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30 years ago today (well, yesterday when I was originally writing this and was meant to go up but couldn’t finish it in time due to carpal tunnel), television history was made…well, for my generation, at least.
You probably already know Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue from its reputation more than anything else. There’s plenty of online critics who have picked apart this bizarre little PSA before me, and more will with every generation that discovers it. This was an unusual attempt on behalf of the White House, the Ronald McDonald House charity, The Walt Disney Corporation, several powerful television stations, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to get kids to say no to drugs. Did they succeed? Probably not. But in order to understand why, we have to go back to the beginning:
In the 1980s, America was gripped by a crippling epidemic of drug users, urban monsters enticing children off the playgrounds into increasingly dangerous and deadly vices such as smoking and drinking – or so they believed. Ronald Reagan and his First Lady Nancy made headlines by declaring drugs to be the number one problem in the country and signed bills and acts into action that cracked down hard on even the most minute offenders. I don’t know, I could have sworn there was a real worldwide health crisis going on at the time that could have used more attention and early action, but maybe that was just my imagination. It wasn’t like this whole drug narrative was a desperate attempt by Ronald to create his own boogeyman that would distract the American public from a disease that predominantly affected an unfairly maligned group that he and Nancy liked to pretend didn’t exist, someone’s gotta think of the children dammit! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!
As nostalgic as it is to look back on the colorful anti-drug PSAs that plagued the airwaves in my day, learning more about why and how they were made as a result of Reagan’s manipulation leaves a bitter aftertaste. They also present blatantly unrealistic scenarios; never in my life has a shady-looking fellow come up to me and my friends in the schoolyard and offered us marijuana or crack. I didn’t even know these drugs existed until my school got a visit from D.A.R.E. In fact, the whole War On Drugs is downright hypocritical if you know anything about the Contra affair. This self-fabricated war mainly targeted African-American and Latino communities, which only served to inflate Reagan’s ego and fuel his open prejudices against minorities when not steering the country towards bankruptcy and the threat of nuclear war through a combination of greed, bloodlust, and encroaching senility. It makes you wonder, what kind of campaign did this old bastard run that got himself elected in the first place?
The War On Drugs continued into the Bush administration with George Bush himself pushing this special as a huge step forward into saving children from drugs. He and Barbara Bush even filmed an awkward introduction for the VHS release. Cartoon All-Stars was a shockingly big deal at the time, not just for what it was trying to promote but for the fact that so many characters from a number of different studios were coming together all at once for the first and most likely only time. Roy E. Disney, in particular, played an enormous part in getting the special made. He stepped into the role of Executive Producer, ensured characters from some of Disney’s big Saturday morning cartoons like DuckTales and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh appeared and had the special distributed through Buena Vista Home Video. Disney’s big name drew in more parties, and the use of other characters like Garfield and the Chipmunks got the personal approval from their creators.
Written and animated in the short time of eight weeks (startlingly quick turnaround time for animation), Cartoon All-Stars was part after-school special, part Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Avengers-style crossover, part commercial. The special was simulcast on four different major TV stations, and also freely distributed in video stores, schools, and libraries. I wasn’t born until after Cartoon All-Stars aired, but I spent my early childhood watching the tape fairly frequently. I enjoyed seeing all these cartoon characters I knew together, and admittedly the anti-drug message hit home pretty hard due to my grandfather passing away from lung cancer around that time. That part stuck with me longer than I care to admit. When you’re a four-year-old kid scolding an adult for smoking, it’s cute. When you’re fourteen? Eh, not so much.
The sun rises on a beautiful Saturday morning into the bedroom of a little girl named Corey. Corey’s room is filled with toys and merchandise from popular cartoons of the day, including a Pooh doll, a Garfield lamp, a Smurfs comic book, a Muppet Baby Kermit alarm clock, an Alvin and the Chipmunks record, and a picture of ALF. But the peace is broken when someone sneaks in and swipes a piggy bank from her dresser. Now there’s a missed opportunity: why didn’t they make the piggy bank Miss Piggy? They’ve got three of the Muppet Babies but two-thirds of them don’t appear until halfway through the special. This is why sometimes the most obvious answer can be the best one after all.
