Control Nathan and Clint: Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990)
Welcome, folks, to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give the forty one super-genius rock star humanitarians who donate to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon an opportunity to choose between two impossibly dire-looking pieces of pop culture detritus Clint and I must watch, and then talk about for the podcast.
Since we are honored to have Josh Fruhlinger, the Comics Curmudgeon himself, on as a guest to talk The Lockhorns, we figured we’d choose a pair of oddball animated projects from the Reagan-Bush era, the artsy, ambitious (at least by Garfield standards) 1988 special Garfield: His 9 Lives and the hilariously histrionic 1990 anti-drug PSA Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue.
Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue has been on my mind as of late thanks to both the popular meme offering cheeky alternate picks for Marvel’s grandiose claim that Avengers: Infinity War represents the “Biggest Crossover in history” and the release of Ready Player One, a pop-culture mash-up of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue-level proportions.
Y’all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. And you know that I only fucks with memes if they’re dank as fuck. If a meme is insufficiently dank, I leave it alone, and while the “Biggest crossover ever” memes failed to reach a sufficient level of dankness, they nevertheless instilled in me a nostalgic desire to revisit a bona fide pop culture event from my childhood.
If you’re not a Gen Xer, it’s easy to forget what a ridiculously over-hyped deal Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue was at the time of its release. It was essentially the “We Are the World” of shrill, hysterical anti-drug propaganda, a massive enterprise that brought together popular cartoon characters from across the pop culture spectrum for the sake of a worthy cause.
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue aired simultaneously on all four major networks of the time (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox), and was later disseminated on VHS through McDonald’s featuring an introduction from President George H.W Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, who know firsthand that if you fuck around with cocaine until you're in your forties, drink excessively and develop a reputation as a dim-witted party animal, the best you can hope for, professionally, is becoming a two-term President like Barbara and H.W's loser son W.
Like “We Are The World”, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue was a big, big deal that also happened to be heavy-handed and abysmal. Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue is the Reefer Madness of synergistic animated specials, a lumbering anti-drug manifesto that transforms children’s favorite wacky, lovable, light-hearted cartoon characters into angry, glowering, sarcastic moralists. .
Here’s the thing about cartoon characters: they’re fucking assholes. They’re essentially children in the bodies of anthropomorphic animals. Like children, they’re pretty much only concerned with their own needs and desires. You think Alvin of Alvin & the Chipmunks fame gives a fuck if your kid tries weed? That selfish little fucker doesn’t give a mad ass fuck about anything other than himself. Or think of Alf. That intergalactic piece of shit eats cats. You think he’s going to be intimidated by drug laws? What about Garfield? It’s canon that he doesn't care about anything other than lasagna and sleep. Lastly, Slimer is an otherworldly ghoul, a creature of pure id from the spirit world. Is he really going to squeal, “Drugs bad news!”, as he does here? Yet this special asks us to believe that all of these animated narcissists are deeply emotionally invested in the sobriety of a random asshole teenager.
The special begins with a hand reaching into the room of an adorable little blonde girl named Corey to purloin her piggy bank. This violation of innocence is so horrific that it causes various cartoon characters to come to life to act as spiritual mentors to the piggy bank thief, a marijuana and beer-crazed monster named Michael who is also Corey’s brother.
These emissaries from the world of children’s entertainment are on hand to prevent Michael from making that inevitable small hop from smoking marijuana with his friends to being addicted to crack cocaine.
Oh, but it all began so innocently! A mere two years earlier, an insufferable Michael goes up to some kids blazing some of that sweet-ass kind bud and is all, “You guys cruising for lung cancer or what?”
They explain that they’re getting high—on the pot—and Michael instantly and dramatically transforms from an insufferable goody two shoes to a cosmic cowboy and begins a nightmare descent into marijuana addiction.
