July 5, 2012

We Are Here to Change the World: Michael Jackson as Captain EO (1986)


Since my current marathon focuses on the '80s, this is the perfect time to discuss one of the theme-park gems from that era. Opening on September 1986, Captain EO is a 3D movie that appeared in four Disney theme parks around the world. Michael Jackson stars as the title character in a silly outer-space journey to save the world. The King of Pop belts out several tunes and shows the power of song and dance to overcome any evil. The $30 million production was actually directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, so there was some serious power involved. James Horner wrote the score, and none other than Angelica Huston plays the Big Bad. The 17-minute film incorporated the typical 3D effects with smoke, lasers, and other in-theater effects to increase the fun. Let's start this look at the movie with the voice-over introduction that opens the story:

"The cosmos. A universe of good and evil, where a small group struggles to bring freedom to the countless worlds of despair. A ragtag band, led by the infamous Captain EO..."


The story opens by presenting the silly creatures on this spaceship. We have several robots, a double-headed pilot, the owl-like being Fuzzball, and the wonderfully named Hooter (Tony Cox). This clumsy blue guy resembles a small elephant but stands upright. He also has a problem with flatulence and inadvertently causing trouble. Getting the dramatic entrance on a rising platform is Captain EO, who gives a determined speech to rile up the ragtag bunch. Clad in a flashy white suit, he doesn't seem like your typical space hero. Jackson gives a laughably unconvincing "we're the best!" claim that isn't supported by their immediate crash.


Showing up to raise the pressure is their boss Commander Bog (Dick Shawn), who appears as a holographic head. Apparently, this isn't their first troubled mission. While being pursued by alien ships in a Death Star-like trench, they manage to stay alive while slamming into the surface. Their ultimate survival depends on Hooter jumping to press a red button. This isn't so easy for the diminutive alien. The in-theater laser effects and motion-controlled seats help to draw us into the big action scene. While they may seem a bit dated when compared to newer attractions, they still pack a good punch. After landing, he grabs a trash can for a disguise, which doesn't work so well. EO's gang is captured, so presenting "the gift" to the evil Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston) may be very difficult.


Hanging from a giant mass of twisted metal, the Supreme Leader is quite the imposing figure. Her giant finger nails are perfect for reaching out and grabbing a 3D audience. The situation looks bleak for EO's group, but then he reveals the gift, which she must "not only see, but hear". Look out, here comes the King of Pop! I knew they hired that guy for a reason. After some convincing and expensive stop-motion animation, the group turns into an impromptu band. Hooter nearly ruins the day once again, but he recovers and gives EO the chance to turn the metal creatures into cheesy '80s dancers. Apparently, his powers also deliver information on choreographed dance moves. It's wonderfully hokey and ridiculous, but I challenge anyone to not start tapping your feet to the grooves of "We Are Here to Change the World".  EO seems ready to prevail, but then the Supreme Leader brings out the big guns. These enemies mean business, but a last-minute save by Fuzzball does the trick. EO releases some more dancers, and these guys have the best moves yet. When the funky bass line kicks in, you know that our hero's ready to uncork his greatest routine ever.


I know that Captain EO is dated and ludicrous, but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun. Even when it's watched at home on the small screen, this cult favorite retains the enjoyment. When Jackson belts out his Bad tune "Another Part of Me", it's a pretty infectious experience. I wouldn't call myself a devoted fan, but something about this short movie fits with his style. When a fairly young Angelica Huston is ultimately revealed, it makes little sense, but I'm totally on board at that point. Jackson throws out some dancing punches, and you know that EO has saved the world. What evil can compete with the power of music and dance? It transforms an ugly sci-fi planet into a bright, heaven-like land. EO and his team soar into space, ready for their next challenge.


