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Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue Was the Gateway Drug of IP Crossovers

Photo: ATAS

Sometimes it feels like Hollywood is run by a bunch of kids dumping all their action figures in the same sandbox. This week’s biggest movie pairs the Flash with an earlier generation’s Batman. Last week’s teased a literal toy crossover in its end credits. The week before that, we got an army of Spider-Men. But, these feats of IP mixing, though ambitious, don’t serve any higher purpose beyond corporate synergy. To find a crossover event for a good cause, you must go back to the prehistoric past of 1990, when Bugs Bunny, Garfield, the Smurfs, Slimer, and other childhood faves set aside their fierce ratings rivalry in favor of a common goal: relentlessly shaming one casual teenage pothead out of his very minor drug habit.

Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue was a half-hour animated drug-awareness special that aired simultaneously on all four major TV networks — a first for any scripted program. It was not, to be clear, the first cartoon crossover or even the first time competing animation houses had allowed their flagship creations to hobnob: Three years earlier, the Flintstones met the Jetsons, and Robert Zemeckis negotiated a dueling-piano duet for Daffy and Donald in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But in assembling representatives from no fewer than ten different running Saturday morning cartoons, owned by several different companies, Cartoon All-Stars was a major event — a supposed TV Land ceasefire drawn in the name of public service.

That’s how the special was billed anyway. It had a stamp of official approval from President George H.W. Bush and the First Lady, Barbara, who would later appear in a stilted introduction for the special’s VHS release. Furthering the project’s prestigious bona fides was an original song, “Wonderful Ways to Say No,” from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the Broadway composer-songwriter duo who won an Oscar for The Little Mermaid about one month before Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue aired. Headlines touted the short as a rare case of network cooperation and an important educational tool in the fight to keep America’s youth off the pipe, bottle, and needle.

The behind-the-scenes story of how this dubiously altruistic enterprise came together has to be more interesting than the story Cartoon All-Stars actually tells. The special follows Michael, a 14-year-old kid from a suburban family so prototypically all-American it could only have been conceived in the 1950s or in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. In the opening scene, Michael steals from his little sister’s piggybank to buy marijuana, which he keeps squirreled away in a tin under his bed. His addiction takes the form of a sentient cloud of smoke voiced, no kidding, by George C. Scott. To save the kid from his vices, popular cartoon characters come nightmarishly crawling out of pictures and possessing the inanimate bodies of licensed plush toys.

Overseas animation house Wang Film Productions committed to a truncated six-week timeline, and with all due respect to the surely exhausted animators who broke their backs making that deadline, it shows: Cartoon All-Stars looks pretty crummy — though not, honestly, much worse than the majority of the regular shows from which it borrows its cast. That all of these cartoon ringers could seamlessly occupy the same universe without any stylistic clashing probably says something about the unremarkable visual uniformity of the Saturday morning programming from that era.

Really, though, the special’s true failure is in the message-delivery department; as anti-drug propaganda, it’s terminally dorky, an after-school special in cautionary nature if not particular time slot. Kids who grew up in the early ’90s, when American classrooms became battle grounds for hearts and minds in the War on Drugs, will recognize the scare tactics: As Michael’s animated buddies strongly imply, weed will lead to the harder stuff — it’s that old “gateway drug” line of reasoning, this time delivered through the famous voice-actor pipes of Lorenzo Music, Jim Cummings, Frank Welker, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., and more. (Not among the more: Mel Blanc, who died shortly before the production, making Cartoon All-Stars the first time Bugs and Daffy were voiced by someone else.)

Encouraging children not to get high (not yet, at least) is a noble pursuit, of course, but as with a lot of drug education in the States, Cartoon All-Stars hinges on admonishment without specifics. A funhouse ride through Michael’s brain promises untold damage in the vaguest terms. (“Actually, this is just one artist’s conception,” clarifies Muppet Baby Gonzo, heading off any medical questions at the pass.) A Ghost of Christmas Future–style vision of Michael doesn’t specify which substances, exactly, turned him into a ghoulish shriveled husk. The one harder drug that even gets name-checked is crack, which Michael declines to smoke even under peer pressure from his friends. Is this teen really “at risk” or is he just taking a few light puffs to unwind in the evening?

The thing about kids is that they’re pretty good at smelling bullshit. They can often tell when they’re being lied or pandered to. Would Bugs Bunny be caught dead getting with George Bush’s agenda? And are we really supposed to buy that famous party animal Michelangelo of the Ninja Turtles, a surprise guest not included on the poster, had never sampled the sticky icky? (Garfield, to be fair, seems like more of a beer guy. No wonder he hates Mondays and loves the certified hangover cure that is lasagna.) Meanwhile, any kids who weren’t turned off by a bunch of their favorite characters acting like D.A.R.E. representatives might have gotten the wrong idea entirely: Maybe if you start smoking grass, you’ll see all of your favorite cartoon characters in real life, too.

In a sense, Cartoon All-Stars flips the strategy of those widely condemned Joe Camel ads, appealing to a young demographic via cartoon mascots, here discouraging rather than encouraging bad habits. Again, a virtuous mission, but also pretty rich, given who footed the bill: The special was financed by McDonald’s, famous pushers of a highly addictive, highly unhealthy product. The fast-food corporation heavily promoted Cartoon All-Stars, though the commercials downplayed the anti-drug angle and played up the opportunity to see Alvin and the Chipmunks join forces with Winnie the Pooh. Maybe that was a smart ploy: If you’re going to lure a bunch of adolescent couch potatoes into sitting still for a lecture, best to emphasize the sugar helping that medicine go down.

But then, it’s debatable whether Cartoon All-Stars was ever really, at bottom line, about the message. Holding hands and sharing the airwaves wasn’t just a noble act of public service by the executives at NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. Like any crossover, it also promoted all participating parties. DuckTales fans could become Muppet Babies watchers overnight, and vice versa. It was a win-win for all involved — and in that way, a preview of the corporate-synergy bargaining that led, say, Sony and Disney to reach an agreement about Spider-Man appearing alongside the Avengers.

Maybe every generation gets the Reefer Madness they deserve. Older millennials got theirs in the form of an animated intervention that doubled as a test balloon for treating all available IP like draft picks for an all-star game. Whether or not the special really kept any kids off drugs, it presaged a different kind of addiction: the 21st-century craving for a dopamine hit that only ALF threatening to eat Garfield can provide.

Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue Was the Ultimate Crossover