The Misadventures of Captain EO - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I discussed the creation of Captain EO, the casting, and the puppets. Today, the story continues.

After the table reading of the script, Coppola decided to have the performers do an acting exercise to improvise a scene to help them bond. The puppeteers and actors were assigned the role of children at a summer camp. Coppola told them secretly that under no circumstances were they to mind Jackson.

Jackson was the camp counselor and Coppola told him that if he couldn't get the children to behave that he would be fired. Huston was the owner of the camp and her secret was she wanted Jackson fired.

Hardin remembered that they enjoyed being disruptive children to Jackson's continued frustration, but that everyone, including Jackson, was terrified when Huston entered the scene. At one point Huston grabbed Jackson by his shirt and lifted him 10 inches off the floor as she yelled at him that he was fired. Jackson kept his distance from her the rest of the filming.

James Horner, who had recently scored Disney's Something Wicked This Way Comes (and decades later would score Titanic), provided the orchestral score for the film.

Jackson himself wrote the two songs featured in the film: "We Are Here to Change the World" and "Another Part of Me." The latter song appeared on Jackson's hugely successful Bad album (1987), but "We Are Here to Change the World" was not officially released until 2004 as part of "Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection."

Pre-production on the project began in March 1985 with three weeks of principal photography scheduled once shooting started. The same big blue screen from Disney's sci-fi film The Black Hole (1979) was used for filming the scene where Jackson danced out over the audience's heads.

During filming, many celebrity friends of the people involved, primarily Jackson himself, visited, including actresses Kathleen Turner, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor (who delighted in tickling Jackson's feet when he was strapped into a harness for a flying stunt and teased him that she should have been cast as the queen), singer Joni Mitchell, actor Warren Beatty and, one day, even the entire Jackson family. These visits slowed down filming considerably.

The Captain EO poster touted the attraction as a "motion picture space adventure".

It was not surprising that this production, which was always in a state of constant flux, quickly ran over the budget. While Disney never confirmed the actual cost, it was reported that the 17-minute film ended up costing somewhere between $17 million and $30 million, or roughly more than $1 million a minute, making it at the time the most expensive film ever made. Its original budget had been $10 million.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner said: "Captain EO ran over budget. The biggest factor was special effects, some 150 of them, more per minute than Lucas had used in Star Wars."

According to WDI final billing, but a figure never released to the public, Captain EO cost $23.7 million. That is how much money was transferred to the project code by the studio when all was said and done.

For accounting reasons, when WDI does a project, those charges are collected and transferred into a project code. The project is then "sold" to the park so it can be capitalized on favorable terms.

Why did it run almost $14 million over its original budget? Certainly, the talent and technology were expensive (although that was supposedly addressed in the original budget), but the real cause was that the project went into production without a firm story so things were constantly being changed every day.

A scene was filmed of the transformed queen "knighting" Captain EO with a sword before the ship crew left the planet and another with her troops holding spears over their heads as they approach EO earlier. Part of these segments briefly ended up in the Making of Captain EO documentary.

Other things were also filmed but not used, including shots of the spaceships that were completely finished, but that Lucas later decided he did not like them, so new space ships were designed, built and filmed.

In fact, Jackson would come in each day with different versions of the songs resulting in other things being rewritten. Captain EO was one of the first examples of a park project where "everybody had to approve everything," whether they knew anything about that aspect of the project or not, and that ran into time and money.

So it was important that the Walt Disney Company got good value out of its increased investment.

At the time, George Lucas was working on the Star Tours attraction, which Eisner kept insisting be called Star Rides because he liked the word "ride" right up until the attraction opened.

Most people assumed that Star Tours was running behind schedule because of the technology and Lucas' notorious need for perfection. It turns out that Star Tours was ready to go on time, but the opening was purposely delayed so as not to detract from Captain EO's debut, which did not make Lucas happy.

