Four cartoon series that preceded the fight for sustainability by decades

2021. szeptember 16.

Preserving our environment and nature is not a new topic, it is often addressed in cartoons and stories. Today, this is understandable, as the consequences of climate change are becoming more and more apparent in everyday life; however, the weather was milder in the 1990s, leaving the subject without tangible evidence for most viewers. Nevertheless, complete series of cartoons have been made about the importance of conserving nature, sometimes with an explicitly educational purpose. Here are some of them, and those who saw these series on TV as children can be nostalgic.


Captain Planet (1990–1995)

It would be difficult not to start this - otherwise completely subjective - line-up with the legendary series Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The series, which was first shown in 1990, evokes a double effect on the viewer from today’s perspective. On the one hand, the almost painfully nineties’ atmosphere, drawing style, and characterization seem rather kitschy. On the other hand, in some places it is particularly frightening how precisely it managed to show environmental impact mechanisms that were difficult even for adult viewers to interpret decades ago, as they had no relevant first-hand experience. Examples include climate change, air pollution and deforestation.

The idea for the series came from the 1980 Global 200 Report to the President: in this report, American researchers listed the then known environmental dangers and projected their effects two decades into the future for the Carter administration. The result was a truly shocking read, which also inspired Ted Turner, CNN director at the time.

He put the report into the hands of a young photojournalist, Barbara Pyle, saying: she had photographed environmentally damaging activities, so she should make a cartoon out of it! In her article for The Guardian, published in 2020, Pyle remembered the conception of Planet Captain: Ted called me into his office and said: “Captain Planet.” “What’s that, sir?” I asked. He said: “That’s your problem.”

Captain Planet

According to Pyle, they wanted to influence teenagers, and seeing the increased awareness among Generation Y, the producer believes they did. The series was a huge success, mainly in America, but it was broadcast in several European countries, including Hungary.

According to the somewhat simple story, Gaia, Mother Earth, gives a ring capable of controlling five primordial elements to five pure-hearted youngsters to summon Captain Planet, who is a superhero with supernatural powers. With their rings, these young people, coming from various parts of the world (United States, Russia, Africa, Asia and South America) are able to control the forces of nature.

The poor captain has been widely criticized for although he has style and strength similar to that of Superman, he also has his own version of Kryptonite: pollution. This means that the Earth’s last hope can be overcome with a discarded banana peel. Nevertheless, for half a decade, the series followed the adventures of the Planeteers and the Captain, even addressing social issues previously barely presented in cartoons such as drug addiction and overpopulation.


Albert says… nature knows better (1995–1997)

Albert is a strange creature, half-cat, and half-bird – and no, we have no idea either how it came together, but the point is that Albert is happy, and thanks to his parents’ special relationship, he has special abilities: he can shrink with a click of his fingers or grow into a giant. And what does this pink, beaked creature do when he’s not just entertaining himself by growing and shrinking? Of course, he teaches children about the importance of sustainability and nature protection.

The two-season series, launched in 1995 as a German-Hungarian co-production, does not hide its intention to educate, as there is no story in the classical sense in the twenty-five-minute episodes. Instead, Albert encounters a problem and then presents all aspects of it using his superpowers.

Albert says

The unsustainability of water consumption, the weather cycle, the reform of energy production are discussed with Albert’s pleasant narration (Hungarian voice: József Kerekes). The closing season of the series in 1997 was followed by a sister series: Albert travels through the major stages of the universe and humanity, from the big bang to the interpretation of the concept of art.

Making series with such direct educational content is a bold move, but Albert says… is not boring, even though the characters (Albert and his animal friends) tend to reflect only on dry facts. However, despite being made for teenagers, it is not afraid to go far and tastefully show the long-term consequences of not taking care of our environment. Spoiler alert: they're catastrophic.


The Magic School Bus (1994–1997)

American writer Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen launched a children’s book series, The Magic School Bus, in 1986 to educate 6-to 9-year-olds. In the booklets full of colourful, friendly drawings, Ms Frizzle, the lower schoolteacher of Walkerville Elementary School takes her class of curious and over-achieving kids on all sorts of weird study trips, and she spices up the experience with the magical features of the school bus. The bus is a sentient being who listens to Ms Frizzle’s instructions and be it is space travel or mapping the deep ocean, it becomes fit for the task in an instant. The book series is not finished yet; the Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge on Climate Change was published in 2010 (and the latest volume, published in 2020, presents human evolution).

But this compilation is about cartoon series, and accordingly, Ms Frizzle and her class also made it to TV in 1994. Scholastic Corporation, which specialised in educational materials, made the books into a TV series sponsored with the support of the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation, and Ms Frizzle was voiced by famous actress and comedian, Lily Tomlin.

The Magic School Bus

This series stands out from the list in two aspects. Partly because it does not specifically educate about being environmentally conscious, yet, as it aims to bring young children closer to the scientific mindset essential to understanding the importance of sustainable living, it can contribute to the development of curious and protective attitudes in the long run. On the other hand, the series is still going on - albeit in a completely different form. In The Magic School Bus Rides Again, which debuted on Netflix in 2017, Ms Frizzle passes the car key to her sister because she got bored of the kids and preferred to be a professor at an American university.


Toxic Crusaders (1991)

By far the most surreal piece in our compilation, which unfortunately only survived a season, even though its creators did their best to make the team of environmentalists mutated from pollutants to be the new champion of the morning cartoons. And the raw material is something very special: The film by Troma Entertainment, the uncrowned king of American B- horror movies, The Toxic Avenger, a self-reflexive but brutal film series, provided the basis for the series for children.

According to the story, a nerd falls into a barrel of toxic waste as a result of a lot of bullying, turns into a giant mutant monster, and then takes cruel and bloody revenge on everyone who has harmed him, from local tough boys to polluting companies.

These films were not really intended for children, in fact, considering the punishments handed out by the toxic avenger, not even for adults. However, as the story had a strong environmental message - and it fitted with the style of cartoon series fashionable in the nineties - studio head Lloyd Kaufman thought the adaptation was a good idea. And he used all the tricks to do well.

The series was entrusted to Fred Wolf Films, who also tamed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, which were also more for adults, into a child-friendly cartoon, and was written by Chuck Lorre, who on the one hand wrote the lead song of the turtle series and on the other hand decades later was catapulted into the Pantheon of American television with the sitcom Two and a Half Men.

Toxic Crusaders

The lead character, Toxie and his enemy, Dr Killemoff (no joke, he really is called that; they made cartoons quite differently in 1991) are dubbed by Rodger Bumpass, who is now known around the world as the voice of Squidward Q. Tentacles. All the episodes in the series are about a group of superheroes who become deformed by toxic substances trying to protect their home, Tromaville, New Jersey, from the polluting bad guys (who are aliens as opposed the Captain Planet’s human evildoers).

Toxic Crusaders has never been released in Hungarian, and even in America, it is more of a classic cult from the golden age of environmentally conscious cartoon. Although Kaufman said it was a successful production, the second season was never made, which was allegedly due to a legal dispute concerning a live-action adaptation. It’s a shame; how surreal it would have been to see a family-friendly, large screen, live-action adaptation of a truly brutal horror film!