BOOTLEG FILES 515: “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” (1990 animated TV special).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS video was released.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A cartoon oddity that has been out of circulation for a generation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Ain’t likely, Doc.
If you’ve been following the news lately, you will be aware that Colorado’s retail environment has become a lot funkier. Indeed, the notion that the average Centennial State consumer can legally engage in his own private version of “Reefer Madness” is a testament to how public attitudes have shifted in regard to the recreational use of marijuana.
Nearly a generation back, the stigma against marijuana usage was still strong enough that the folks at McDonald’s decided to make a public service warning about the health risks associated with the notorious wacky weed. Yeah, I know – having McDonald’s leading the charge to protect public health is equivalent to having Ronan Farrow promoting Father’s Day sales. Nonetheless, the billions generated in Big Macs helped to finance one of the most intriguing and peculiar anti-drug films ever made.
Because the film was aimed at the elementary school set, it was decided to use popular animated characters to sell the anti-drug message. In a very rare display of cooperation between rival animation franchises, a variety of different cartoon characters were brought together as co-stars. The various production companies behind these characters waived their special licensing fees for this one-shot special, which carried the rather grand title “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.”
The film opens in a typical white, suburban home that appears to have some barely-concealed tensions. Michael, the teenage older child, has been behaving strangely – he wears sunglasses in the house and is surly to his parents. (Or is that normal for teens?) His mother is mildly bothered by this, but his father is not – old Dad, however, can’t understand why his beer cans keep disappearing from the refrigerator.
Michael’s kid sister Corey is concerned, but she does not get involved in Michael’s problems. One morning, however, Michael sneaks into Corey’s room and steals her piggy bank. This theft is witnessed by the Smurfs. How did the Smurfs get into this? Well, they are in a comic book on the floor, and Papa Smurf looks up from his cartoon panel to see Michael steal the piggy bank.
All of a sudden, the cartoon-related items in Corey’s room come to life. ALF pops out of a framed picture, a Garfield-shaped lamp suddenly becomes the cantankerous cat, a Baby Kermit the Frog alarm clock becomes the genuine “Muppet Babies” amphibian, a Winnie the Pooh doll becomes alive, The Chipmunks pop out of an LP record sleeve, and Slimer from “The Real Ghostbusters” comes through a wall. The cartoon characters discover Michael counting the coins from the stolen piggy bank, and the miscreant older brother is ecstatic that at least $20 is available for the taking. (Though the limited number of coins shown on screen suggests that Corey was stashing away nothing but Susan B. Anthony dollar coins.)
The pen-and-ink heroes get a peek in Michael’s mysterious box that he hides under his bed, and they are aghast at what they find. “Either someone is conducting a major chemistry experiment,” exclaims Alvin of the Chipmunks, “or someone is committing a major no-no.” ALF is even more direct about Michael’s drug usage, stating, “That kid’s got a one-way ticket to Nowheresville.”
We then find Michael hanging out with a rough crowd in a seedy section of downtown. As he smokes a joint, he is joined by a nightmarish figure called Smoke – it looks like something out of a Ralph Bakshi dark fantasy and has a gravelly voice that movie addicts will recognize as belonging to George C. Scott. The sound of police sirens causes Michael’s friends to scatter, and Michael is trapped in an alley while the shadow of a cop approaches. But it is not a cop – it is Bugs Bunny, and he is not happy. “Just because I’ve got long ears doesn’t mean there’s nothing in between them,” says the Oscar-winning rabbit, who is not impressed with Michael’s recreational hobby. “A joint? So, what’s the big attraction?”
(If Bugs doesn’t quite sound right, it is because Mel Blanc died prior to the soundtrack recording and was replaced by Jeff Bergman.)
Bugs takes Michael (with Smoke coming along) in a time machine that shows Michael a black-and-white flashback of how he first got hooked on pot. Michael claims that he didn’t want to come across as a wimp by refusing the challenge to take a puff. “Better a wimp than an all-day sucker,” sneers Bugs.
From here, Michael finds himself in an increasingly nightmarish environment. He falls into a sewer and encounters Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He then winds up on a crazy roller coaster ride with the infant versions of Kermit, Piggy and Gonzo from “Muppet Babies” – the roller coaster passes through an eerie, dreary surreal world that is actually the inside of Michael’s brain. Much of this section looks more like the visualization of a bad acid trip than the results of a few puffs of weed. Michael is later scolded by Huey, Dewey and Louie for being a druggie. “I’m seeing ducks?” Michael screams. “I’ve got to get off these drugs.”
After this comes a musical number (hey, why not?) about the problems associated with drug use. But before you can say “Happy Ending,” Michael is thrust again into a visually violent amusement park, where he sees a zombie-like version of himself in a mirror that predicts the future. Hoping for a better future, he enters a fortune-telling booth run by Daffy Duck. Daffy mistakes a bowling ball for a crystal ball, and quips, “That would explain the seven-ten split.” Bugs, as usual, cuts in to remind Michael, “What’s up, doc, is your life if you don’t cut it out.” Mercifully, this was all a dream – and Michael awakens to apologize to his kid sister and to confront his oblivious parents about his drug usage.
By today’s lax standards, “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” is fairly strident in its messaging. And a subplot that suggests Michael’s pot addiction would automatically lead him into trying crack may provoke more giggles than grimaces. Still, parts of the script are genuinely entertaining – when Smoke complains about Michael being scared by a cartoon character, Bugs looks to the viewer and quips, “Look who’s talking!” Bugs also explains the presence of his Acme brand time machine with the one-liner, “I borrowed it from some coyote.”
Yet, there is something a bit wrong in having Michelangelo the turtle declare, “Drugs, bud. Your brain must be, like, really messed up!” Of the four turtles, why pick the one that sounds like a stoner?
McDonald’s intended to show “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” in different markets around the world. In order to root the story to a particular country, the current head of state was brought in for a live-action introduction. The U.S. release had President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and First Dog Millie in the introduction. The president praised the animated production’s “positive story,” though the insincerity of his delivery betrayed the sense of disconnect that would help drive him from the White House two years later – ironically, being replaced with someone who admitted that he used pot but “did not inhale.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced the Canadian release, while Prime Minister Bob Hawke hosted the Australian release.
In the U.S., “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” was simultaneously broadcast on April 21, 1990, on all four major commercial networks along with PBS and several major cable networks, including the Spanish-language Univision and Telemundo. McDonald’s also made a VHS version available that was produced by Buena Vista Home Video.
Unfortunately, there was a bit of a problem. The use of Garfield came from the “Garfield and Friends” TV series, but no one cleared the rights to use the character in this production with Jim Davis, the creator of the Garfield comic strip. Fortunately, Davis was a good sport and opted not to file a lawsuit as long as there would be no TV reruns of the special.
To date, “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” has never been on DVD or Blu-ray. One can easily assume that the licensing of the various characters would need to be renewed for a re-release, but at this late date there would seem to be no interest in resurrecting the production. A number of people have uploaded unauthorized postings of the special to YouTube and other video sites, thus enabling today’s kids to experience what their predecessors sat through nearly a quarter-century ago.
Obviously, this special made no impact on the national consideration of legalized marijuana – 24 years after its release, the expression “Rocky Mountain High” has a very different connotation. Well, at least the cartoon heroes gave it their best shot. That’s all, folks!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!