“The power is yours!”
Throughout the 1980s, mega-billionaire Ted Turner financed a series of documentaries with the purpose of encouraging viewers to preserve the environment. Although well-made, the films were not widely seen. Then, Turner allegedly had a brainstorm, to spread eco goodness not through a documentary but through a cartoon. Dreaming up the name “Captain Planet,” Turner had his documentary team learn the animation ropes, creating something new for kids: an eco-superhero.
All these years later, Captain Planet and the Planeteers is cherished nostalgia for some, and a punchline to others, but everyone remembers it, so it must have made some kind of impact.
Gaia (Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost), the spirit of the Earth, has decided that pollution and other threats to the environment must be stopped. She searches the Earth for five teens, giving them each magic rings, recruiting them as the Planeteers.
• Wheeler (Joey Dedio), from the U.S.A., with the power of fire.
• Linka (Kath Soucie, Rugrats), from the Soviet Union, with the power of wind.
• Kwame (Levar Burton, Star Trek: First Contact), from Africa, with the power of earth.
• Gi (Janice Kawaye), from Asia, with the power of water.
• Ma-ti (Scott Menville, Teen Titans) from South America, with the power of heart. (What the hell kind of power is “heart,” you might ask? On this show, it’s telepathic and empathic abilities.)
Operating from their headquarters on Gaia’s home, Hope Island, the five Planeteers travel the world on various eco-friendly missions, often encountering super-criminals who would destroy the environment to satisfy their own greed. When the Planeteers’ powers are not enough, they use all five rings at once to summon the magical Captain Planet (David Coburn), who uses his incredible powers to save the day.
Where do I even begin, talking about Captain Planet? Although it’s famous for being a “show with a message,” the series actually gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. It’s true that the message is front and center, but that doesn’t mean the creators haven’t forgotten the nuts and bolts of a show like this, such as character development, humor, and good old fashioned superhero adventure.
It’s all a matter of balance. Kids’ programs with a message either half-ass the message, or they’re all message with no story. The G.I. Joe characters would spend an entire episode shooting everything in sight, followed by a 30-second spot telling kids that violence is bad? Which do you think kids responded to? At the other spectrum, you used to have ridiculous “message” characters like, say, Beltman. Anybody else remember him? Dude used to fly around and instruct children to wear their seatbelts, and he did nothing else. He never fought bad guys, he never rescued anybody, he just lectured about seatbelts and that was it. What a useless character. Captain Planet is different, however, in that it had all the globe-trotting adventure we remember from the former, and it genuinely wove the message into storylines without forcing it or merely tacking it on.
That sense of balance extends to the big superhero adventure. It’s true that Captain Planet is a deus ex machina (deus ex earthica?), in that he can magically solve any problem that comes his way. The creators must have realized this, because scripts are written in such a way that even though Captain Planet gets his share of the action, the kids are the ones who save the day through their own courage and ingenuity. With Captain Planet’s simple but oft-repeated catchphrase “The power is yours,” the statement is made that not even someone as powerful as Captain Planet can solve all the world’s problems. This both reinforces the show’s edu-tainment message as well as explaining away the “If he can do anything, why doesn’t he…” plot holes.
Are the five Planeteers too “goody-goody”? You could make that case, but the creators did work to give them some personality. Kwame is often portrayed as the group’s leader, and he’s the one who always sounds the call to summon Captain Planet. Wheeler is the “everyman,” who often has to have the eco-crisis of the week explained to him, but he’s also the muscle of the group at times, the one who charges into action first. Linka is usually the smart one, thinking analytically and often using her computer hacking skills. Wheeler and Linka’s romantic tension is an ongoing subplot, which adds to character development for both of them, and it shows that these teenagers occasionally do have something other than going green on their minds. Gi is the one with the least development, making her role in the group little more than just the nice one. For most viewers, little Ma-ti is a joke, with many claiming that he offers nothing to the group. He is, naturally, the heart of the group, so that when other characters stray from the mission, he’s the one to remind them what’s really important.
Then there’s the title character. Just who is Captain Planet? The first episode origin story gives us background on Gaia and the Planeteers, but we’re never told where the good Captain comes from or, basically, what his deal is. A couple of lines state that he resides inside the “crystal matrix” on Hope Island, but that doesn’t explain much. Personality-wise, he’s got to be the happiest superhero I’ve ever seen. This is what sets him apart from other always-does-the-right-thing heroes like Superman or He-Man. While those good guys are upbeat and positive, Captain Planet takes his peppy, cheerful attitude to extreme heights. He is delighted, practically euphoric, to jump into action and fight the bad guys.
