Just the idea of the cartoon series has changed Andy Heyward's life. He no longer wastes gas driving his 5-year-old son Robert Evan to school only five houses away. His company got rid of all non-biodegradable coffee cups. He is even recycling the story boards used for the series.
Heyward, president of DIC Enterprises Inc., is developing an ecology-conscious cartoon called "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" that, beginning this fall, will tackle the most complicated and controversial environmental concerns of our day and try to make them palatable for 2- to 11-year-olds without scaring them.
Topics such as acid rain, nuclear power and ozone depletion will be battled by a super-hero called Captain Planet in an animated fantasy that will be, its creators say, as scientifically accurate as possible. Other subjects to be dealt with in the first season include oil drilling, elephant poaching, drift net fishing, population growth and nuclear meltdowns.
Apparently reflecting the environmental concern that now exists in Hollywood, DIC has lined up a bevy of celebrities to provide the voices for its characters, including Tom Cruise as Captain Planet, LeVar Burton as one of his Planeteers and Whoopi Goldberg as Gaia, "the spirit of the planet Earth." Villains will be played by Richard Gere, Ed Asner, Meg Ryan, Dean Stockwell and John Ratzenberger.
The idea for the syndicated series was dreamed up by media mogul Ted Turner, president of Turner Broadcasting System and an environmentalist, who wanted to create a super-hero to inspire youngsters to take care of the world around them. The show will air on his TBS cable station and on an as-yet undisclosed number of other commercial TV stations around the country.
"If watching the series inspires even one viewer to begin reversing this process (of environmental destruction)," Turner said, "then we are that much closer to environmental preservation for future generations."
Barbara Y.E. Pyle, co-executive producer of the series and vice president of Turner Broadcasting System's department for environmental policy, said that the project began when Turner called her in October, 1988, and uttered two words: Captain Planet.
Pyle then dreamed up the concept of five children from different parts of the world who could each control an element of nature with a magic ring. Together their rings conjure up an icy blue super-hero with a flat-top haircut named Captain Planet.
In January, 1989, Turner brought the project to DIC, the animation company that makes such series as "ALF Tales," "The Chipmunks," "The Real Ghostbusters" and "Super Mario Bros. Super Show." To help explore the complex issues, DIC is using non-paid consultants such as astronomer Carl Sagan, Greenpeace activist Peter Dykstra and undersea explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau.
"The trick is how to simplify these complicated issues to something that children can grasp," said Robby London, DIC creative affairs vice president. "Everyone on the project has worked with children. We're keeping everything factual, but very simple."
They also are striving not to paint too gloomy a scenario for young viewers. London said that the most important aspect of the show is to teach children how to make a difference now--encouraging them to recycle cans, pick up garbage and stop asking parents to drive them everywhere.
"But our major goal is to entertain," Heyward noted. The villains are particularly colorful, with names like Verminous Skumm, Looten Plunder and Duke Nukem.
Looking out at the thick smog from his sixth-floor Burbank office recently, Heyward said, "Some children in Los Angeles could look out the window today and think the Smog Monster has won, but we can't change reality. . . . Ultimately, this won't be a bummer because we will offer positive solutions."
Indeed, the cartoon characters will be headquartered on a place called Hope Island. "We show that you have to have hope and it's never too late, even on days like today," London said.
TBS hopes to set off "Captain Planet" from the cacophony of Saturday morning kiddie cartoons by scheduling it on Sundays between news and religious programs. By sprinkling in adult double-entendres and somewhat sophisticated witticisms, the creators hope to attract a crossover audience of grown-ups.
It will be similar to many Saturday morning cartoons in another respect, however: DIC is hoping to launch a new line of "Captain Planet" toys, possibly including power rings similar to those in the show. DIC is now seeking corporate licensing for what it describes as "environmentally sound toys"-- with appropriate recyclable packaging--but no toys will be ready before the show airs this fall.