Growing up in the nineties, I would watch cartoons all day long during the weekdays; hell I pulled seven hours at school and was a grade A TV junkie, so I watched a ton of television. During the cartoons, between the toy and candy commercials, there were about thirty anti-drug and alcohol PSA’s played between the hours of three and six. Hey, mock me all you want, but those PSA’s worked and worked well on me. It’s not enough that I always found the idea of drug use disgusting, but the PSA’s that would air on television scared me straight, just as they intended.
There was the PSA of the drug dealer transforming in to a serpentine monster, the “When I Grow Up” series of PSAs, and the PSA about a son blaming his dad for his drug use. There were a variety of those PSAs that aired during the day, many of which were more horrifying than most video games and TV shows politicians claimed were harming the youth, at the time. One of the best bits of anti-drug propaganda came in the form of “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.”
While I was aware of it back in 1990 thanks to the television simulcast that got the special out to as many children as possible, my school screened it for the entire student body back in 1991, and I was won over in an instant. It’s not enough that Barbara Bush (the bastion of diversity), and President Bush were explaining how bad drugs were, but when Garfield and Alvin and the Chipmunks told me to stay away from drugs, I listened, dagnabit.
“Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue” is a weird and over the top bit of PSA against the use of recreational drugs, and features a ton of popular cartoon characters, all of whom were able to be trademarked, mind you. So there’s Michelangelo from TMNT, but none of the other characters. There’s Slimer, but none of the ghostbusters. There’s Garfield but no Odie. The power of McDonald’s grasp can only extend so far.
Really, if we wanted to talk about popular cartoon characters, they should have had Bart Simpson join the team, but back then my teachers were warning that he was a bad influence. Yes, folks, back in 1990, Bart Simpson was going to corrupt our innocence. In either case, “Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue” is a cavalcade of pop culture characters and popular cartoons, all of whom were on television during the beginning of the decade. Virtually everyone appears here, all of whom are anxiously trying to keep young Michael from becoming a drug addicted loser.
Garfield, Alf, the Smurfs, Bugs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, and a variety of other characters take it upon themselves to help Michael, who is beginning to ruin his life all for the sake of drugs. When Michael steals his little sister Corey’s piggybank to fund his habit, the cartoons come to life and begin helping Michael and his little sister confront their problems, and deal with a rising habit that will hurt his future as an adult. Michael is lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Bugs Bunny who, with the help of a time machine from a certain coyote, takes Michael back in time to figure out where his drug abuse began, and why he felt the need to begin.
Michael experiences all elements of cartoon characters, even being confronted and preached to by Michelangelo from the Ninja Turtles, but we never really reach deep down in to why he needed drugs, or where his parents were during these times, or–why they filled some hole in his life. Not surprising, “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” did little to nothing to help fight the “drug war” of the eighties and nineties. Sure, every one or two impressionable child like me took the message to heart, but it didn’t accomplish a whole lot. That’s because the drug wars were much more complex and deeply rooted in the government and society than these PSA’s wanted to admit to children. I digress, either way. Regardless, Michael’s soul is being fought for by the pop culture characters of the eighties and nineties, and a menacing drug villain made of marijuana fumed named Smoke. He’s played by none other than George C. Scott! When it comes down to siding with a cinematic icon or Tigger, it’s a tough battle, that’s for sure.
At least the producers of this special were able to grab all of the voice talent for the respective characters featured in this “Avengers” against the evils of drug abuse, so Jim Cummings, Lorenzo Music, Townsend Coleman? They’re all here! Either way the special is meta and a blatantly self-aware, especially with how the characters all come from various worlds and don’t seem to interact with one another or question what they’re doing in this situation.
When Smoke points out that Bugs is a cartoon, Bugs points out that Smoke is one, too, which makes the wink one step too far for a special trying its hardest to convince kids that avoiding drugs is the way to go. We did eventually outgrow and forget most of the animated characters from “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue,” but you have to appreciate the inherent camp value and horrifying scenes of a drug worn Michael, in the end. I mock it, and rightfully so since this special is really just a band aid on a larger problem in society, but as an artifact of the nineties, it’s fun, and well intentioned, despite its ability for the bizarre.