Captain EO gave its last performance at EPCOT in 1994, and its other presentations ended their run a few years later. It was replaced by Honey I Shrunk the Audience, which originally drew large crowds but had become dated in recent years. Following Jackson's death in June 2009, Disney recognized an opportunity to bring back this attraction. They solved the problem of needing to replace the current show and knew the move would please the devotees. Captain EO returned to all four parks during 2010 in a tribute version that didn't retain all the original in-theater effects. However, they beefed up the sound and provided an experience that might even improve on the original set-up. While this seemed like a temporary move to capitalize on the revived interest in Jackson, it continues to run today. I made it a point to visit this attraction when we went to EPCOT this past February, and it remains highly entertaining. It offers an interesting look at a specific time period when Jackson remained at the height of his power. Before the scandals and other craziness, he was able to star in a new Disney attraction and draw major interest. The crowds aren't piling into the theater at the same level today, but the smaller groups seem to be having a great time. I expect that Disney will replace it at some point, but I'm glad they gave fans who grew up in the '80s another chance to check out this movie on the big screen.

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10 comments:

  1. I'm a huge MJ fan but this looks awful.

    Having said that, I would be in line at EPCOT if I managed to get to DisneyWorld. There is a great book that discusses everything to do with the disney theme parks and it really is great - something like THE ART OF DISNEY. A whole chapter discusses every theme park Walt and the imagineers created.

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    1. Simon, you're right that Captain EO is pretty bad. However, it has the right amount of cheesy '80s fun that makes me still enjoy it. I don't have THE ART OF DISNEY, but I've read my share on the backgrounds of the parks. You should hop over to Disneyland Paris! It's not too far away!

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  2. On my one and only trip to a Disney theme park back in the late 80s I stood in line to see this. All I can remember is the obvious "trench from Star Wars" scene and the 3D effect where the cute little creature seemed to come out into the audience and wave. Other than that, my memory is a blank on this.

    (By the way, the Canon Eos came out soon after this. Naming coincidence? I think not.)

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    1. Interesting coincidence, Chip. This time, I really noticed how the one scene resembled the trench from Star Wars. I think that creature flies out at the end, though it's not as impressive in 2D. Only one trip to a Disney park?

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    2. I live in Maine and with parks in Florida and California I am about as far away from them as you can get. I'm also more into the outdoors than into manufactured parks. Finally, I am an impatient person who really does not like to stand in lines. It was telling that even back then they had signs up along where the line formed telling you how many hours you were from reaching the actual ride.

      It was the original - Disneyland in California - that I went to. It was my one trip to California and that was one of the touristy things I did. I also went to a taping of the Tonight Show where Carson had Siskel and Ebert on the show.

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    3. I totally understand about the lines and manufactured parks, especially if you're in Maine. I went to Florida a lot as a kid, so I think it's just in the DNA now. It's cool that you got to see Siskel and Ebert, not to mention Carson.

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  3. I didn't even know Captain Eo had been brought back when I went to Disney World in Jan., 2011. I was a huge fan of Michael Jackson since I was a kid and I first saw Captain Eo the year it was released on my first trip to Disney World. I was 10. Then on every subsequent trip, I saw it again. I was devastated when they ended it. So when I rediscovered the movie on my last trip, I saw it 5 times. Yeah, a little obsessive, but not as bad as the 15 times I did the new Star Tours...

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    1. Lynne, I remember seeing Captain EO as a kid at Disney World and liking it. What surprised me was how much fun I had with it when I've seen it during the past few years. I'm hearing rumors it may not last much longer, though.

      I did the new Star Tours six times when I went to California, and amazingly I got the same sequence four times. That was a little disappointing, but it was so addictive.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  4. Being the Michael Jackson fan I am. I find the film to have not aged well even probably not really the best at the time of it's debut (but I was born in 93). At least the best thing that rocks of it, is the music of course.

    There are other attractions that have shown no signs of age (even some long gone ones) but this one shows it. I am not a jaded person (like some folks), but I wish this film could of seen better. I wonder what may eventually replace this show (since the Star Wars rumor by the 'purists' is a lie).

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    1. Red, I agree that it's totally dated and probably felt that way by 1990. Having it back in the parks after a long absence was a nice bit of nostalgia, though. I was born in 1976, so I saw it a few times in the late '80s. I think the music holds up, but it's not so good as a movie.

      They're going to replace it soon I expect, and I have heard about Star Wars at Disneyland and some type of upgrade at Disney World. Still, it's all rumors at this point, and Captain EO could stick around for a while given the company's reluctance to spend much of anything at the parks.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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