Turner/DIC Entertainment
Turner/DIC Entertainment

How Captain Planet Turned Kids Green

Turner/DIC Entertainment
Turner/DIC Entertainment

Sometime in the late 1980s, Ted Turner came to a conclusion about Scooby-Doo: It didn’t have much of a message.

Nor did Yogi Bear, or The Flintstones, or any of Hanna-Barbera’s multiple animated properties that Turner had purchased the rights to air as part of his children’s programming blocks on the Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Scooby was not concerned with the environment—his friends got around in a smoke-belching van. As an environmental activist, Turner decided he wanted to use more of TBS’s airtime to explore the effects of pollution, deforestation, and the ozone layer.

In 1988, Turner summoned Barbara Pyle, his vice president of environmental concerns, and gave her two words: "Captain Planet." Pyle asked what that meant.

"Figure it out," he said, and turned away.

CharcoalShadow via YouTube

The rise of eco-consciousness in the 1980s had been reflected on an episode-by-episode basis on several television shows, but none had ever made it the recurring focus. With Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an animated series that ran from 1990 to 1996, Turner had ushered in the first programming of its kind: a narrative that hinged directly on the man-made hazards putting stress on the environment.

Working with producers Thom Beers and Nicholas Boxer, Pyle took Turner’s notion and beefed it up considerably: Captain Planet would be a mullet-wearing hero who materializes when summoned by the Planeteers, a group of five teenagers from across the globe who try to minimize the damage done by eco-villains like Looten Plunder and Verminous Skumm. Instead of bank robberies, the team would confront tuna fishermen entrapping dolphins and oil drillers. Pollution would weaken Captain Planet; solar energy would empower him.

Pyle ran a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, calling on the entertainment industry to lend its talents to television’s first environmentally-aware educational program for kids. Despite having no credits in voiceover work, Tom Cruise was the first to get back to her; as an activist, Cruise appreciated the message and agreed to voice Captain Planet, who bore a passing resemblance to the actor. Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeff Goldblum, and several other well known actors followed suit. Pyle even got Carl Sagan and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques's son) to consult on the program for no fee.

But when Captain Planet and the Planeteers premiered in September of 1990—it aired both on TBS and in syndication—Cruise was nowhere to be heard. After recording six episodes, the Days of Thunder star was reportedly insistent on having more control in how the show was merchandised and what topics it would explore. (At the time, his representatives declared it was a scheduling issue.) Rather than have a jarring vocal change during the first season, producers opted to re-record his lines.

Turner, meanwhile, had tried to convince his board of directors that the expensive series would be worthwhile. Fearing kids wouldn’t want anything to do with a "message" cartoon or that they might not even pick up on the message at all, they insisted Turner was wasting money.

Very informal polls of kids saw things differently. In a piece in The New York Times, 8-year-old critic Mollie Lief said she grasped the concept of an episode in which animal watering holes were drying up. "The elephants, the birds, the fish, they have to have water," she said. "It’s a good show to teach children."

Savvy consumer that she was, Lief also mentioned she had no desire for a Captain Planet T-shirt, declaring "that's not my style."

That sentiment might have disappointed Turner, who was dependent on the 50-plus licensees making tie-in products to help fund the Captain Planet Foundation, a firm devoted to financing environmental education programs. Unlike most shows, toys for Captain Planet had to meet a reasonable standard of sustainability. A globe bearing the Captain’s likeness was made from paperboard and stuffed with recycled clothing; toy packaging used recycled cardboard. (There was never getting around the plastic used for the action figures, which some observers cheerfully pointed out was counter-productive to the show’s aversion to wastefulness.)

CharcoalShadow via YouTube

By 1993, Captain Planet was a success: more than 7 million weekly viewers tuned in to see how the Planeteers would resolve ivory poaching, puppy mills, and radiation leaks. Brief 30-second spots at the end would highlight tips that could be implemented in the home, like cutting up six-pack plastic rings before disposal. Other cartoons, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, began to slip in eco-friendly messages: the Turtles reminded kids not to leave the water running while brushing.

Unlike most animated shows of the era, which typically had short production runs of two or three years, Captain Planet ran for six seasons and 113 episodes. In 1994, it even changed its name to The New Adventures of Captain Planet to remind viewers they weren’t watching reruns.

It was a large library of lecturing, and not everyone was pleased. Some critics believed the series instilled a concerning suspicion of humans in children, where man and technology were inevitably responsible for harming nature. One pundit called it the "greenwashing" of youth.

In the end, Captain Planet was in little danger of creating an environmental cult. According to Pyle, environmental consciousness ceased to be cool; Turner wound up selling TBS to Time-Warner, minimizing his input over content. The sixth and final season, which was aired internationally, was on ice for 10 years before being screened in the United States.