The Smurf book comes to life and Papa Smurf sees that Corey’s bank is missing (does he view the real world up in the sky of his world through a frame?) Papa Smurf sounds the alarm and he and the other Smurfs jump out of the pages to wake Corey. ALF escapes from his picture and humorously threatens Garfield into helping him search for the thief, which takes on a darker note when you remember ALF likes to eat cats. Simon and Theodore of the Chipmunks also show up and strong-arm Alvin into assisting them. Brainy Smurf tries to get the other Smurfs to work harder with predictable results.
Pooh gets the bright idea to wake up clock-Kermit, which activates his alarm and in turn rouses Corey. So far I have to give credit for how the characters are portrayed; they’re perfectly aligned with how they behave in their programs and their voice actors are in top form. It’s especially nostalgic hearing Lorenzo Music as Garfield and Frank Welker as Baby Kermit again.
And then Slimer from Ghostbusters oozes out of the wall.
All of the characters that appeared up this point are toys or have magically come from household objects. Slimer, on the other hand, just appears with no rhyme or reason. Thee’s no other Ghostbusters merchandise in the house that he could have sprung from. Does this mean this special takes place in the same world as The Real Ghostbusters and he’s just messing around some random kid’s room for giggles? The same goes for the rest of the characters that show up after this scene. They’ll show up in public and it’s treated like no big deal.
Slimer eats Corey’s lamp because it’s decorated with fruit, and he’s able to shine a light from his mouth to the bank’s former resting place because of cartoon logic. Corey is shocked to discover her piggy bank’s gone (but not the class-4 full roaming spotlight overhead).
Meanwhile ALF, Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and Garfield hear glass breaking in the room belonging to Corey’s teenage brother Michael. They sneak in and watch as he counts the change he stole from Corey’s bank.
Corey enters and Michael fails to cover up his crime. He stashes a box under the bed, and the toons discover some strange junk inside. Simon deduces that it’s marijuana and gives a dry explanation about what it is. It’s become a bit of a meme because of how it comes right out of nowhere and how it’s presented. A talking chipmunk giving a matter-of-fact definition about s type of drug? That’s asking to be parodied. I’d ask how Simon would even know what marijuana is, but he’s been in the music business since the sixties. I’m willing to bet the only reason he and his brothers have stayed clean for so long is because of Dave Seville controlling every aspect of their careers.
When Corey starts asking too many questions, Michael storms out of the house. The cartoon characters recognize that Michael is in deep, deep trouble and Slimer suggests they go help him. They all jump out the window and follow Michael into the city – though Slimer never appears in the special again after this, funny enough. Pooh stays behind as well, but at least he has the excuse of comforting Corey. Having Slimer tell Michael how using drugs will turn him into a ghost sooner than later is a missed opportunity, but then again the writers probably thought that statement would be better understood when coming from less monosyllabic characters.
The next scene takes place in an arcade – or rather, how old white conservatives of the time viewed arcades.
Michael is smoking weed with some other bad kids and we meet the devil on his shoulder, Smoke, a slick creature made of marijuana smoke voiced by the great George C. Scott.
This is one of the few times in his career that Scott ventured into voice acting; the only other animated role of his I can think of is the treacherous McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under. He does well and his raspy tone certainly befits the character, even if he’s as subtle as the rest of this special. Speaking of subtlety, there are random moments throughout the special where there’s a skull superimposed over Smoke’s face, because drugs are deadly, get it?
The kids and Smoke hear sirens and make a run for it, abandoning Michael to the mercy of the police. But it turns out to be Bugs Bunny disguised as a cop (and not even a lady cop as is his forté). Smoke returns to mock Michael for running from a rabbit and Bugs drags them both into a time machine he borrowed from Wile E. Coyote. This is where the special decides to take a page (or several hundred) from A Christmas Carol as the cartoon characters from here on out show Michael his past, present and future if he keeps up his drug habits.
