While cartoons are still mostly aimed at children, that doesn't mean they can't teach, inspire, or tug at the heartstrings. Here are some examples of the most touching cartoon episodes.
1. Cookie Chomper III - Alvin And The Chipmunks S. 7, Ep. 3
Who would have thought that an episode from a series about singing chipmunks could be such a tear-jerker? When an adorable stray kitten finds its way into the house, the chipmunks hide it from Dave, fearing that he will not let them keep it. They name him Cookie Chomper III. After the usual series of mishaps, Dave discovers the kitten, but allows the chipmunks to keep it.
Sadly, Cookie Chomper escapes the house during the night and is struck and killed by a truck. The Chipmunks are heartbroken. Dave reminds them that although the loss hurts, their memories of Cookie Chomper III are something they can hold onto and share forever.
2. The Pigeon Man - Hey Arnold! S.1, Ep. 13
After Arnold's pet pigeon, Chester, falls ill, he befriends the mysterious Pigeon Man, Vincent. Vincent has spent years alone on the rooftop with his beloved pigeons, distrusting the people of the neighborhood who never accepted him.
With much coaxing, Arnold convinces Vincent to come down and take a walk around the neighborhood with him. Unfortunately, Vincent's lovingly built pigeon coops are destroyed by vandals in their absence.
Vincent, realizing he will never be accepted, finally decides to move on, but hopes he will find more people like Arnold wherever he goes to next. Arnold watches as Vincent's pigeons carry him off into the sunset, hopefully towards a brighter future.
Although this in itself is touching, there's an even darker, more heartbreaking theory about the possible theme of suicide in the episode, which you can read here.
3. The Great MacGrady - Arthur, S.13, Ep. 5
Topics such as cancer or other serious illnesses are not usually dealt with in cartoons, especially not those aimed at young children, but this episode of Arthur handled it wonderfully.
At the beginning of the episode, Arthur's class is informed that their beloved school lunch lady, Mrs. MacGrady, has been diagnosed with cancer. All of the children handle this news very differently.
Muffy doesn't understand quite how serious cancer is, taking for granted the fact that Mrs. MacGrady will get better. Arthur and DW visit Mrs. MacGrady often, bringing her gifts and gallons of chicken soup. She offers DW a simple, child friendly analogy for her illness: Her body is a garden, with healthy cells being flowers, and cancer weeds that her medicine will hopefully expel.
Francine, having lost a grandfather to cancer, and having formed the closest bond with Mrs. MacGrady over the course of the series, struggles the most with the news. She has nightmares about losing Mrs. MacGrady and finds excuses to avoid visiting her. Wanting to help, she organizes a bike ride to raise money for cancer research.
Mrs. MacGrady meets Francine on the track, accepting her apologies for not visiting, and the pair share a touching hug. Worth a watch for anyone wanting a way to explain cancer to children.
4. Snow Way Out - Pokemon, S.1, Ep. 66
Ash is separated from his friends, leaving him and his Pokemon lost in a fierce snowstorm. They eventually find shelter in a cave, seeking warmth from Charmander's flame.
Charmander soon grows tired, the cold growing worse as night falls. Ash orders his Pokemon back into their pokeballs for safety. Pikachu angrily refuses, knowing Ash will likely freeze on his own. As they argue, his other Pokemon re-emerge, huddling around Ash to keep him warm. The music in this scene makes it all the more touching.
"Okay then. We'll all be cold together."
5. Helga On The Couch - Hey Arnold, S.4, Ep. 9
Due to her problems with aggression, the school sends Helga to a child psychologist. Here, we gain great insight to why Helga is the way she is. Helga was often neglected by her parents. The very morning of her appointment with the psychologist, her Mother forgot to make her lunch.
The most tear-jerking part of the episode would have to be the segment in which Helga describes her first day of preschool. Her parents are both too distracted by her older sister Olga's piano playing to remember Helga, who takes it upon herself to walk to preschool in the rain.
She goes along unnoticed by anyone.. until little Arnold appears, sharing his umbrella and complimenting her bow. So begins Helga's life-long infatuation with him. While the episode has rather hopeful ending, you can't help but pity Helga through most of it.
