Friday, March 30, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Captain Planet --
Ted Turner's Treehugger Hero With A Mullet

Captain Planet and the Planeteers is what happens when you rely on focus groups and preachiness and hype to sell your ideas. It's one of those properties from the '90s that a whole bunch of people watched -- enough to let it continue on for an astounding 166 episodes total -- yet no one really wants to admit they watched. I'm all for appraising kids about the benefits of helping the environment and all, but really, did the show that did it have to be so terrible?

Developed by noted environmental activist (and gazillionaire) Ted Turner as a way to let the wee ones get a jumpstart on going green, Captain Planet, produced by notorious crank-it-out animation house DiC (remember them?), centered on five magic rings dispatched by the spirit of the Earth, Gaia, who is suffering the ill effects of all our mining and logging and pollution, to five teenagers across the globe.

Four of the rings allow the wearer to control one of the natural elements (fire, wind, water, earth), while the last ring allows the wearer to control the power of "heart" (so, basically, that kid ends up with the fuzzy lollipop). These so-called "Planeteers" -- a North American, a South American, a Russian, an African, and an Asian -- travel the globe trying to undo various environmental calamities caused by eco-villains like Sly Sludge and Duke Nukem (no Ivan Exxon or Baron British Petroleum, though...).

When they get in over their head (which they do in every episode, natch), the Planeteers combine their powers, Voltron-style, calling out the names of their respective elements, and presto, out of the Earth flies the titular hero, proclaiming "The power is yours!" even as he demonstrates that no, in fact, the power is his. Only his. Here's the intro from the first season, with narration by Star Trek: The Next Generation's LeVar Burton (who also voiced Kwame, the African Planeteer), which restates everything I just said:

Go Planet, indeed.

There's really no way to sugarcoat it. This was straight-up propaganda for kids. And that's fully acknowledging that I agree with the central message. I was eleven years old when Captain Planet premiered on Turner's TBS cable channel in fall of 1990, so I may have been past my sell-by date for this kind of stuff. Nonetheless, I gave it a go after being egged on by frothy media reports calling it the next big thing in kidvid -- bigger than Ninja Turtles, even! I mean, come on! I'm not made of stone!

What I found was something that even preteen me knew had been focus grouped to within an inch of its life (seriously, who thought the green mullet and red sports bra were a good idea?). That realization (plus the aforementioned propagandistic whiff of the whole premise) signalled an end of innocence for me and my cartoon consumption. Still, Captain Planet ran for an impressive six seasons over two different series, with 118 episodes in its original incarnation, and an additional 48 when it was retitled The New Adventures of Captain Planet (with those episodes produced by Turner-owned Hanna-Barbara).

As you'd expect with any children's property (especially in the early '90s), there were also the usual licensing tie-ins that went along with Captain Planet's ballyhooed debut, which including a short-lived Marvel Comic and a line of crappy toys*:

I still occasionally bring up Captain Planet in my classes, mainly to poke fun at it, and it depresses me a little bit that each time I do, less of my students know who I'm talking about. I also find it interesting that a show like this could have existed at all. Given how certain pundits freaked out at the mere mention of an oil tycoon as a villain in last year's Muppets flick, it's amazing that an entire cartoon openly dedicated to indoctrinating kids in all that hippie crap like helping the planet managed to pass by without much of a storm.

Today, you can see reruns of Captain Planet occasionally on various Turner-owned stations, as well as buy season 1 on DVD. There was even talk last fall of reviving the character for a big screen adaptation (I'm calling it right now: never gonna happen), but the best thing to ever come out of the concept of Captain Planet and the Planeteers may well be this video starring Don Cheadle. Any live action movie would be hard-pressed to match this.

* Okay, not gonna lie. I totally wanted a Captain Planet figure when I was a kid.

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