We take a short break from the time travel to see what Corey’s doing at home. Corey and Michael’s dad is going through a crate of beer in the fridge and notices some cans are missing. His wife tells him he probably had one too many while watching tv and miscounted. Well, no wonder Michael’s into substance abuse! He clearly picked it up from his dad!
Now here’s a missed opportunity, discussing how bad influences in a child’s home environment and the glamorization of drugs in the media are major factors in turning them to drugs. Alas, we get no more than that exchange between Corey’s parents. Corey’s mother asks her if she knows what’s up with her brother, but the girl doesn’t want to get in trouble with Michael and says nothing. Once she leaves the room, Pooh decides to come to life and asks Corey why she didn’t speak up.
In the past, Michael watches his younger self take his first hit after succumbing to peer pressure from some run-of-the-mill bullies. Bugs makes an uncharacteristically sappy speech about believing in yourself and what’s inside that counts. He and Smoke banter over Michael’s soul, but even with Bugs overinflating and popping Smoke like a balloon, it’s not as humorous as it could have been. We’re dealing with one of the Looney TUnes, people! They don’t even bother with a watered-down Duck Season pastiche.
Back at home, Corey tries to talk to her dad about Michael, but he writes it off as Michael acting like a teenager, cementing his status as a terrible parent. That or he’s just another white guy in denial about his son’s behavior. Same difference. Michael returns to his so-called friends to smoke more pot with them, and the only girl in the group who isn’t even named – actually, none of the bad kids are the more I think about it. Anyway, she tells them she can get them some crack for ten bucks. Horrible for a fourteen-year-old to get into that kind of hard stuff, I know, and yet $10 for some smack is a hell of a bargain. Michael is hesitant, but Smoke steals his wallet and tosses it to the girl. He chases her and falls down an open manhole into the sewers where he meets Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Mikey’s the only Turtle to appear in this special, no doubt because he was the most popular of the group. This does render the message a bit hollow when it’s coming from him, however; the anti-drug message just doesn’t gel with that surfer/stoner voice. Listen to him for a few minutes and you get the idea that pizzas weren’t the only things that got baked in the turtles’ lair.
Michelangelo pulls a big plug that sucks Michael into the next part of his intervention, a roller coaster ride through his own drug-addled brain with Baby Kermit, Piggy and Gonzo. It’s supposed to represent how drug can take you on a great high at first but with every up comes an even steeper down. Not a bad metaphor, but that’s the basic function of rollercoasters, not to mention the crazy imagery that accompanies it looks like it would make for a cool dark ride. Kind of sending mixed messages there, Cartoon All-Stars.
Michael snaps out of his supposed hallucination, but immediately finds himself face to face with Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He says what we’re all thinking (“Oh man, I gotta get off of these drugs!”) and the nephews decide the best way to help is to bring in all the characters who’ve appeared this far (and some who haven’t yet like Tigger) to sing…this.
“Wonderful Ways to Say No” received a bit of a meme status for how bizarre, cheesy, and alarmingly catchy it is. A couple of years back it was even subjected to a reanimated collab from YouTube’s animation community (now I want to see the entire special get that treatment). But what struck me as even more mind-boggling than all these cartoon characters popping up to sing an anti-drug anthem was the people behind this song. They’re none other than Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the songwriters for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
And Ashman and Menken didn’t stop there. They even wrote even a slow, sad version of “Wonderful Ways to Say No” that plays over the end credits all about how the viewer should remember their message long after they’ve outgrown watching cartoons and forgot about them. A thoughtful sentiment, but they clearly underestimated how much we millennials would fervently cling to our nostalgia.
Piggy abruptly ends the number with a karate kick right through the tv screen which makes Michael jolt awake back in his room.