Captain EO tells the story of Captain EO, the leader of a spaceship with a "ragtag crew" which included a dwarfish, clumsy, green elephant-like creature called Hooter, who plays musical notes through his flute-like trunk; a small, long-tailed, orange-haired flying creature called Fuzzball, sometimes described as a monkey with butterfly wings; two shaggy-haired, conjoined creatures known as the Geex (Idy and Ody), who served as navigator and pilot; and a silver, metal, officious robot security officer named Major Domo who had a smaller robot, Minor Domo, attached as a module to his back.

Commander Bog (a holographic head performed by the talented comedian Dick Shawn, whose scene was shot separately so he was never on the set) is displeased by the bungling of this group of misfits and gives them one final mission to redeem themselves.

They are to follow a "homing beacon" to a forbidding, dark industrial planet of sinister twisted metal and give a gift to the Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston). Since a hungry Hooter has mistakenly eaten the star maps with the necessary directions, this becomes a problem.

Crashing on the planet, the crew finds its way to the palace of this witch queen creature where they are captured by her army and threatened with torture for their unauthorized visit.

Captain EO agrees to the punishment and tells the queen that she is beautiful, but lacks a key to unlock her beauty. He tells her they have brought her a gift to allow this to happen and the queen asks for it.

His crew transforms themselves into a musical band. Before EO can share his magical song, however, Hooter stumbles into the equipment, rendering it momentarily useless and angering the queen, who orders her guards to capture EO and his crew.

A short battle ensues as Hooter repairs the equipment, and then EO's song transforms the dark, stiff, mechanical inhabitants into agile and colorful backup dancers.

The song "We Are Here to Change to World" shows Captain EO turning the planets inhabitants into colorful dancers.

Defeating the queen's Whip Warriors, EO turns her into a beautiful woman and her palace into a peaceful, vibrant Greek temple. The planet is transformed into a verdant paradise reminiscent of the work of artist Maxfield Parrish.

EO and his crew dance back to their ship and leave the planet as the inhabitants wave good-bye, grateful that the power of music, dance, and light had filled the planet with all the shades of the rainbow.

The finished footage was not as impressive as hoped. Jackson lacked a commanding presence as the lead character, Huston's role had been trimmed severely during shooting, and the attempts at humor and urgency felt flat and forced. Even the staging of the 3-D effects seemed to pale in comparison to Kodak's Magic Journeys that had previously run in the theater.

By this point, Coppola was already involved in his next film, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), scheduled to open a month after Captain EO, and Lucas was struggling with Howard the Duck (1986), which would open one month before Captain EO, as well as facing challenges with his work on the Star Tours attraction and other aspects of his business.

Reportedly, scriptwriter Rusty Lemorande and Jackson did some re-shooting and re-cutting (at one point using a spray-painted ball cock from a toilet as a stand-in for the head of the Minor Domo puppet when the puppet couldn't be found).

Several of Jackson's hand gestures like his famous crotch grabs during his dancing that might be considered inappropriate to a general family audience were edited out in a variety of ways including zooming in to a close-up.

Cinematographer Peter Anderson said, "Michael had a propensity to do his crotch-grabs. It was kind of unheard of back then, and this was Disney. I was told to crop the upper torso or go for a tighter shot or something like that, [but] they were part of his routine. So it wasn't like [he was only] occasionally doing it. It was on his beat. Disney started cutting [the film] together and saying, 'Oh dear, oh dear'."

There was even discussion to modulate Jackson's speaking voice to a lower octave because it seemed too high or even have his speaking lines dubbed. However, no one wanted to broach that subject with the singer so the idea was dropped.

While there had been plans for Disney's Imagineering to work on all the special effects (the talented Harrison Ellenshaw is listed in the credits), Lucas gave the film to Industrial Light and Magic to "fix," and the subsequent delay in giving the film to Disney was blamed on Lucas's notorious perfectionism. Basically, the 17-minute film was in post-production for nine months.

One Imagineer, who worked closely on the project, described the raw footage of the three weeks shooting as "a mess." To make matters worse, there were three moments in the film where it was out of sync: two audio moments and one instance of 3-D. (Those problems, by the way, were not fixed when the film opened.) The last effects shot for Captain EO was the logo jutting out into the audience.