6. Find Her, Keep Her- The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, S1, ep 4
After rescuing a baby bluebird, Kessie, during a storm, Rabbit feels obligated to care for her. At first he views the little bird as a distraction, keeping him from the important business of planting his carrots, but she soon grows on him.
Rabbit realizes how much he truly cares for Kessie after she almost floats away in a soap bubble when Pooh and Piglet attempt to give her a bath. After rescuing the baby bird once more, Rabbit makes Kessie promise that she will never fly again.
Months pass, and Kessie grows quite a bit. She watches longingly as the other birds begin to fly south for the winter. With a heavy heart, Rabbit decides it is time to let her go. Gifting Kessie with a scarf to keep warm, and a map to find her way, Rabbit gives the little bird his blessing to fly south. Kessie promises to visit when she returns the following Spring.
Note: For anyone who enjoys this episode, Kessie returns in the episode 'A Bird In The hand' and direct-to-video movie 'Winnie the Pooh: Seasons Of Giving'
"Sometimes, people care too much. I think it is called love."-Pooh
7. Bye Bye Butterfree- Pokemon, S1, ep 21
While anyone who played the games probably knew that Butterfree was unlikely to remain a full-time member of Ash's team, few would have expected it to leave the show permanently.
After discovering that it is the Butterfree mating season, Ash hires a hot air balloon so he can head up into the sky with all the other Butterfree trainers and give his own Butterfree a shot at love. It quickly falls for a pink female Butterfree, who sadly rejects it.
Ash's Butterfree is depressed, but must recover fast when Team Rocket arrives with a plan to steal the rest of the Butterfree. Ash's Butterfree saves them, finally winning the affection of the pink one. A teary-eyed Ash farewells his friend, waving as Butterfree disappears into the sunset with his new love.
8. The Origin Of Donnie- Wild ThornBerrys, S4, eps 1, 2, 3, & 4
Donnie has been with The Thornberrys for a year, with Nigel and Marianne deciding to mark the occasion by officially adopting him. The family returns to the place they found Donnie, planning a party to celebrate. Before the party can get underway, Donnie disappears into the Jungle.
As Eliza and the rest of the family desperately search for Donnie, the secrets of his past are revealed. Donnie's biological parents were a naturalist couple who had once encountered Nigel and Marianne before Donnie was born. They were killed by poachers when Donnie was small, leaving him to be raised by a group of Orangutans.
When Eliza eventually finds him, he has reunited with his Orangutan surrogate Mother. Eliza fears he will choose to stay with the Orangutans. Donnie eventually decides to return to the Thornberrys, and the party happily goes ahead. Donnie performs the sign language for 'family', learned from his parents before they died.
9. Finsterella- Rugrats, S7, ep 4
When the other Rugrats inform Chuckie that they are attending a party at his house that he has seemingly not been invited to, he panics, believing his new step-family is going to turn into a nightmare like Cinderella.
After Kimi begins behaving in an unusually cruel manner, and Kira seemingly yells at him to scrub the floor, Chuckie's worst nightmare appears to have come true. He exchanges his shirt for a tattered old one, hiding out in his room as the party begins.
Kimi soon finds him, and the truth comes to light. She had only been cruel while playing follow-the-leader with Angelica. Kira had been practicing for her role as the wicked Stepmother in a stage production of Cinderella. She dresses Chuckie in a nice new outfit, bringing him downstairs to join the party.
The party was meant as a surprise, celebrating Chas and Kira's first year of marriage. They reveal that they have each adopted the other's child, officially making them a family.
10. Hello, Stranger- As Told By Ginger, S1, ep7
After receiving a card from her long absent Father, Jonas, Ginger invites him to her poetry reading at School. Her Mother and her friend Darren are skeptical, as Jonas has often let his children down in the past, but Ginger remains confident that he will show.
