Environmentally Friendly : Kids Shows that Aim to Raise Awareness as Well as Entertain


With Earth Day just a spin away on April 22, we take a look at four family shows that focus on environmental concerns all year long.

Relating global concerns through theme and plot are a priority for ABC’s “Free Willy,” the syndicated “The New Adventures of Captain Planet” and HBO’s “Stop the Smoggies,” which are all animated, as well as the Disney Channel’s live-action “Ocean Girl.”

“Free Willy” follows the adventures of a freed-from-captivity Orca whale (remember the movie?) and his teen pal, Jesse, who can communicate with animals. In each episode, the duo engage in pro-environmental, aquatic adventures.


In “The New Adventures of Captain Planet,” which began as “Captain Planet and the Planeteers,” the Spirit of the Earth (voiced by Margot Kidder) is alarmed that humans are destroying the Earth. She calls upon five multiethnic youths for help. Each has special powers from nature--earth, fire, wind, water and heart. When they combine their powers, super-hero Captain Planet is summoned and the group embarks on adventures around the globe.

The lighthearted “Stop the Smoggies” focuses on the nature-loving Suntots, who live on Coral Island. All the residents here recycle and use the land’s resources smartly. But anchored just off their island is the S.S. Stinky Poo, where nasties Clarence, his wife Emma and their first-mate Polluto--together known as the “Smoggies"--continually disrupt the Suntots’ lives.

Set amid tropical rain forests, waterfalls and scenic lagoons of an Australian coral reef, “Ocean Girl” centers around the adventures of Neri (Marzena Godecki) a mysterious girl of extraterrestrial origins, who’s been befriended by two brothers. Neri communicates telepathically with her best friend, a 40-ton humpback whale named Charley.

All shows deal overtly with environmental issues.

Turning a hit live-action movie into an animated series for children was a way “to get across environmental messages,” explains Lauren Shuler Donner. One of the producers of TV’s “Free Willy,” she’s recently completed production on the movie’s sequel, due out this summer. “Willy is a character with 96% awareness,” she says in her Burbank offices. “We always wanted it to be an environmental show and when we were going to turn it into a TV show, I thought we’d have to couch the environmental messages. But ABC was very forthcoming with our ideas. So each week we try to teach something about the environmental movement.”

“Captain Planet,” which offers up messages of what the producers call “environmental empowerment,” and is now in its fourth season, was actually the brainchild of media mogul Ted Turner. “He wanted to deal with environmental issues as they related to the future of the planet,” notes Nick Boxer, vice president and executive producer of TBS Productions, from his Los Angeles office. “He wanted a show that empowers children, to promote the idea of teamwork, while informing kids about real environmental issues in a fun, entertaining and accurate way.”

Like “Free Willy” and “Captain Planet,” each episode of “Stop the Smoggies” relates to an environmental concern. “What we used as a basis for ‘Smoggies’ was a piece published in 1988 by National Geographic, which was an extensive overview of the 12 most important ecological issues affecting our planet,” says show producer Ronald Weinberg from his Toronto offices. “It became the basis for us looking at each of the story lines for ‘Smoggies.’ ”

“The whole premise, the central narrative of ‘Ocean Girl,’ is the colonization of our ocean, making a permanent habitat underwater,” says Jonathan M. Shiff, creative and executive producer as well as creator of “Ocean Girl,” from the show’s set in Australia. “We’re constantly dealing with issues such as environmentally sound power sources, using the ocean’s movement, tidal movement, as a power source, as opposed to nuclear fission.”

“Smoggies’ ” issues--population pressure, air pollution, ozone, acid rain, water pollution, water diversion, toxic waste, radiation perils, species extinction, fisheries depletion, deforestation and desertification--may be told in large or small scale.

Sometimes the shows cover broad concerns, such as different types of pollution. Other times they may examine what individuals can do, such as recycling.

Villains in the more “fantastic” shows--"Captain Planet” and “Stop the Smoggies"--bear names befitting eco-villains: Hoggish Greedly, Verminous Skumm, Dr. Blight, Looten Plunder and Duke Nukem.

“Free Willy,” which recently received an order for eight new episodes to supplement its original 13, tries “to give kids some message in each show,” points out Shuler Donner. “We try to use Jesse as an example of what to do--like cutting up the plastic rings that hold six-packs of sodas so birds won’t think they are food and choke on them, or where Jesse writes a letter to the government. It’s a way of showing kids they can be heard by the government.”

While the 52 episodes of “Smoggies” were actually produced in 1990 and shown around the world, the show didn’t reach American shores on HBO until last summer. “I think kids get the message that the Smoggies represent all of us who are constantly disrupting the environment,” Weinberg says. He adds that each episode offers an environmentally conscious solution from the Suntots.

In each of its episodes, “Captain Planet” presents global environmental concerns “as no small problem,” Boxer says. The show hopes “kids can understand what happens to stuff, the danger of landfills filling up, the consequences of everything. They need to know that every object comes from somewhere, uses a source. We have to understand the resources we take from the Earth and make informed and wise decisions. We have to understand the consequences of our action. They should know that for every baseball bat, desk or even house frame, a tree was cut down.”

“We really hope to teach the viewer to become more conscious,” says Schiff of “Ocean Girl,” which enters its second season Monday. “We’re not a message series, but in a gentle way we’re encouraging children to think about the ocean as a natural extension of our planet, not a strange land. What the series is saying is that children in particular are capable of pioneering that great frontier between animals and humans.”

Boxer says Ted Turner “feels this generation is growing up facing much more dire consequences than any before it, and they must grasp the problems so they don’t get passed onto the next generation. We have only one generation to solve these issues.”

“Free Willy” airs Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC. “The New Adventures of Captain Planet/Captain Planet and the Planeteers” airs weekdays at 6:30 a.m. on KCAL, Sundays at 7 a.m. on KTLA and 2:35 p.m. on TBS. “Ocean Girl” airs Mondays at 7:30 p.m. on the Disney Channel. “Stop the Smoggies” airs Sundays at 8 a.m. on HBO.