is dead. One devastated viewer says, “Del’s wife having died eight years prior was a gut punch.” Another fan asserts, “I consider that moment to be the most heartbreaking part of any comedy I’ve ever seen.” I agree. But it makes the film a classic by adding a core emotional heartbeat to the story and the characters.
3. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine portrays a loving but semi-dysfunctional family on a road trip to get young Olive to a children’s pageant. While it has comedic and dramatic elements, it leans more into a lighthearted tone. Olive’s grandfather (Alan Arkin) is blunt but funny and her biggest cheerleader, so the moment she tells her parents, “Grandpa won’t wake up,” is incredibly sad.
A movie fan points out the unfortunate timing of his death: “It gutted me that his death came right after the motel room scene where he manages to convince his sweet, insecure granddaughter she’s the most beautiful girl in the world.” Thankfully the movie manages to honor his character in a way that brings back the comedy and celebrates his spirit.
4. Raising Helen (2004)
A romantic comedy is one of the least likely genres to depict a character’s death. But Raising Helen is not a typical rom-com. It’s truly a movie about a single woman, Helen (Kate Hudson), who becomes the guardian of her older sister and brother-in-law’s three children.
Going in, most know what the premise of the film is. But what’s not known is that the audience will see these characters and their loving and fun family dynamic with their kids.
Seeing them makes their untimely death more real and heart-wrenching. When Helen finds their kids crying in their parent’s closet, the youngest says, “It smells like Mommy in here.” I’m not crying writing this. Not at all.
5. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Disney films have their fair share of character deaths, on and off screen, all done sensitively for the intended audience. But some are very unexpected. The perfect example would be the sweet and hilarious lightning bug Ray, who loves his dear Evangeline.
Ray thinks she is another bug but a bright star in the sky. When Ray succumbs to injuries and dies, it’s so sad. And if you don’t cry the moment another star appears beside Evangeline, you’re probably lying. One mother recalls when her son and his friends watched this moment in hushed tones and sniffles. Disney movies always seem to entertain and move.
6. Up (2009)
There is a debate about which animated film has the saddest character death. In my mind, and the minds of many others, none is more heartbreaking than Ellie from Pixar’s Up. The film’s opening montage, which showcases the love story between Carl and Ellie, told with almost no dialogue, is one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema ever. It’s a pristine example of how a film can tell a story that taps into core human emotions simply but profoundly.
The rest of Up is primarily light and funny. But this opening scene, made more poignant because of Michael Giacchino’s score, sets the tone for the film and makes the story that follows even more profound.
7. Groundhog Day (1993)
A fantastic example of a way a film can take a turn down a sudden dark and emotional road is Groundhog Day. This movie which follows Phil Conners reliving the same day over and over again, is funny and irreverent.
But when Phil encounters a man living on the streets and cannot save his life no matter how hard he tries, Groundhog Day suddenly becomes more heartfelt. An astute filmgoer articulates, “It’s a powerfully sad moment that serves as a pivotal point for the moral resurrection of Bill Murray’s character.”
8. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Wes Anderson’s films are stylish and specific in their tone and characterization. Each movie has its poignant moments amongst the comedy, with the incredible The Life Aquatic being one of the finest examples. Despite this zany bunch of characters being in dire situations in their search for a rare shark, the death of Ned (Owen Wilson) still comes as quite a shock.
One viewer shares, “That stands out as the biggest 180 in feelings I’ve ever experienced.” Another fan of the film recalls, “I cried for a full hour after I first watched this movie.” Sad as this death is, it proves how effective and engaging the film’s characters are. I can still recall the shock of this moment as if it were yesterday.
9. Return to Me (2000)
Some films have a lasting impact and become all-time favorites. Return to Me is such a film for me and, indeed, my entire family. It’s a romantic comedy that follows the sweet recipient of a heart transplant, Grace, and a kind widower, Bob, who falls in love. The emotional aspect is the heart came from his late wife.
Return to Me has an abundance of funny moments, many of which leave viewers crying with laughter. But the film begins with tears of another sort. The movie introduces Bob’s wife, Elizabeth, and her fine work, intelligence, and beauty.
A car accident takes her life, and in one moment, when Bob arrives home, we see their dog waiting for her. Bob says she is not coming home and breaks down sobbing. Throughout the film, the dog continues to wait by the front door for Elizabeth. I cannot even think about these scenes without crying.
10. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
The title of this film may prepare the audience, but in truth, there was no way to prepare for the intense sobs that many viewers experienced during Gareth’s funeral. Multiple viewers recount this death’s devastating nature, especially when the poem “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden is read. The beauty of a film is that comedy and drama can live side by side, rounding out the story. Four Weddings and a Funeral more than successfully brings that genuine emotion to the story.
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