Updated on May 31, 2022
Environmentalism is an occasionally featured subject in animation. A lot of the focus on ecology tends to be in educational material (PBS shows, the 90s series “Captain Planet”). Some cartoons (usually adult-oriented ones) opt instead to mock environmentalism as something only “whiny hippies” care about (“South Park”, etc.). I’m sure the latter view won’t age well, given ongoing and future climate change-spawned problems.
Below, I take a look at some cartoons with an Earth Day or Arbor Day (or general environmental) theme.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers
One of the most famous ecology-themed cartoons is “Captain Planet,” a show I watched when I was younger. While well intended, it did sometimes come across as heavy-handed, including on non-ecology issues like its drug abuse episode. Still, it’s a well remembered cartoon even today.
A few other reasons “Captain Planet” stood out:
- It’s one of the few cartoons produced during the Cold War to present Russian characters in a flattering light, via Linka. Though the fall of the Soviet Union occurring during the show’s original run led the opening credits to change Linka’s origin from “the Soviet Union” to a generic “eastern Europe.”
- “Captain Planet” is one of the few cartoons (or American TV shows period) to feature a Black African person as a main character. Kwame is voiced by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s LeVar Burton.
Boomerang and Cartoon Network used to air “Captain Planet” around Earth Day. (In 2019, the latter made this amusing short using redubbed footage.) However, at this point, nobody seems to be broadcasting or streaming the show. It is available to buy digitally.
The classic Dr. Seuss book about environmental wastefulness received a 1972 animated TV special. One interesting aspect in the special is a scene where the Once-Ler notes shutting down his factory will put hundreds of people out of work. The Lorax admits he doesn’t have an easy answer for that.
“The Lorax” received an animated treatment again, this time in a 2012 CGI animated feature where Danny DeVito voices the Lorax. This one took quite a few liberties with the original book, however—the Once-Ler is a visible character, for starters. The film’s advertising campaign also raised controversy with its tie-ins, including, of all things, a “Truffula Tree Seal of Approval” Mazda SUV. Not a hybrid or all-electric car, but an old-fashioned, gas-using SUV. (*Sigh.*) I suppose if there’s any consolation, anyone that bought this car when the film came out is likely now due for a trade-in… and car manufacturers, including Mazda, are now making a heavy transition to hybrids/all-electric cars. All of them with much better mileage than that “Truffula Approved” SUV.
The 1972 “Lorax” special is available to stream on Hulu, as well as on DVD.
The 2012 “Lorax” movie is available to stream on Peacock. It’s also available to buy on DVD/Blu-Ray and digitally.
“Peanuts” has had a few ecology themed specials.
The 1976 special “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” is one of the more obscure “Peanuts” specials. It features the gang preparing for Arbor Day by turning Charlie Brown’s baseball field into a garden, complete with scarecrows in the outfield, etc.
In 2022, Apple TV+ debuted a new Earth Day themed special, “It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown’s baseball field is again the center of the plot. This time, Sally wants to protect a flower growing on his pitcher’s mound.
Also in 2022, a new “Peanuts” short was made for Arbor Day (“We Need Our Trees”), centered around Charlie Brown’s poor kite-flying skills and a tree. The original strip had a “kite-eating tree” as the bane of Charlie Brown’s kite-flying. Here’s the short.
Both of the “Peanuts” specials above are available exclusively through Apple TV+.
If you’re looking to buy a copy instead, “It’s Arbor Day” is available as an extra on the “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” DVD, plus the out-of-print “Peanuts 1970s Collection, vol. 2” DVD set. The Earth Day special, however, is exclusive to Apple TV+.
“Nature Cat” is a PBS animated series that debuted in 2016. It features the adventures of a quartet of talking animals who enjoy the outdoors: Nature Cat (voiced by Taran Killam), a boisterous house cat who ventures outside when “his family’s away for the day”; Hal (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), a ditzy but nice dog; Daisy (voiced by Kate Micucci), a rabbit who carries a smartphone; and Squeeks (voiced by Kate McKinnon), a somewhat snarky but kind mouse. Most of the cast are voiced by 2000s/2010s-era veterans of “Saturday Night Live.” (Series antagonist Ronald was voiced by yet another “SNL” veteran, Kenan Thompson, in the first season.)
Given the show’s subject, it’s no surprise “Nature Cat” has an Earth Day episode, complete with a song. The episode centered around the gang trying to stop grocery store plastic bags from polluting the environment (a real-life pollution concern). “Nature Cat” also had an Arbor Day episode, with the gang saving an opossum family’s tree.
“Nature Cat” is available to stream through PBS Kids’ app, as well as a handful of episodes on YouTube. Some episodes are also available on DVD and digital video.