It wouldn’t be the Captain’s last stand, however. Laura Turner Seydel, Ted’s daughter, held fundraisers to keep the Captain Planet Foundation going, and the organization is still in operation today. The characters recently popped up in a Ford Focus commercial, and Hollywood is mulling a possible feature film. While a new wave of licensing might create new waste materials, the show really did try its best to practice what it preached: animators recycled the storyboards for each episode.

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10 Fast Facts About Cars
Pixar
Pixar

Pixar’s Cars was released on this day 12 years ago. So put on your helmets, rev those engines, and let’s take a look at some behind-the-scenes facts about the Oscar-winning animation studio’s fastest-moving film.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY AN UGLY DUCKLING-TYPE STORY ABOUT AN ELECTRIC CAR.

Cars started off life as Little Yellow Car, about an electric car that faces prejudice from its gas-guzzling counterparts. Pixar animator/artist Jorgen Klubien, who developed the story during production on A Bug’s Life, was inspired by real-life automotive history from his home country of Denmark.

“In the 1980s some enthusiastic folks got the idea of making a three-wheeled one-person car that ran on electricity,” said Klubien. “They put it into production and it worked great in the city, but out on the highway it was too slow. People also thought the car was ugly. I thought the electric car was ahead of its time, and it struck me as odd that my fellow Danes didn’t agree. It reminded me of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. This famous Danish character wasn’t accepted at first, but in the end it proved to be right on the money.”

The story was deemed too slight to carry an entire movie, but the small-town setting remained an inspiration.

2. ITS CO-WRITER/DIRECTOR PASSED AWAY DURING PRODUCTION.

Cars is dedicated to Joe Ranft, the film's co-writer and co-director, who died in a car accident on August 16, 2005—while Cars was still in production. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), which Ranft executive produced, is also dedicated to him.

3. MATER IS BASED ON A REAL-LIFE NASCAR ENTHUSIAST.

The country bumpkin tow truck Mater got his name from NASCAR superfan Douglas “Mater” Keever, whom the filmmakers met while on a research trip to North Carolina’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now called the Charlotte Motor Speedway). Keever has a voice cameo in the film, as the motor home who says “Well dip me in axle grease and call me slick” early in the film. (Keever improvised the line, which was originally “Well dip me in axle grease and call me lubrication.” Producer Darla Anderson opted to change it, Keever speculated, because “maybe she thought it sounded sexual, I don’t know.”)

4. MANY AUTO WORLD LUMINARIES LENT THEIR VOCAL TALENTS.

Reigning racing champ Strip “The King” Weathers is voiced by legendary racer Richard Petty, who has the same nickname as his animated counterpart. Weathers’s wife, credited as “Mrs. The King,” is voiced by Petty’s wife, Lynda Petty. Several other automotive notables contribute their vocal talents: announcer/former racer Darrell Waltrip plays “Darrell Cartrip”; Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s radio show Car Talk, voice Lightning McQueen’s sponsors, Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze; and racers Michael Schumacher, Mario Andretti, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. voice automotive versions of themselves. (Despite voicing announcer “Bob Cutlass,” sports analyst Bob Costas doesn’t actually cover racing.)

5. SEVERAL ACTORS CHANGED FOR INTERNATIONAL RELEASES.

For Cars’s UK release, Jeremy Piven was replaced as the voice of Lightning McQueen’s never-seen agent Harv by Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. “The King” was also voiced by different racers in some international releases, as Richard Petty isn’t as well known outside of the United States. In Germany, The King is voiced by Formula One champ Niki Lauda, while in Spain he is Formula One’s Fernando Alonso.

6. MOST CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON REAL CARS.

Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Chick Hicks are all original Pixar designs, but most of the other characters are based on existing cars. Among them are Doc Hudson (1951 Hudson Hornet), Ramone the body paint specialist (1959 Chevy Impala), tire salesman Luigi (1959 Fiat 500), hippie Fillmore (1960 Volkswagen Microbus), military surplus store owner Sarge (1942 Willys Jeep), and Mack, the truck that drives Lightning around (Mack Superliner). Sally, as a 2002 Porsche 911 Carrera, is the only Radiator Springs character modeled after a contemporary car.

7. IT BROUGHT A NEW STANDARD OF REALISM TO ANIMATED FILMS.

Cars was the first Pixar feature to utilize a technique known as “ray tracing,” which properly renders the way light passes through and collides with surfaces. More simply, it enables artists to accurately depict reflections without having to go through and “paint” them individually. Ray tracing takes up a massive amount of computer power; as a result, each frame (or about 1/24th of a second) of Cars took an average of 17 hours to render. Some frames took up to a week.

8. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN’S FINAL FILM—AND HIS HIGHEST-GROSSING.

Cars marks the final film of Paul Newman, who in addition to being an actor/entrepreneur/philanthropist also became a racing enthusiast after starring in the 1969 racing drama Winning. Cars is also the highest-grossing film of Newman’s career (not adjusted for inflation).

9. ONE OF LIGHTNING MCQUEEN’S CHARACTER INSPIRATIONS WAS KID ROCK.

To help get a handle on the character of rookie racing sensation Lightning McQueen, directing animator James Ford Murphy “put together a series of little bios of great personalities that were really cocky but really likeable.” Among the people he pulled inspiration from were sportsmen Muhammad Ali, Charles Barkley, and Joe Namath, plus musician Kid Rock.

10. YOU CAN VISIT THE MOUNTAIN RANGE THAT SURROUNDS RADIATOR SPRINGS IN REAL LIFE (SORT OF).

The mountain range surrounding Radiator Springs is inspired by the real-life Cadillac Ranch, an outdoor art installation located outside Amarillo, Texas that consists of heavily spray-painted Cadillacs, half-buried facedown in the ground.

Additional Source: The Pixar Touch, by David A. Price

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Finding Nemo
Pixar/Disney
Pixar/Disney

Although we now recognize 2003's Finding Nemo as one of Pixar’s most critically and commercially successful films, the underwater masterpiece didn’t exactly kick off production as a guaranteed goldmine. Here are a few little-known facts about the rocky road leading up to the film’s status as a bona fide blockbuster, on the 15th anniversary of its release.

1. THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY THE DIRECTOR’S OVERPROTECTIVE NATURE.

“Autobiographical” isn’t exactly the first adjective you’d expect to assign to a road comedy about marine life, but Finding Nemo co-writer/director Andrew Stanton’s story came from a very personal place. As a relatively new father during the film’s development, Stanton found himself at odds with his proclivity to veer into overprotective territory, much in the way viewers see Marlin combating his neuroses in raising his son Nemo. Stanton also had a love for all things aquatic that dated back to a childhood fascination with his dentist’s fish tank, so he used this lifelong interest as a funnel for a deeply emotional story about the challenges of being a good father.

2. ANDREW STANTON WROTE A SCRIPT LONG BEFORE HE WAS “SUPPOSED TO.”

Pixar’s multi-tiered film production process begins with a basic premise pitch to the creative higher-ups, followed by (for all greenlit projects) a written story treatment. Stanton already had a script completed before this second step took place, the only Pixar project to proceed in this manner. 

3. IT TOOK ONLY ONE WORD TO GET THE GREEN LIGHT FOR FINDING NEMO.

“You had me at ‘fish.’” That is precisely what Pixar’s chief creative officer told Stanton following his exhaustive pitch for his passion project.

4. THE MOVIE’S ART TEAM WENT THROUGH MARINE TRAINING PRIOR TO PRODUCTION.

A scene from 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Disney Pixar

In order to get the look and the feel of Finding Nemo’s characters and world just right, Pixar’s in-house art team was required to take courses and audit lectures in marine biology, oceanography, and ichthyology while enrolling in scuba diving classes.

5. DOGS WERE USED AS MODELS FOR THE FISHY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS.

While the Pixar team’s extensive research on the denizens of the deep yielded a wide variety of spectacular shapes and colors perfectly suited to an animated feature, the underwater populace proved consistently lacking when it came to one anatomical component. The dull eyes of the average finned critter weren’t especially conducive to building expressive characters, so Pixar had to look elsewhere for its optical models. The crew chose one of the most openly expressive members of the animal kingdom on which to model the eyes of its fish characters: dogs.

6. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT HAD A DIFFERENT TREATMENT FOR THE BARRACUDA INCIDENT.

At first, Stanton kept the inspiration for Marlin’s overprotective attitude—the loss of his wife and all but one of their unborn children in a barracuda attack—a secret to reveal gradually through intermittent flashback sequences. Ultimately, this technique made the revelation obvious and anticlimactic while making Marlin feel substantially less likable, so the script changed.

7. MEGAN MULLALLY WAS FIRED AFTER PRODUCERS HEARD HER REAL VOICE.

In the early 2000s, Megan Mullally was best known for playing the rude and eccentric Karen Walker on Will & Grace. Chief among the character’s recognizable characteristics was her high-pitched voice, which Pixar producers apparently thought would be perfect for an animated fish. Upon hiring Mullally to voice an undisclosed character in the movie, the crew discovered that the actress’s natural voice was of average pitch and that Mullally was unwilling to reproduce “the Karen voice” for the film. As such, Mullally was dismissed from the Finding Nemo cast.