Ah, but before people like Alf and Baby Kermit can begin dourly lecturing Michael on the evils of marijuana, these cartoon characters first have to suss out the nature of Michael’s problem. Simon, the insufferable, know-it-all brains of Alvin & the Chipmunks offers, “I hate to suggest this, but my guess would be marijuana, an unlawful substance used to experience artificial highs."
The first time a dumb cartoon character for babies mentions marijuana it engenders intense cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance never stops. It never stops being bizarre and insane and exquisitely wrong that tacky cartoon characters created to sell toys and commercials for sugary cereals are suddenly behaving like dour, judgmental professional interventionists.
Michael is followed everywhere by Smoke, the living personification of the evils of drugs voiced by the great George C. Scott. Listening to Scott ooze menace into the special’s heavy, I couldn’t help but think that Scott said no to the role Jason Robards eventually played in Magnolia but said “Fuck yes!” to voicing the bad guy in Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.
Michael seems pretty blasé about fictional cartoon characters coming to life and lecturing him extensively on personal responsibility but I guess when you’re messed up on the wacky Tobaccky to that extent, it just seems natural that Bugs Bunny shows up with a time machine and a whole lot of sour judgment concerning how Michael’s leisure activities.
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue marked the first time Mel Blanc did not voice Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. That seems appropriate, since the versions of both characters feel hopelessly ersatz, weird pod-people versions of the beloved pop culture institutions who behave absolutely nothing like the real thing.
Bugs Bunny is supposed to be an inveterate anarchist, a natural born troublemaker, mischief personified. He’s definitely not supposed to be a grim foot soldier in the war on marijuana. He’s not supposed to say things like, “What’s up, Doc, is your life, if you don’t cut it out.”
When the grouchy, humorless alternate universe version of Bugs Bunny churlishly asks Michael, “What’s this, a joint? What’s the big attraction?” I wanted him to answer, “Well, it does make watching Bugs Bunny cartoons a lot more enjoyable. There's that.”
Everybody seems to be channeling Nancy Reagan, even when doing so involves behaving crazily out of character.
Later in the special, for example, Michael, Smoke, Baby Miss Piggy and Baby Kermit embark on a surrealistic roller coaster ride through Michael’s weed-frazzled mind. While the roller coaster gets more and more nightmarish and oppressive, Kermit lectures his human friend, “You see Michael, drugs can take you up and make you feel okay for a while. But for every up, there’s a down, and the bigger the up, the steeper the down. You get used to a thrill ride like this pretty fast, and pretty soon, they’re not even a thrill anymore! Then you gotta take drugs just to feel normal!”
A monologue like that would seem natural, possibly even convincing, coming from an acid casualty in their fifties or sixties visiting schools to talk about the evils of drugs. It’s less convincing coming from a character who is all of the following:
- A fictional cartoon character
- A frog
- A baby
- Still at a developmental stage in which he’s still constantly shitting himself
- Almost assuredly illiterate
- Suspiciously knowledgable, almost on a granular level, about the effects of long-term drug use for an illiterate cartoon baby frog.
Then again, everyone is fascinating of-brand here. In this alternate, off-brand universe, Alf isn’t just a wacky, cat-eating alien, he’s a dour scold who sternly informs our hapless doper, “Drugs aren’t your pal, pal. They’re the enemy, storming the battlements, trying to take control!
Alf creator and voice Paul Fusco would have been entirely within his rights to complain that Alf would never, in a million years, use a word like “battlements”, particularly in this context, just as Baby Kermit probably wouldn’t be quite so knowledgable about the long-term effects of recreational drug use.
“Something tells me we’re not in cartoon territory anymore!” Alf “quips” early in the special. To use one of my favorite phrases, he’s kidding on the square, as Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue illustrates indelibly that light-hearted cartoon goofballs do not belong in the world of fear-mongering anti-drug propaganda and fear-mongering anti-drug propaganda most assuredly does not belong in the carefree world of light-hearted Saturday morning cartoons.
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue isn’t just the biggest crossover ever, it’s also possibly the worst.
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