Rubik’s cubes. Michael Jackson. He-Man. Reaganomics. The Breakfast Club. The AIDS crisis. MTV. Mullets. The Challenger. Live Aid. Chernobyl. Duran Duran. E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The A-Team. Iran Contra. The 1980’s were a bizarre, chaotic time. We Millenials were largely oblivious to such craziness, but that was because shut up, Fraggle Rock’s on! And can you blame us? As much as we want to pretend it was all denim jackets, leg warmers, and neon-colored geometric shapes on blue design schemes, the decade was terrifying for most, if not all, adults back then. Not least if which was the infamous War on Drugs.
Fighting drugs (At least marijuana is particular) in the U.S. goes as far back as the days of Reefer Madness, but it was future president of Earth Richard M. Nixon who really wanted to step up the anti-drug crusade in 1970. It was a known fact among the administration that pot was harmless, but Nixon hated three things: hippies, commies, and political opponents. Feeling that support for the Vietnam War effort was waning, he declared the War on Drugs to minimize opposition and criminalize opponents while appearing conservative, strong, and moral. But the illicit drug industry doesn’t die easily. Even today, it’s hardly slowing down, and countless billions have been spent on jailing small-time users and dismantling cartels that rebuild just as easily. The War on Drugs is essentially a failure of monumental proportions.
But it wasn’t hard to keep spinning the narrative that marijuana was worse than Satan. And drug usage became equivalent to a moral failing. So when Ronald Reagan took office, his wife, Nancy, helmed the campaign to stop drugs. Having been told that kids were most vulnerable through peer pressure, she needed a way to connect with kids about such a serious topic. And what better way than to just say the most over-simplistic solution possible:
This campaign was persistent and catchy, but experts can’t agree on how effective it was. That is, if it was at all.
But McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities financed a special to help combat the problem. They enlisted the help of Roy E. Disney and…I’m guessing either due to the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or because McDonald’s built goodwill with Happy Meal marketing that asking studios to contribute to a drug special sounded too good a PR move to pass up. In any case, in 1990, local channels ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and USA all aired Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, with a VHS release later that year.
So stamp that cigarette and say salutations to the celluloid superstars of Saturday series!
The Plot: Corey, a little girl who still loves her cartoons, is dismayed when she discovers her piggy bank has disappeared, but is even more so when she sees her teenage brother not only stole it, but broke it open. Why? Michael needs the money for drugs. Defensive and irritable, Michael leaves to hang with his friends. But he’s not alone. One by one, Corey’s cartoon friends come to life to investigate the matter (ALF from a framed picture, Garfield is a lamp, Baby Kermit is a clock, etc.). Concerned for both Michael and Corey, the cartoons start to educate Michael about why doing drugs is a bad idea and why he should quit. All the while, Corey, desperate for the old Michael, is unable to talk to her parents and may be persuaded to join Michael’s vices to be with him again.
How’s the writing? For a special written by two guys who wrote for numerous Hanna-Barbera shows, Duane Poole and Tom Swale probably weren’t given much to work with.
In PSAs like this, not much (if any) time can be spent on gags or jokes, since they can’t distract from or minimize the seriousness of the subject. And there’s some decent characterization, especially if you have to have Bugs Bunny acknowledge a marijuana joint or Simon the chipmunk define what marijuana does. That’s not easy. The characters feel like who they’re supposed to be. Sure, they can be sanctimonious or preachy, but it rarely feels out of character.
The real issue is the pacing and the story. The film has only 27 minutes to get to the point and make it stick, but it gets jumbled because it isn’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. I mentioned the characters who were part of Corey’s room’s decor, but Slimer ghosts through a wall and eats a lamp. Winnie the Pooh is Corey’s plush who comes alive and talks to her. Michael’s friends run when they hear the cops, but the one who chases Michael turns out to be Bugs Bunny, and they jump into a time machine.
The scene with Bugs ends when it feels like it and Michael’s story continues abruptly in the park, present day, as if nothing happened. That scene transitions into meeting Michelangelo, who puts him on a intercranial roller coaster with the Muppet Babies, but even they’re in his own head, he crashes in the park, only to meet Huey, Dewey, and Louie, where all the cartoons sing to him…and he wakes up. But wait! ALF drags him into a mirror! Which becomes a nightmare carnival, and ultimately a transdimensional doorway leads back to his room! It’s very, very ripe for Inception jokes.
There must have been no time to establish a world, and a pressing urgency to make a kinetic, hard-hitting special. So the logic and physics are all over the map, murking up what should be a straightforward story of popular eighties’ cartoons saving a kid from drugs.
