Back in 1996, my parents owned an auto-parts store; and because they worked long hours, with limited time to devote to my older brother and younger sister, movies sometimes served as our daycare—animated films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and The Great Mouse Detective. To these ends, sometime when I was 6-years old, my parents bought the Care Bears Movie on VHS. G-Rated and saccharine, the damn cartoon gave me nightmares.
Before the film’s production, these lovable animated characters began as a line of plush toys introduced in 1981. Each ursine came in a different color with a unique belly badge: some had rainbows, others hearts, others lollipops. And each bear’s name reflected a feeling or thought: like grumpiness or cheer. These cuddly bears were soon featured in kids books and on cereal boxes, and had their own television special beginning with The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings. However by 1984, American Greetings, the plush dolls’ creators, began toying around with the idea of producing a feature-length movie to further promote the ursine creatures.
On March 29, 1985, director Arna Selznick’s The Care Bears Movie was released. Narrated by a Mr. Cherrywood (Mickey Rooney), the head of an orphanage, he orates a bedtime story to a group of children about a gang of lovable ursine.His story is two-fold: first is the orphaned brother and sister Kim (Cree Summer Francks) and Jason (Sunny Besen Thrasher) who believe no one loves them. The other is the young and lonely magician’s assistant to Mr. Fetuccini (Brian George) Nicholas (Hadley Kay).
The care bears intervene in both emergencies. Friend Bear (Eva Almost) and Secret Bear (Anni Evans) introduce themselves to Kim and Jason in the park. While Tenderheart (Billie Mae Richards) approaches Nicolas in Mr. Fetuccini’s caravan. Friend and Secret initially succeed by spreading cheer in the park, though later Kim and Jason are accidentally transported to the ursine’s cloud and rainbow-soaked world of Care-a-Lot. On the other hand, Nicholas eventually falls under the spell of an evil sorceress trapped inside a magic book (voiced by Jackie Burroughs) bent on ending love in the world and extinguishing the care bears.
The cartoon beyond its inert plot has several issues. For one, the representation of the kids is creepy. In fact, Mr. Fetuccini has a large peep hole hidden underneath his desk looking into Nicholas’ room. Why is it there: who knows? In any case, Tenderheart uses the opening to spy on Nicholas. There, he witnesses the green face of a sorceress (an allusion to The Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) rise from magical tome’s pages to seduce the boy. When Tenderheart finally reaches Nicholas in the other room, he interrupts the ghostly arms of the book’s spirit wrapped around the boy’s head, bringing him in for a suggestive smooch.
While the spirit is off-putting, these colorful bears aren’t cute either. They’re a menace. They approach kids like Kim and Jason in the park (aren’t children taught not to talk and take things from strangers—especially when they’re talking alien bears hiding behind trees?) These plush animals also watch kids from the sky to monitor their care levels. It’s how they targeted Kim and Jason. Worst yet, they shoot frinkin laser beams from their tummy tattoos—making them unstable weapons—with an unsettling earnestness. They have the same earnestness that tricked people into thinking Chuck E. Cheese animatronics weren’t Satan’s rejects. It’s no wonder how I feared these off-kilter bears or why Nicholas swerves past them, too.
Instead, he falls under the influence of the spirit. She promises to make him a greater magician than Mr. Fetucinni, and to help him enact spells as payback against the kids who refused to be his friends. Consequently, Nicholas’ incantations turn earth and the circus grounds into a gloomy demented place with disrepaired tents and homes, and marauding gangs of cackling vindictive children roaming the countryside. This causes the ursine’s home kingdom Care-a-Lot to turn into a dark and stormy realm with cracking and shattering rainbows under the pressure of cloud quakes. Also, their realm’s power source (the Caring Meter) loses energy as earth morphs into “A world without love.”
The bears, along with Kim and Jason, soon depart their homeland to venture into the Forest of Feelings. There, they discover other plush animals: an elephant, a lion, and a monkey, among others—who are basically lower caste beings without tummy tattoos living outside of the care bears’ Shangri-La.
And yes, the Forest of Feelings always haunted me. In it, a whirlpool nearly consumes the care bears’ cloud boat, a purple demonic tree with yellow-green eyes tries to eat Jason, and a spirit eagle with talons as big as school buses swoops low to claw the fleeing children and bears. These hallucinogenics in a colorful but creepy forest akin to Alice in Wonderland, ran against the G-Rated programming the animated film promised its young viewers. Instead, the eagle’s horrifying pursuing talons haunted my 6-year old brain like Freddy Krueger did to my 15-year old insomnia.
The songs accompanying the Care Bears Movie didn’t help either. Though the soundtrack received contributions from songwriting and producing superstars like Lou Adler, Carole King, and John Sebastian—a tune like the jaunty Edwardian track “When You Care, You’re Not Afraid to Try” features the same cultish instructions as “It’s A Small World After All.” As the latter charges, “There’s so much that we share,” the former says, “We need the swift and the small. We’ll need the strong and the tall…Cause when you care, you’re not afraid to try” as the music spins and accelerates wildly out of control into a fever dream of the kids and bears skipping in a circle.
But the most frightening composition is “Look Out, He’s After You.” About as thoughtful as a Whose Line is it Anyways? skit, the needle drop happens during the cartoon’s final act, when the care bears return to earth to save Nicholas. By now, Nicholas is a cackling cape wearing psychopath chasing Kim and Jason through a creepy fun house adorned with pink demonic paintings of clowns. As someone who watched Stephen King’s It at the age of 8, this Care Bears sequence was scarier. It’s an edgelord white kid hunting other children while the chimes of “It’s a nightmare coming true (The evil that’s spreading is starting to grow)…Look out! He’s after you!” play over his pursuit.
Years later, I’ve learned why I initially didn’t identify with this white magician’s assistant. In some scenes, one begins to think that Nicholas deserves his loneliness. When Tenderheart is thrown into a cage by the evil spirit, even before Nicholas has succumbed to her influence, he responds at the sight with, “Hey, neat.” Moreover, though he’s lonely, Nicholas isn’t exactly bullied. Though kids laugh at him, they only do so after he joins up with a deranged talking book that makes him perform lame magic tricks in front of them. In turn, Nicholas decides to end the world because he isn’t a recipient of their adoration. That means the Care Bears Movie elevates the feelings of a toxic white male over everyone else, setting a dangerous example for its white male audience that they too can end the world if they’re driven into the hands of an evil book and perform terrible magic tricks that no one likes.
Freakishly horrifying and oddly demented: For these reasons, the Care Bears Movie is and was straight-up nightmare fuel that haunted me for weeks. And because of it, I never wanted a care bear when I was a kid, and I hate rainbows now, too.