8. GILL WAS A VILLAINOUS CHARACTER IN AN EARLIER VERSION OF THE STORY.

Willem Dafoe as Gill in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

While the combination of somber coloration, a scowling beak, and the menacing vocals of Willem Dafoe render Nemo’s fish tank pal Gill an intimidating presence, we learn soon enough that he is in fact a good guy who has the best interests of his fellow captives at heart. The original cut of Finding Nemo was more ambiguous about Gill’s integrity, however, making him the owner of a falsified identity that he swiped from a nautical-themed children’s book housed in the dentist’s waiting room.

9. ALBERT BROOKS REPLACED ANOTHER BIG STAR.

Although Albert Brooks’s background in films like Broadcast News and Mother seems like it would have made him an obvious candidate to play the high-strung Marlin, the first actor cast in the role was William H. Macy. The Fargo star recorded his dialogue for an early screening of Finding Nemo, but producers ultimately felt that he lacked the warmth required for the role of the father fish.

10. THE DIRECTOR RECORDED ALL OF ONE CHARACTER’S DIALOGUE WHILE LYING ON A COUCH.

Stanton never intended to commit his voice to the final cut of Finding Nemo, but only to sub in as a placeholder until the right actor could be cast to play Crush, the easygoing sea turtle with the California accent. Perhaps due to his understanding of his vocal contribution as merely temporary (or maybe, in fact, to get into the “slacker” mindset of his character), Stanton recorded all of Crush’s dialogue while lying on a couch in the office of his co-director, Lee Unkrich.

11. THE CEO OF DISNEY THOUGHT FINDING NEMO WOULD BE A FAILURE.

The combination of a poorly cast Marlin, an unsympathetic Gill, and the running flashbacks made the earliest versions of Finding Nemo feel pretty dismal. Still, nobody was quite as defeatist as Michael Eisner, the Walt Disney Company's then-chief executive officer. Eisner predicted the underwater adventure would be a “reality check” for the yet unchallenged Pixar. Eisner’s only positive spin was that a commercial struggle would be helpful during contract renegotiations with the Disney subsidiary. Of course, Eisner’s judgment (and fund-cutting aspirations) came up short when Finding Nemo became Pixar’s highest grossing film—a superlative it would maintain until the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010. It has since been surpassed twice more: first by 2015's Inside Out, then in 2016 by its own sequel, Finding Dory (which maintains the top position).

12. THE MOVIE’S POPULARITY LED TO POPULATION STRESS FOR CLOWNFISH.

Albert Brooks and Alexander Gould in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

Children were so taken with the adorable Nemo following the release of the film that demand for clownfish as pets instantly skyrocketed. Excessive capture and sale of the ocean dwellers led to a steep decline in the organic population of the species; some natural habitats, such as the waters surrounding Vanuatu, saw a 75 percent drop in clownfish numbers.

13. THE MOVIE ALSO LED TO SOME MISGUIDED FISH LIBERATION MOVEMENTS.

On the other hand, Finding Nemo’s anti-tank agenda did provoke a few ecologically-minded viewers to set their aquatic captives free. Unfortunately, not everyone took the necessary steps to ensure that their newly liberated pet fish were being transported to amenable waters. Certain marine communities suffered from the introduction of predatory and venomous species in unnatural locales, resulting in, once again, ecological imbalance. 

14. SEVERAL ORGANIZATIONS RELEASED “ANTI-FLUSHING” PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS FOLLOWING FINDING NEMO.

While tanked fish Gill’s proclamation that “all drains lead to the ocean” contains a grain of truth, the movie fails to acknowledge the fact that a flushed fish is unlikely to survive a trip down the typical drain. Water treatment company JWC Environmental and Australia’s Marine Aquarium Council were among the companies that offered public warnings that flushing would prove fatal to any pet fish. The former organization suggested that a movie that realistically portrayed a household sea creature’s voyage through the municipal sewage system would be more accurately titled Grinding Nemo.

15. A CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR UNSUCCESSFULLY ACCUSED FINDING NEMO'S CREATORS OF PLAGIARISM.

Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Nicholas Bird in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

A year before the release of Finding Nemo, French author Franck Le Calvez self-published the children’s book Pierrot Le Poisson-Clown, featuring a young clownfish on a quest to reunite with his estranged mother. (In fact, Le Calvez first wrote the story as a screenplay in 1995, but was unable to generate interest in the concept.) After Pixar’s admittedly similar tale hit theaters, Le Calvez sued the studio for copyright infringement, but lost two lawsuits and was ordered to pay $80,000 in damages and court costs.

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