So that means everything that happened was just a dream, right? No, of course not, that would make too much sense. Corey enters Michael’s room to tell him she’s worried about his condition, but Michael snaps back and drives his sister away in tears after he almost gets physically violent with her. He instantly regrets what he’s done, though Smoke convinces him to forget about what happened with a little help from Mary Jane. But ALF appears instead of Michael’s reflection on the box and he pulls Michael into a funhouse mirror maze to show how drugs warp the way you see the world and yourself. Michael’s “true” reflection is that of a green zombie meant to resemble a meth addict (that or he’s really from Innsmouth).
Michael gives the old “I can quit anytime I want” excuse, but ALF tells him by letting drugs in his life he’s no longer the man in charge. He then takes Michael to a door in his mind labeled “The Man In Charge”. Inside, said man greets Michael from behind a rotating chair.
And from there it’s total chaos. Michael runs through a demented fairground where the cartoon characters ride or take the form of rides trying to kill him while the voice of Smoke taunts him. He gets tossed around, splashed, nearly swallowed and spat out, it’s like a bad trip…which I concede was probably the point.
Once Michael is on firm ground, he wanders over to a fortuneteller tent where Daffy Duck tries to show him the future.
Daffy reveals zombie Michael again, this time lying on a slab while holding a needle. They don’t actually say he’s doomed to die as a junkie, but that’s the gist I got from it. All the characters return to restate everything they’ve been preaching the past twenty minutes, and finally show Michael the way out. Michael bursts back into his room in time to see Smoke tempting Corey with his drug stash. He repeats what he learned about drugs being bad and if you do them you’re bad m’kay, and she reminds him that his family and their animated friends will be there to help. Well, she and her mom will, his dad will probably encourage his addictions through toxic masculinity and there’s only so much that fictional characters can do for you. The result is still the same; Michael finally tosses Smoke out into the back of a passing garbage truck and our special concludes with he and Corey going to speak with their parents.
Cartoon All-Stars is dated, misinformed, incredibly cheesy, and doesn’t even know the meaning of subtlety, but it’s hard for me to hate. It’s a silly, fun piece of my childhood that I like to look back on every now and then if just to remind me that this weird mashup of all these famous characters was in fact real. The animation is pretty good despite a few rough spots, but it perfectly captures the look of a Saturday morning cartoon from the time. It’s certainly a time capsule in how we viewed drugs and the gateway to addiction; just look at how pot is legal now in most of the country and Canada and proven to be mostly harmless. Quite the opposite of a dangerously addictive gateway drug actually, studies have shown that marijuana has great potential medicinal properties! While cocaine, meth, and heroin are still highly dangerous, the biggest drug problem this country faces aren’t illegal ones. It’s from over the counter medications and opioids, drugs that are one-hundred percent legal and even encouraged by doctors. I’m from a fairly decent suburban area, but before the coronavirus came to town the biggest cause of death was from opioid addiction, usually in older people.
Listen, I don’t do drugs, I don’t plan on starting, and I don’t recommend you try anything that’s illegal or risks your health. What I do want is for kids today to be well-informed about what drugs really do and the genuine ways one could fall prey to them, instead of just trying to scare them straight with methods that could horribly backfire. If you’re going to talk to children about drugs, do your research and be honest with them. I appreciate the good intentions of Cartoon All-Stars’ and the people who created it, but theirs is not the way to educate on this topic. The anti-drug message falls flat since apparently doing drugs will get all your favorite cartoon characters to come to spend the day with you, and the entertainment it provides is more ironic and nostalgic than genuine. I still recommend you watch the special for how crazy and ridiculous it is, especially if you decide to have fun riffing on it. If there’s one thing I sincerely regret about it, it’s that it premiered only one day after 4/20. Can you imagine the wonderful irony if it did come out on that date? Ah well, least it’s better than a silly review coming out a full day late from its thirtieth anniversary. Here’s to you, Cartoon All-Stars. May you inspire animators and moral guardians to do better.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this surprise review! When I learned the anniversary for this strange animated special was coming up, I couldn’t resist talking about it. If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks and more. Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their contributions, especially at this time.
Artwork by Charles Moss.