If it epitomized anything, the 80s certainly represented the ultimate fusion of cartoon with commerce. What began as a Saturday morning ritual for children all across America had, by the Greed Decade, become an excellent way to market you latest toy and/or fun fad to a wide-eyed, innocent and open demographic. From He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite, the convergence of consumerism with kid vid was an untapped goldmine just waiting to be discovered and drained. And once it was, there was no stopping the Madison Avenue/Milton Bradley sell-through symbiosis.
It eventually got so bad that Congress became cognizant, grass roots groups proffered protests, and the "educational" context of many of these program length animated "ads" were challenged. By the end of the era, the sheen was off the scam, and programmers sought ways to balance the shill with the show. It was during this time that children's television experienced a kind of adult-oriented rebirth, with Nickelodeon and its collection of unique, non-retail offerings coming to the fore. True, we did eventually see action figures for many of the Nick picks, but there was not the stench of such blatant broadcast ballyhoo to shows like Danger Mouse, Count Duckula or Inspector Gadget.
Arriving a little too late in the game to cash in on the craze, and using a pretty misguided movie as the basis for an animated children's program, Troma (not known for its toddler-friendly fodder) took its most famous character, turned him into an advocate for environmental causes (much like the mushy Captain Planet) and developed a motley crew of comrades and enemies to guide and chide him. Thus, the mutated Melvin Junko, a.k.a. The Toxic Avenger joined forces with a bunch of fellow mutants and, they all became the Toxic Crusaders. New to DVD from the proud parent company, you can now see just how silly – and subversive – this animation oddity really is.
Since there were only 13 episodes of the Toxic Crusaders produced, one would assume that Troma's Volume 1 of the DVD would feature every single one of them. Well, as MXC's Chairman likes to rebuke, you're wrong. Wanting to milk as much merchandising life out of this failed show as possible, we only get four episodes here, but it is still enough to get a feeling for what the Toxic Crusaders was all about. Each installment has a distinct self-contained storyline, and usually offers up a new character or idea for introduction into Toxie's world. Over the course of this quartet, we meet the basic players in this war between pollution vs. ecology. They are as follows:
Toxie: The mutant man himself. Has superhuman strength, the power to sense evil (thanks to his Tromatons) and an animated mop that helps him fight crime.
Mrs. Junko: Toxie's overbearing, overprotective mother.
Yvonne: Toxie's partially blind, atonal girlfriend, who loves to accompany her own awful caterwauling on the accordion.
Blobbie: Toxie's pet...blob.
NoZone: A fellow freak with an extra large nose and a wheel for a leg. Has the power to cause hurricane force winds with his sneezes.
Major Disaster: A military mutant who can control plant life with his superhuman powers.
Head-Banger: A two headed malformation with half the body belonging to Dr. Fender, and the rest belonging to an overly buff beach bum named Bender.
Junkyard: a half hobo/half dog creature with questionable powers, but a decent, if dumb, heart.
On the side of Smog are the evil villains:
Dr. Killemoff: A hideous alien bug dressed as a four-armed man. Required to breath toxic fumes in order to live, he rules his own private island of filth.
Psycho: Killemoff's henchman, this part machine, part mutant always seems to anticipate how Toxie will undermine his boss's plans.
Bonehead: One of Melvin's schoolmates who was thrown into a vat of ooze by Toxie and turned into a horrible punk rock cadaver.
Mayor Grundy: The corrupt official head of Tromaville. He is always making deals with Killemoff to sell out his town.
Radiation Rangers: Dr. Killemoff's army.
