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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.