However, it could have been the worst film ever made and it would have made no difference, because it was done at the height of "Jackson Mania" and the opportunity to see Michael Jackson singing and dancing to two new songs he had composed guaranteed success.

Captain EO opened at Epcot on September 12, 1986, but the big premiere was scheduled for its Disneyland opening on September 18, 1986. The film would later open in Tokyo Disneyland in 1987 and Disneyland Paris in 1992.

Live theater special effects were added for Captain EO, including lasers, fiber-optic stars, and fog effects, all painstakingly synchronized with the action on the screen. So, officially, it was actually a 4-D experience because it incorporated actual in-theater effects synchronized to the 3-D film.

Frank Wells renegotiated Kodak's contract, with Kodak agreeing to pick up some of the film's production costs, build a new theater at Disneyland, and renovate Epcot's 3-D Theater to accommodate the special effects for Captain EO.

The week of the grand opening, the National Enquirer printed the infamous photo of Jackson lying inside a hyperbaric chamber. It was theorized that, in order to live to be 150 years old, he slept in it each night to get an influx of oxygen.

In reality, several biographies of Jackson pointed out that Jackson himself leaked the picture purposely at that time to draw attention to the premiere of Captain EO, especially with its "sci-fi" aspect. However, when it drew such negative attention, Jackson decided not to attend the premiere.

More than 200 members of the international press attended the Disneyland premiere and were herded into the Tomorrowland Space Place eatery, where they were given a press kit containing nine separate releases, six photos, and a commemorative Captain EO T-shirt.

Surrounded by free coffee, soft drinks, and croissants, the press could watch a trailer about the making of the film on an endless loop.

The big parade of celebrities began around 2 p.m. Over 100 celebrities attended the grand opening of Captain EO at Disneyland, where they were chauffeured down Main Street to a cheering crowd. There were so many celebrities—from Jack Nicholson to John Ritter to Annette Funicello—that the parade did not end until 90 minutes later.

By 5 p.m., the rising heat had made things uncomfortable, and the children brought by their celebrity parents were beginning to tire and become cranky, but it was still not time to see the film.

Jack Wagner introduced the Pine Bluff High School and Washington High School Marching Bands, and also Gregg Burge, from A Chorus Line, who some speculated had been chosen because he was a young male African-American with a singing and dancing background to perhaps represent the absent Michael Jackson.

Burge burst into an original Disney song about "Let's make way for tomorrow!", followed by a float featuring costumed character versions of Hooter, the Geex, and Major Domo.

At the end, Eisner smiled and addressed the crowd: "Michael Jackson is here!" The crowd got very excited but Eisner continued, "But he is disguised, either as an old lady (something Jackson had actually done once to meet with the Imagineers), an usher, or an Animatronics character."

Nobody in the audience, especially the journalists, believed Eisner. While there is still debate whether Michael Jackson showed up for the official premiere (though his mother and two sisters did attend), he did indeed pop in to watch the "test" shows at Disneyland.

Since he had taken to wearing a surgical mask, he was easy to spot by guests. When that became an issue, Jackson sought sanctuary in the projection booth to watch the film and the reactions from the audience.

After a speech by Kodak's vice chairman, Coppola, Lucas, and Anjelica Huston gathered at a red ribbon drawn across the entrance to the theater. Nearby were Coppola's nephew actor Nicholas Cage and the newest Jackson superstar, Janet.

Reading from cue cards, they proclaimed:

Huston: "For all those who still believe in the magic world of fantasy and imagination…"

Lucas: "For all those who are still moved by the wonders of music and dance…"

Coppola: "For all those who share Walt Disney's dream and delight in the promise of the future, we cut this ribbon signifying the opening of the 3-D musical motion picture space adventure, Captain EO!"

Animation historian and film critic Charles Solomon, reviewing the film in the Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1986 echoed the feelings of many people when he wrote:

"For all its wondrous imagery, Captain EO is nothing more than the most elaborate rock video in history; like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny, it's a glorious surface over a void…given that list of credits and the film's lavish budget, audiences have a right to expect more than empty flash."