The storylines explored in each episode are as follows:
Episode 1: "The Making of Toxie" – Melvin Junko falls into a vat of toxic waste from Dr. Killemoff's foul factory and turns into the Toxic Avenger. While battling the minions of the mighty megalomaniac, Toxie learns his superpowers. (NoZone and Major Disaster are introduced in this episode)
Episode 2: "The Spud's For You" – Dr. Killemoff's chief mad scientist, Dr. Fender, has developed a formula that, when ingested, turns people into aged old farts. Killemoff decides to pollute the potato crop, so that the local fast food restaurant's French fries become spuds of senility. (Head-Banger is introduced in this episode)
Episode 3: "Club Fred" – Hoping to prepare Tromaville for the invasion of his planet's people, Killemoff needs a way to get the Toxic Crusaders out of the way. His plan? Invite them to an imaginary resort – Club Fred – and kill them all, of course. (Junkyard is introduced in this episode)
Episode 4: The Pollution Solution – Killemoff decides to trick Tromaville into thinking he's a good guy. So he builds a recycling plant in the middle of town and offers a reward for the person who supplies the most garbage. Little do they know, but Killemoff plans to dome the city and fill it will powerful contamination. (Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman has a cameo in this episode)
Not nearly as bad as one expects, but also truly failing to live up to its legacy, the Toxic Crusaders is an uneasy mix of cartoon and lampoon, an attempt to match Troma's anarchic approach to tone with the tenets of children's programming. More cobbled together than outright imaginative, and occasionally trying too hard to be hip as well as honorable, this is one schizophrenic showcase. Toxie was always meant to be a reluctant hero, the kind of 'forced into it' fool who seeks vengeance because of how picked upon he was as a nerd. But as reimagined and animated by super successful Murakawi/Wolf/Swenson studios (responsible for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and James Bond Jr.), Toxie is now a straight up superhero, a Superman in a soiled tutu. He has gathered around him a kind of septic superfriends and together, they fight a never ending battle to save the planet. Indeed, there is very little of the original Toxic shocker left in this clever bit of kid video.
Naturally, a protagonist needs an antagonist, a baddie to bolster their moral high ground. In Toxie's case, the opponent offered is one Dr. Killemoff, a giant cockroach covered in a human skin, with four arms and a pipe organ like breathing apparatus pumping polluted air into its lungs. And here is when the Toxic Crusaders experiences its first faulty situation. Killemoff is a spectacular LOOKING fiend, resonating as powerful and perplexing in his multi-limbed facets. But, let's face it, this guy is dumb as a dump truck brimming with dog dung. His plots are poorly conceived, his schemes stink of self-deluded dynamics and his henchmen are more or less a hindrance, not a help, in reaching his goals.
The fact that Toxie and his pals can thwart the demented doc time and time again is not all that amazing – this is a children's cartoon after all. But it is HOW the Crusaders conquer Killemoff that is so...well...clunky and cheesy. Killemoff creates a potent poison, but the gang learns that by putting PEPPER on the potion, it turns into bubblegum (huh?). Killemoff wants to trap Toxie and the crew on his fake resort, so naturally, he puts the bumbling Psycho and Bonehead in charge. There is never once a sense of menace here, no thought that Killemoff will ever triumph in a single strategy he conceives. Being so easily defeated makes Killemoff a joke (and maybe this was the intention all along), but it also turns the Toxic Crusaders into something that is a tad tired in its repetitive storytelling.
Also, the ancillary characters are rather superficial. NoZone has no other notable attribute to his persona except a Southern accent and his weird wind power. The same goes for Major Disaster and his blustery botany, and the inconsequential Junkyard. They each get a goofy voice and a single special power and that is that. While Toxie is also kind of transparent (just a nice guy, really), he has a whole movie to bolster his backstory. On the bad guy side, Psycho stands out because of his laconic attitude (and it doesn't hurt that he has the voice of enigmatic actor Michael J. Pollard), but Bonehead is just a jackass, a mindless jerk that does very little except attack things and yell. You can just see the designed by committee concepts behind each character, the randomly tossed into eccentricity or oddity that is supposed to instantly render them easy to identify...especially on the toy store shelf. It may be harsh to judge the dimensionality of cartoon characters after only four shows in, but fan favorites like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko's Modern Life hooked you from the beginning with well-defined, fun to be around personalities. Toxie and his pals provide very little of that.
All imperfect parts aside, this show is still a great deal of fun. The humor is self-referential and ironic, laced with enough knowing asides and fourth wall busting buffoonery to give the series a slight sheen of satire. And on some levels, the Toxic Crusaders is a rather ripe roasting of the educational superheroes model for animated children's programming. Instead of fighting crime, Toxie is taking on – and out - the trash. Rather than battle for the soul of humanity, he's making sure that parks are pretty and streets are swept. Sticking close to the insular universe that Troma has created for itself, there is a surreal quality to the setup and execution. In many ways, the Toxic Crusaders are like watching a middle schooler's first comic creation. Instead of being well thought out and detailed, it's just a lot of loopy ideas tossed down on paper, then pen and inked into motion. If you can get in tune with its terrific sense of silliness and stupidity, you'll thoroughly enjoy yourself.
