In the 1980's, parents complained about cartoons being “too dark.” This resulted, for a brief time, in cartoons becoming sterile and “safe.” The goal of all cartoons was to get a clean G rating, which meant they could include nothing that would interest anyone. And you ended up with crap like The Care Bears, My Little Pony, and The Smurfs. Gag me with a spoon. All of that changed in the 1990s. Suddenly, the studios stopped pursuing G ratings and instead wanted PG ratings because that little bit of an edge became a selling point to the adults who bought the tickets. This also coincided with comic books becoming illustrated porn, but that’s another issue.
So little by little, cartoons started adding things that were previously verboten: death, violence, innuendo galore and all sorts of taboos. Toy Story included characters who were blown apart, dismembered and reassembled into hideous creatures. The Lion King has the main character snuggle with the corpse of his freshly killed father. The villain in The Hunchback of Notre Dame sings about killing or bedding the female lead. A character is hung (no... not in that way) in Tarzan. And so on. Were those too dark? I don't know. The old Disney’s like Bambi and Snow White and Pinocchio were crawling in death, but they don’t seem to have been too much for kids. In fact, those films were much darker than anything shown to kids today, both visually and thematically. Yet, outside of a few nuts, no one thinks those are too dark for kids. So if the issue isn't theme or visual, what is it?
Perhaps the answer can be found attitude rather than action. Said differently, when the dark matter is treated in a way that helps children, then it's not really something we consider dark? Bambi showed us that while death be cruel, life goes on and happiness can be found. Snow White showed us that villains perish and good prevails. The Lion King treated Simba's father's death as a means to reinforce the bond with parents and to remind kids that they can always find comfort in their parents even after they are gone. Those are good things for kids to learn before they have to deal with it in real life. By comparison, a cartoon like Heavy Metal revels in killing, as does most anime. There's no positive message there. The Black Cauldron, which seems to have scared Disney back to G at the time, was seen as too scary because of the imagery, but I wonder if the lack of a positive lesson to neuter the scary images wasn't the real problem.
Maybe that's the lesson? Something is too dark when its positive message meant to reassure kids that no one wants something evil and that good will ultimately prevail, doesn't outweigh the negative being presented. That explains why the above aren't considered too dark. The one outlier above to me is Toy Story. The idea of dismembered and reassembled creatures living in fear for years as prisoners in the room of their psychotic abuser is truly grim. And while Woody learns that an ugly exterior does not mean there is an ugly interior, and the creatures eventually get a small measure of revenge against their tormentor, it feels too little compared to the horror presented.
So if that's the test, then what about the quotes that started the article? Are they too dark? Those come from Wreck-It Ralph (which tryanmax reviewed here => LINK). Personally, I’ve come to think the movie is pretty brilliant and I don’t see the overall movie as at all dark. To the contrary, the film sheds whatever darkness it creates almost immediately to keep a lighthearted tone. But what about the quotes themselves? On the surface, they appear pretty dark. The second quote suggests that Ralph has gotten so drunk that he passed out in the mensroom of a bar. That's not something I would want to explain to a ten year old... but I don't have to, and that's the key. See, we never see Ralph passed out. In fact, to the contrary, this quote is kind of evidence of the contrary, i.e. while people think poorly of Ralph, he's better than people think. Moreover, the quote itself uses enough ambiguity that it requires a good deal of adult knowledge before the grim meaning becomes apparent. For example, kids are unlikely to know why Ralph fell asleep, except that he's tired. They aren't going to realize this means he's drunk. Even using the word "washroom" will likely throw kids for a loop and let parents, should they wish, describe something other than a public restroom: "Oh, he was tired and he fell asleep in the tub."
The other quote conjures images of twisted bodies in the wreckage and it suggests a rather callous attitude toward Ralph’s life. That's pretty dark. But again, there is no body, so no one is staring at a corpse. Further, using the word "corpse" instead of "body" likely makes this quote much harder for kids to get the nuance that the quote-giver is talking about Ralph being dead. Consequently, most kids are likely to hear this as wanting to slap Ralph, who was expected to be waiting lazily in the spaceship, but isn't there. Again, darkness is averted.
So ultimately, I think the test for darkness must be (1) will the kids understand that something negative is being implied, (2) is that negative strong enough to generate a fear/depression response within the kids, and (3) is the attitude of the film as expressed in what is glorified and what isn't and how the characters respond such that the negative serves the purpose of explaining a positive... or does it just revel in being negative.