After two decades of rump shaking in Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland, marketing firms across the nation became convinced that the public would no longer stand for three meager elemental forces. Fortunately, water was standing by as nature’s ready-made solution to this manufactured crisis. Having recently foisted surf lingo on an unsuspecting public, water should have been a more than adequate sloganeering vehicle. There were countless waves to be ridden and tide cycles to cogitate. Yet, in a classic example of both 1990s EXTREME-ism and the hubris of man, a fifth element was awkwardly jammed into the established order. And not just any old element. Mankind had decided to declare itself a fundamental force of nature.
An exercise born of misguided greenery, this fifth element anomaly sought to highlight the importance of man’s empathy to the continued survival of the planet. The fact that lumping man in with the fundamental forces of the Earth hilariously denigrates that capacity for empathy was apparently lost on these well-intentioned folk. Surely, we couldn’t be bothered to care for something unless we are labeled its protector. It’s a rather absurd and insulting notion, when you pause to give it more thought than a callow marketing ploy merits.
Television magnate Ted Turner was the foremost champion of this thick-skulled thesis, sparing no expense in assembling his A-list Planeteers. Meg Ryan! Sting! Jeff Goldblum! Whoopi Goldberg! Martin Sheen! When their powers combine, they summon a truly wretched cartoon. Captain Planet and the Planeteers boasts a staggering NINE credited creators, so it should hardly be surprising that the end product is little more than focus tested mush.
In fusing man with the elements, it’s inherently necessary to cast aside the teachings of Western religion, which hold man’s dominion over nature as an edict of the Lord on high. It would make sense, then, for Captain Planet to take on a more Eastern bent. Instead the show embraces… Greek Polytheism? Five diverse scamps are summoned by the lusty Earth spirit Gaia, who bestows a ring of elemental power upon each of them. earth, water, wind, fire, and (unfortunately) heart. These rings can be used to summon Captain Planet, a blue skinned superman with the dubious goal of “tak[ing] pollution down to zero”. The good Captain generally beams in, presumably from a palatial estate he’s crafted in the sands of Mars, toward the end of each episode when the Planeteers invariably prove inadequate. This structure is a bit baffling, given the show’s clear agenda. The Turner Nine wanted to teach children that by working together in service of the environment, they could affect meaningful change. It’s a concept best conveyed without the presence of the titular hero. In spite of their gifts and efforts, they’re continuously bested and forced to rely on the intervention of a God-like being. This is not the message of empowerment the show surely intended to convey.
Captain Planet’s curiously muddled nature is perhaps best illustrated by its cast of villains. The writers obviously sought to go beyond the broad with their villainy. Characters with ridiculous monikers like Verminous Skumm, Hoggish Greedly, and Looten Plunder were seldom granted any motivation for their misdeeds. They exist solely to destroy, cutting a wide swath through the beatific earth with perverse glee. There is occasionally an element of fiscal gain involved, resulting in a grotesque parody of Capitalism run amok, but just as often, the rampant destruction feels entirely arbitrary. Where it gets a bit strange is in the design of these ribald caricatures. Most are depicted as a sort of human/animal hybrid. This is not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where canisters of mutagenic sludge are a driving force behind the plot. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Mutants isn’t just down the block. Captain Planet strives to exist in a world that mirrors our own. The environmental catastrophes perpetrated on the show represent authentic concerns. So why are the Planeteers battling pig men? This design choice draws an undeniable parallel between these evildoers and the creatures populating the forests they’re so eager to decimate. Hoggish Greedly appears bound with nature in a way that the Planeteers can scarcely comprehend. Perhaps these characters are meant to evoke an animalistic nature that we must evolve beyond, but that feels at odds with the central anti-industrialist conceit. Pigs and rats may be an easy way for animators to depict greed and all-around nastiness, but when creating an environmentally conscious program, it’s probably best not to have your heroes duking it out with animals.
Believe it or not, the concept of the elemental heart extends beyond the crowd-sourced vision of Captain Planet, as a similar idea was co-opted by Luc Besson for his Die Hard-in-space film, The Fifth Element. The film features Milla Jovovich as the scantily clad embodiment of empathy, summoned by an ancient order of monks to protect the Earth from encroaching space doom (and Gary Oldman). It’s as dumb as it sounds.
This whole enterprise brings to mind the work of the German master Werner Herzog, who’s spent his career observing nature in rapt fear and awe. Films like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo give lie to the idea that man is anything more than another animal beholden to the whims of nature. Thankfully the asinine conception of a fifth element never escaped the 1990s. Four will suffice. If you absolutely need a fifth, maybe consider gravity. And the next time you feel an unchecked bout of hubris coming on, consider the words of Werner Herzog and weep: “The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man.”