As expected, the show opened to long lines of eager guests. One Disney survey showed that 93 percent of Disneyland guests listed seeing Captain EO as the primary reason for coming to the park those first few months. At the earliest screenings, the audience would repeatedly break out in applause several times.

A special 30 page 3-D comic book adaptation of the film's story written and drawn by Tom Yeates was produced in 1987 by Eclipse Comics. A special tabloid version was available for sale at the Disney parks along with other merchandise from plush characters to keychains to T-shirts.

Over time, the film attracted fewer and fewer new guests, less and less repeat attendance and increasingly odd behavior by Jackson in public certainly didn't help the situation either.

One of the things Lucas learned from the experience was that he should probably do theme park projects on his own. He told Rothschild just before the opening, "We had no idea what we were getting into."

To assemble a team for a possible theme park, Lucas made very attractive offers to some of the Imagineers. Most of these Imagineers could not accept the offer, because Frank Wells had recently instituted the practice of doing contracts for members of the WDI team and there was a "no-compete" clause for the length of the contract if anyone decided to bail out of their contract early.

Captain EO closed quietly and without fanfare at Disneyland in April 1997. It had already closed in July 1994 at Epcot and in September 1996 at Tokyo Disneyland. It lasted until August 1998 at Disneyland Paris.

With the tragic death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009, there was renewed sentimental interest in Jackson and his music and Disney was receiving pleas to bring back Captain EO. At first, CEO Robert Iger insisted Disney would not bring the film back but Disney also noticed that the 3-D attractions playing at their parks were experiencing lower attendance.

So supposedly for just an "exclusive limited engagement," it was decided to return Captain EO to the parks.

It was called Captain EO Tribute to distinguish it from the original, since many of the original 4-D effects including the fiber-optic star field, smoke and lasers had been removed from the Disney parks theaters worldwide when the attraction had closed and changed over to another show.

A new 70mm print of the film was produced for the attraction from the Interpositive Blowup made in the 1980s and the sound was enhanced. Sometime in 2013, Disney made a 4K Scan and Digital 6 track Restoration of Captain EO because of the brittleness of the existing print and projectors.

Before the show, an announcement proclaimed: "Almost 25 years ago, the power of music, dance, and imagination came together to create an amazing, out-of-this-world adventure. Now, Captain EO is back to change the world again."

The attraction reopened at Disneyland on February 23, 2010; Disneyland Park Paris on June 12, 2010; Tokyo Disneyland on July 1, 2010; and Epcot on July 2, 2010. Kodak briefly sponsored the revival for about a year.

Despite being a "limited engagement", the show lasted for another four to five years because it was less expensive to keep it running than replace it. The attraction closed at Tokyo Disneyland on December 19, 2013; Disneyland June 18, 2014; Disneyland Park Paris on April 12, 2015; and Epcot on December 6, 2015.

One of the reasons the film has not been officially available on video or DVD is because the original contracts required that the performers would have to be paid additional compensation for any showing outside of a Disney theme park. In addition, rights would have to be renegotiated with the Michael Jackson Estate.

The film did air once, and only once, in a 2-D format on MTV in the early 1990s as part of a tribute to Michael Jackson. Bootleg versions of the film, like ones of the film Song of the South, are readily available with a little looking.

Captain EO was a 3-D movie with new songs by the most popular singer of the time and it could only be seen at a Disney theme park. It was an event.

The character of Captain EO wanted to change the world. The attraction Captain EO changed entertainment at the Disney theme parks and remains a sentimental favorite for many Disney fans.



  1. By danyoung

    A terrific two-parter - thanks for posting!

  2. By fishgal

    Very interesting article.

    However i am curious about the part regarding Jackson being in the projector room. This room was kept locked and off limits to everyone as it was dangerous to be inside there, occasionally the bulbs would um combust and cause quite a bad situation in that room, hence it was kept locked and unaccessable even to the cm's. Though i guess if anyone has the pull to get in there Jackson could have, but it was not a room that was available to enter normally for safety reasons.

    But i really enjoyed your article. Fun stuff.

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