Just don't mistake the Toxic Crusaders as some long lost animation masterwork. The horrible hand draw dimensions lack any kind of artistic merit or defining detail. Backgrounds can be buildings, or just as easy evoke a bunch of paint tossed onto a cell frame. Characters move in a standard set of gestures, and the overall design approach feels like an Asian idea of what the average American town and townspeople look and act like (it all has that kind of almost-anime ideal). But the voice acting is very good, and the plots are imaginative and inventive, especially the whole '"This Spuds for You" narrative.
Still it is easy to see why this show didn't succeed. It has that early 80s retro feel of being something solely created to make money and sell into long-term syndication. Maybe in later episodes the elements that seem stifled and stilted here are expanded and explored. But in general, the Toxic Crusaders is a cartoon that may have finally found the proper era in which to excel. The post-millennial malaise of society now treasures the post-modern mockery of convention and culture. Within this setting, Toxie and his tainted troops fit right in. There is nothing really serious about their save the planet shenanigans. And as a big fat glorious goof on sincerity and activism, it's more than adequate.
Presented in a fairly pristine 1.33:1 full screen transfer, the Toxic Crusaders look very good here. Certainly, the lack of aesthetically pleasing animation means Troma is basically giving bat guano a highly polished buffing, but the results are still resplendent. The colors pop off the screen, and there is very little fading or defects to be found. There is a consistency and a continuity to the picture that is nice to see, considering that, sometimes, certain episodes of an old series sustain more damage than others. While it will not be confused for something by Warners or Disney, the Toxic Crusaders still provides a very decent looking DVD experience.
It's time to hop in the way back machine as we get to experience the shrill, tinny sounds of 1991 all over again, thanks to the less than impressive Dolby Digital Stereo mix on this DVD. The soundtrack is busy, distorted and occasionally too cacophonous for words. While the voices are rendered rather well, everything else is over the top and a little irritating. While it is apparently impossible to "open up" the sonic situations on a title like this, the compressed mess that makes up these aural attributes leaves a lot to be desired.
Troma tosses a few baffling bones to the wee ones with the inclusion of an odd juxtaposition of bonus material on this disc. Naturally, Lloyd Kaufman – here taking on the persona of "Uncle Lloydie" – gives a wonderfully wicked introduction to the DVD, explaining how Devil Worshipping Corporations took Toxie off the air, eating into Uncle Lloydie's potential "F-You" money. It is, perhaps, the most consistently funny thing he's ever done.
There is also an odd music video for a song called "Swim, Swim, Swim (Do The Doggie Paddle)" from a Doggie Tales disc offered by Troma. The earworm ways of the tune are guaranteed to burrow in your brain and stay there for days, while the images of NYC puppies is pretty cute. We are also treated to a couple of cartoons – well, actually one cartoon and one part live action/part doll-based discussion of Christ's birth. Sticking to a strange Christmas theme, the Max Fleischer feature "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" gives that old favorite, Professor Grampy, a chance to work some Yuletide magic for a bunch of orphans, while "The Brightest Night" is a theologically reckless retelling of the nativity (it has the wise men visiting the "toddler" Jesus several months after his stay in the manger). Both novelties are interesting, but they don't quite mesh with the mutant ecologists found on the disc.
The Toxic Crusaders is an interesting example of an almost failed experiment. The original film upon which this character is based is a certified cult classic, a blood and gore drenched retribution epic filled with sex, violence and B movie mania. The cartoon created from this cavalcade of craziness is friendly, innocent, and just a tad too palpable to compare favorably. While it does have charms of its own, it just can't stand up next to its frantic forefather. Still, the Toxic Crusaders is recommended, as it gives you a chance to see how others envision the Troma world, and how an actual attempt was made to market said mania to kids. Had it been nastier, kind of a Garbage Pail Kids with good environmental intentions, it would have been a real winner. But as it stands, the Toxic Crusaders has a lot of lamentably loopy entertainment value. And hey, at least it's not the Care Bears. Now there's something that's genuinely disturbing.
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