Through a series of mishaps, both Ginger's Mother and Brother end up in hospital, unable to attend her show. Ginger desperately scans the crowd for her Father. The look on her face as she realizes he has let her down once again, while reading a poem she had written just for him, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Hello, stranger - you came just in time
I look for your face in a crowd, or in line
Hello, stranger - not a moment too soon
See, that old picture's fading in the drawer of my room
Now toys have gone lost, baby teeth have come loose
There were accidents involving stitches, spilt juice
Report cards were shown, and one time I got sick
But it's nothing I couldn't catch you up on real quick
Hello, stranger - I saved you a place
And it hardly seems strange now that I've seen your face..
11. 'Round Springfield- The Simpsons, S6 ep22
Lisa is reunited with her idol, Bleeding Gums Murphy, in the Hospital after Bart has an accident. She is heartbroken on a later visit to discover that he had died suddenly.
Lisa's subsequent efforts to ensure Bleeding Gums' music is remembered, as well as her final goodbye to him, help this episode stand out as genuinely moving.
12. Pikachu's Goodbye- Pokemon, S1, ep39
While travelling through a forest, Ash and his friends discover a group of wild Pikachu. Brock notes how happy Ash's Pikachu is to be spending time with it's own kind.
Ash tries to leave Pikachu behind, wanting what he thinks is best for it, but Pikachu ultimately decides to stay with Ash. The musical sequence in this episode brought tears to many a child's eye.
13. Aftershock- Teen Titans, S2, ep13
At the conclusion of the previous Episode, The Titans come to the heartbreaking conclusion that their former friend Terra is lost to them, having joined forces with their nemesis, Slade, and decide she must be taken out.
Beast Boy, unable to give up on Terra, slips away to find her while his friend's battle other enemies. He urges Terra to break free of Slade's control, telling her it is never too late to change. She does, managing to defeat Slade, but her lack of control causes a volcano to begin erupting beneath the city. Only Terra can stop it.
The episode's ending, in which the Titans locate Terra's petrified remains and vow to restore her, never fails to tug at the heartstrings.
"It's never too late to change"- BeastBoy.
14. Parent's Day- Hey Arnold, S3, ep36
Arnold feels rather left out after learning of the Parent's Tournament Weekend being held by his school. He attends with his Grandparents, and all is going well until Helga's Father Big Bob cruelly taunts him over being an Orphan.
That night, Arnold demands the truth about his parents' whereabouts. His Grandfather sadly tells him the truth, that his parent's plane disappeared over the jungle.
Arnold decides to return for the second day of the tournament, realizing that his Grandparents have always been there for him, and while he may not have parents, he does have a family.
15. Charizard's Burning Ambitions- Pokemon, ep134
Ash and the gang arrive at the Charicific Valley, a sanctuary for Wild Charizard. To gain entry, Ash's Charizard must prove it's strength in battle with one of the Valley's residents. Unfortunately, it is not quite as strong as he or Ash thinks it is, being handed numerous defeats.
It eventually earns the respect of the Wild Charizard by defeating Team Rocket. Ash makes the heartbreaking decision to leave Charizard behind in Charicific Valley so it could grow stronger. After all they had been through together, seeing Ash leave Charizard behind was hard to watch.
16. Arnold's Christmas- Hey Arnold, S1, ep11
In his search for a Christmas present for Mr Huynh, who he has drawn for Secret Santa, Arnold learns that the quiet boarding house resident has a daughter, Mai. He was forced to give her up in the early days of a War in his Home Country.
Arnold sets out to reunite Mr. Huynh with his daughter for Christmas, and with some secret help from Helga, he succeeds. This Episode never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
17. Mother's Day- Rugrats, S4, ep2
Chuckie feels left out on Mother's Day when all his friends are making presents for their Mommies. After he manages to get into a hidden box of his Mother's things, Chuckie's Father, Chas, decides that it is time to tell him the truth about what happened to her.
The issue of Melinda Finster's death is dealt with sensitively enough for little minds to understand, and the poem she had left for Chuckie is truly moving.
My sweet, little Chuckie, though I must leave you behind me.
This poem will tell you where you always can find me.
When a gentle wind blows, that's my hand on your face.
And when the tree gives you shade, that's my sheltering embrace.
When the sun gives you freckles, that's me tickling my boy.
When the rain wets your hair, those are my tears of joy.
When the long grass enfolds you, that's me holding you tight.
When the Whippoorwill sings, that's me whispering, "Night, night."