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Seemingly Happy Movie Endings With Unhappy Consequences

Updated January 4, 2021 10.0k votes 1.9k voters 100.7k views15 items

List RulesVote up the "happy endings" that aren't really so happy after all.

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment who spends your days watching joyless films like Martyrs or Dancer in the Dark, you like your movies to have happy endings. A lot of successful films end on a positive note - even dark movies - to send the audience out of the theater smiling; however, just because your favorite movies have happy endings doesn’t mean they lack unsettling consequences. 

The unspoken consequences of seemingly happy movies are obvious once you think about them. Most Steven Spielberg plots would thrust their main characters into some much-needed therapy, and even action films that close with the main character overcoming adversity don’t deal with the collateral damage and reams of paper work to be dealt with by some hapless, beaurocratic pencil-pusher. Worst of all, romantic comedies surely lead to acrimonious breakups by the very couple that charmed you.

Life is quicksand, dragging us all down to a pit of despair, and even movies with happy endings can’t do anything about it. 

  • After a harrowing youth spent in the jungle - raised by a bear a panther, an orangutan, and a host of other animals - orphaned boy Mowgli is finally returned to civilization. While that sounds like the perfect ending to an adorable animated romp, there's no way this sudden and inevitably jarring adjustment could actually be good for the child.

    Not only does he have no education, but he lacks any and all social skills. He may know about the "bear necessities," but he has no idea how to carry on a normal conversation with another human being. In all likelihood, he will either be horribly mistreated or forced to live on the streets as a social outcast.

    • Actors: Clint Howard, George Sanders, Louis Prima, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O'Malley
    • Released: 1967
    • Directed by: Wolfgang Reitherman
    Is this actually an unhappy ending?
  • Few children's movies are more traumatizing than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Not only does Elliot discover that alien lifeforms exist, thus aligning him with every conspiracy theorist in a tinfoil hat, but his best friend in the world flies away in a spaceship, apparently never to return. The lingering question of how Elliot can be expected to adjust to real life with his newfound knowledge of the universe - not to mention his emotional scars - can haunt the mind indefinitely.

    Even worse, Elliott saw the American government try to capture and dissect his Reese's Pieces-eating buddy - how is he ever going to have faith in the system? The end of this heartwarming movie is most likely the beginning of a truly fractured life. 

    • Actors: Drew Barrymore, Erika Eleniak, Debra Winger, Robert MacNaughton, C. Thomas Howell
    • Released: 1982
    • Directed by: Steven Spielberg
    Is this actually an unhappy ending?
  • Roy Neary goes through a lot in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After witnessing a UFO, he can't help himself from spreading the news of aliens' existence to everyone he knows, much to their confusion. When he finally races to Devils Tower in Wyoming to see an actual alien craft land and release a host of lost airmen, children, and animals, it's a huge success for the character.

    The film closes with Neary boarding the craft and leaving Earth with the creatures - a seemingly pleasant ending, seeing as he obviously doesn't feel a sense of belonging with the rest of humanity. But what about his family? What about his children? What is his wife, Ronnie, supposed to tell them? 

    If ever there were a group of characters in a film that had to spend the rest of their lives in therapy, the Neary family is probably it. 

    • Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Carl Weathers, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen
    • Released: 1977
    • Directed by: Steven Spielberg
    Is this actually an unhappy ending?
  • Even though Avatar's protagonist, Jake Sully, saves Pandora from deforestation, he dooms his own home planet. By helping the Na'vi defeat humanity, he keeps them from getting the Unobtanium, which is the one thing they need to keep the Earth spinning. 

    This serves as an incredibly disheartening end to Jake's story, especially when you realize that the Na'vi probably would have just given some Unobtanium to Earth if they asked for it nicely.

    • Actors: Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi
    • Released: 2009
    • Directed by: James Cameron
    Is this actually an unhappy ending?