[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
In honor of Earth Day, three examples of the link between animation and the environment:
1) Captain Planet and the Planeteers/The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1990-96): As a viewer and fan of the show since its first episodes, I might be biased, but it seems to me that Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s environmental edutainment program (or programs, since the show changed its name when Hanna-Barbera took over principal production in 1993) Captain Planet was one of the most radical and influential children’s shows of all time. The show’s consistent environmental activist themes and stories should be evidence enough for that claim; but if not, I would point to the 1992 episode “A Formula for Hate,” in which the villain sought to spread lies and paranoia about AIDS and thus to turn a town against an HIV-infected young man (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). The pre-Boston March for Science talk I recorded through my role as the Scholar Strategy Network’s Boston Chapter Co-Leader focused on science and public activism, and I can’t imagine a clearer embodiment of that link than this Captain Planet episode.
2) FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992): 1992 was a banner year for environmental animation, as it also saw the release of FernGully, a joint Australian and American animated film (based on Diana Young’s children’s novel of the same name) about the growing threats to the world’s rainforests. Among its many achievements, FernGully succeeded in bringing Cheech and Chong back together for the first time in six years; it also perhaps influenced the casting of John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996), which likewise featured a pairing of Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater. They, like all of the film’s voice actors (including Robin Williams in his first animated film as Batty) worked for scale, as all were committed to the film’s environmental and conservationist messages. Indeed, I’d argue that Captain Planet and FernGully together reflect the leading role pop culture played in advancing those issues in the early 1990s—a trend worth remembering whenever we’re tempted to dismiss pop culture’s social or communal roles.
3) Princess Mononoke (1997): Legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 historical fantasy anime film illustrates that those cultural contributions to environmental activism were taking place around the globe. Like FernGully, Mononoke uses the genre of fantasy to tell its story of supernatural and human heroes working together to fight for an embattled natural world against encroaching forces. Often the genre of anime has been associated with futuristic and urban settings; but Miyazaki’s film, among others in the era, redirected the genre’s tropes and themes to the historical and natural worlds. Like Captain Planet and FernGully before it, Mononoke was an international hit (as well as a box office smash in Japan), with its English-language version becoming one of the most popular Hollywood adaptations of an anime or Japanese film of all time. In my experience, Earth Day really took off as a collective phenomenon in the 1990s—and if so, we might well have these pioneering 1990s animations to thank.
Next Earth Day post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?
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