A supe is only as good as his rouge’s gallery, and the Captain Planet creators have come up with a handful of memorable baddies, with hilariously cheesy names like Hoggish Greedly, Verminous Skumm, Looten Plunder, Sly Sludge, and Duke Nukem (not the video game guy, but a different Duke). Each of these might look or act differently, but basically have the same M.O., to make a huge personal profit from illegal schemes that screw up the environment. Sadly, they do the cartoon villain thing that bugs me, proudly declaring themselves to be “villains” or “evil.” My favorite baddie is Dr. Blight, who, at times, has a different motivation. It’s hinted that she can only breathe in a polluted atmosphere, and that clean air is harmful to her. Also, the length of hair covering part of her face hides a rarely-seen, hideous scar. All this makes her a (slightly) deeper character than the other villains.
Check out the amazing cast this show rounded up. In addition to Whoopi Goldberg and Levar Burton, recurring characters were played by Meg Ryan, Sting, Martin Sheen, Jeff Goldblum, Lou Gossett Jr., Ed Asner, Tim Curry, Dean Stockwell, John Ratzenberger, Phyllis Diller, Brock Peters, and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, along with cult favorite cartoon voice actors such as Scott Menville, Kath Soucie, Frank Welker, Maurice La Marche, and Alan Oppenheimer. All these folks bring a serious earnestness to their roles, which nicely matches the show’s overall tone.
The season concludes with not one, but two two-part episodes. Things like ongoing continuity and multi-part episodes were still fairly new in animated series of the time, and it’s interesting to see the creators pushing the limits of what they could accomplish with their show. Also, the two-parters further illustrate the show’s sense of balance between the message and the superhero action. The first, “Mission to Save Earth,” has all the villains from past episodes teaming up for a massive pollution onslaught, introducing Captain Planet’s sinister opposite, Captain Pollution. It’s a like a big comic book crossover event, and fun to see a real challenge for our hero. The second, “Two Futures,” is a time travel epic in which Wheeler sees what the future might be like without ecological preservation. As you can imagine, the message is laid on thicker than usual in this one, and yet it’s never just, “the Earth is messed up,” but “the Earth is messed up and it’s hurting my friends.” This reveals that even when the show is at its preachiest, it doesn’t lose sight of its characters.
On the other hand, does the show wallow in stereotypes? Again, you could make that case. Trips to Africa show small, primitive villages. Ma-ti’s home in the rainforest has him swinging around on vines. Linka chides Wheeler and other Americans for being “capitalist pig-dogs.” Plus, everybody’s accents are ridiculously over the top. The most blatant stereotype, though, might just be Wheeler as the boorish American. Notice how half of his shirt is slobbishly never tucked in, and how he’s so lunkheaded that the others always have to explain to him why littering is bad, etc.
This was still a few years before Warner Brothers would revolutionize TV animation, so the visuals are at times clunky. The characters can sometimes be too stiff, and there are a few scenes when their mouths don’t match what they’re saying. Also, Captain Planet’s infamous green mullet is dark blue in a few episodes. For some, these inconsistencies will add to the show’s retro charm, but for others, they will only be a distraction.
If you wanted to, you could nitpick this show to death. Where are the police or even the army when the villains start chopping down forests with mountain-sized machines? What’s funding all the villains’ giant high-tech machines and empires? Similarly, where did the Planeteers get those personal jets and helicopters from? Did Gaia just happen to have all those cool, futuristic vehicles sitting around Hope Island? Are those vehicles eco-friendly? Later seasons introduced us to the Planeteers’ families, but in this season, they don’t have to worry about stuff like parents, school, homework, money, etc.
All 26 episodes from the first season are on this four-disc set. The pop culture gods and goddesses of Shout! Factory have treated the show right. There are some occasional flecks and softness to the image, more likely due to the source material and not the transfer. This is a bright and colorful cartoon, and the DVDs show off those colors vividly. Sound is a standard stereo mix. At times, the music tends to overwhelm the dialogue, but never disastrously so.
The highlight of the bonus features is a featurette, “The Power is Yours: The Story of Captain Planet.” Ted Turner is interviewed, along with the other creators and animators. They go over the show’s creation, its message, its years of fan love, and everybody’s hopes for an eventual big screen version. You get to hear Ted Turner say, “Go Planet!” This is followed by galleries of original concept art and storyboards, including a few early alternate versions of the characters. Not surprisingly, the packaging is made with 100 percent recycled fibers with an average of 60 percent post-consumer recyclable and compostable.
When I sat down to watch this season, I braced myself for ten hours of getting preached to. Instead, I had great fun revisiting the show. Message or not, Captain Planet and the Planeteers knows how to entertain, and is better than a cartoon like this has any right to be. Check it out.