Who makes it worth it? It’s awesome seeing all these characters, in character, voiced by all our favorite voice cast (Ross Bagdasarian, Jim Cummings, Frank Welker, Townsend Coleman, Jeff Bergman, Russi Taylor, Don Messick, Lorenzo Music, even the great Jason Marsden in his voice acting role as Michael!). But one of the unmistakable stars here is Smoke, played by the late, great George C. Scott.
In an effort to avoid vilifying Michael, Poole and Swale wrote in a purple vapor with the perfect gravelly voice to keep urging Michael to take drugs, and he does everything you’d expect him to do. He bails when Michael gets in trouble, he keeps insisting he makes him feel good, he guilt trips him with peer pressure, and worst of all, even tries to get Corey to get high. Most of the greatness comes from Scott’s legendary delivery, and the animation itself is an odd mix of perfect and just slightly off, but it works. Not perfect, since the writing needed some work, and the animation could have made him feel more threatening, but are you gonna tell that to Patton himself?
Does it give the feels? Perhaps if the movie slowed down, it might have. It tries by using Corey as the emotional mooring line, but everything moves so fast it’s hard to take a moment and empathize with her.
Fortunately, the writers do understand buildup. Corey has enough scenes to have us understand how she feels and why she feels the way she does. So when she discovers Michael’s cache, it gets tense. What’s helped is Smoke, bastard that he is, throws Pooh into a cupboard. It gets undercut as the scene keeps switching back to Michael at the nightmare carnival, but it is there. An anthropomorphic cloud is coaxing a little girl to get high while her brother is indisposed and our favorite teddy bear just got thrashed, and Corey’s indecision gives it life. Will it make you jump up and cry out for her, no, but it is legitimate drama.
Best quality provided: First, the characters feel real. They aren’t mouthpieces for Barbara and George H. W. Bush, they look and sound like you’d expect Tigger, Miss Piggy, ALF, and Daffy Duck to tell us about why drugs suck.
But the Just Say No campaign is in full effect here. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (You know, the guys who wrote the music for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) wrote the showstopping number “Wonderful Ways to Say No”, while not the most effective anti-drug method, does make for a fun, bouncy song. I still can’t recall all the lyrics, but there is spirit to it, and even the reprise over the end credits feels sincere. Plus, we get to see ALF knock a hole in the Berlin Wall. That’ll never not be cool.
What could have been improved: Whether you are in favor of marijuana legalization or not, I think we can all agree the film’s biggest drawback is it doesn’t really know (or want to know) what it’s talking about.
Michael is shown smoking weed, tempted to try crack, and it’s implied that he was stealing his dad’s beer. But the catch-all term “drugs” is used as a blanket statement for all that’s wrong with Michael. They never delve into the difference kinds; the opioids, the depressants, the hallucinogens, or even prescriptions. Kermit glances over what goes on in the brain when Michael partakes, but fails to explain exactly what happens or why, preferring to just use a roller coaster to make it a metaphor. ALF and Daffy show Michael’s body decaying, but they don’t explain why it happens or even what, thinking that showing drug users like Michael will turn into zombies one day will be sufficient.
But like most drug campaigns of the time period, it was less about facts and statistics than it was about making drugs a proverbial bogeyman. To be permanently and completely terrified of them to the point where you’re too scared to even think about trying drugs of any kind. It’s a shame, really. It doesn’t give kids enough credit to be rational or making smart decisions. Worse, it shows the ignorance of the adults themselves when they can barely define what drugs are.
Verdict: God, this thing was corny. It was transparently cheesy. It was propaganda. It was dated. It was poorly paced and clumsily written from a narrative perspective. It had little substance behind shouting “Say no to drugs!!”, and it looks so phony because of it.
And it’s so, so cool.
I mean it. A lot of it doesn’t work. Heck, with some rewriting, some input from reputable sources on child psychologists and drug researchers, this could have been something unbelievable. But it relied on oversimplified perspectives to address a complex sociological problem. As an anti-drug PSA, it’s the pits.
But outside of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, kids hadn’t ever seen this kind of gathering of great animated stars from multiple studios. They were brought together for a great cause, however misguided. They act like the characters they’re supposed to be, and that means a lot. And of course, it’s eighties cheese. All these guys have been rebooted since, but for a while, they were headliners of Saturday morning cartoons (back when those existed), and this cartoon short played for us in classrooms for years. It’s nostalgia, but it’s a time capsule. And as I’ve grown up, learned more about drugs, and studied objectively better cartoons, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue will always be there to remind just how far we’ve come. I give it five Nancy Reagans out of ten.
Now put that in you pipe and smoke it.