Opening at Disneyland in September 1986, the 17 minute feature film Captain Eo represented landmark technology for its time.
Shot in 3D, executive produced by George Lucas of Star Wars fame, and directed by his friend Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, the Godfather etc.) it starred Michael Jackson, fresh from the global phenomenon of his Thriller album.
Rusty Lemorande, who produced the film, co-wrote the story with Lucas and Coppola based on an idea by the artists of the Walt Disney Imagineering company.
The Imagineering team originally suggested that John Landis direct Captain Eo on the strength of his success working with Michael on the Thriller short film. But George Lucas brought in Coppola instead.
The late James Horner, probably best known these days for his magnificent score for the movie Titanic, provided the score, with Michael penning two songs for the production, “Another Part Of Me” (1) and “We Are Here to Change the World” written with John Barnes, (2)
Michael reportedly came in with different versions of his songs on a daily basis, which has the ring of truth to it given what we know of Michael’s hands-on creative process and insistence on the highest possible standard in his art. (3)
In Captain Eo, Michael was accompanied by a cast of characters who seemed straight out of the Star Wars cantina scene – the pint-sized Fussball, two-headed Idey and Ody, the robot Major Domo and his mini-me Minor Domo, and everyone’s favourite critter, the elephant-like Hooter.
Captain Eo’s evil nemesis, the Supreme Leader of a decaying planet, was played by Anjelica Huston.
Though it opened in 1986, it was 1987 before I had the opportunity to see Captain Eo in Tomorrowland at Disneyland, California. I remember being dazzled not only by the film, but by the in-theatre effects that accompanied it – lasers, lighting effects etc. I came home telling everyone that it was like having Michael Jackson dance down the middle of the theatre right in front of me.
Looking back, that was obviously a fanciful exaggeration, but reveals the sort of impression that Captain Eo made on my memory – as one would expect for a project that cost US$23.7 million dollars. (4)
Captain Eo closed at Disneyland, California on April 7, 1997 and lasted until August 16, 1998 at Disneyland Paris. Thereafter it became another of the many Disney ‘lost attractions’ that were never expected to re-surface, expect perhaps as a nostalgia item on DVD or the Disney cable channel. Technology and special effects had evolved to a point where those in Captain Eo had become outdated and were at best described as “quaint” or, at worst “kitsch”.
Then, in 2009, Michael passed away, and there was a groundswell of support through the internet from MJ fans petitioning for Captain Eo to be returned to the Disney parks. Questions were asked about it at the D23 Expo in September 2009. At the time, Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger was quoted as saying that Disney was considering the possibility but that “It’s the kind of thing that, if we did it, would get a fair amount of attention and we’d want to make sure we do it right.” (5)
Iger reportedly had legal and public relations folk warning him of the possible backlash to the attraction because of Michael’s controversial legal problems in later years.
Nevertheless, there was an executive review of the film in its original Tomorrowland theatre at Disneyland, followed by another screening for Michael’s children and family, in September 2009. According to one report, “they loved it.” (6)
In 2010, Captain Eo finally re-opened in the Disney parks with the name on the attraction changed to read: “Captain Eo Tribute”.
I was planning to be in the UK in June 2010 for events related to the first anniversary of Michael’s passing when the news broke that Captain Eo would be reopening in Disneyland Paris on June 12. I quickly booked a Eurostar daytrip from London to take advantage of being so close to the park. Besides – it meant I would be travelling via the ‘chunnel’ (channel tunnel) which would be an adventure in itself.
My visit to Disneyland Paris took place on Thursday June 24, 2010. I’m not likely to forget it – being the first time I’d seen Captain Eo in 3D on a big screen since 1987 – and my first ever visit to Disneyland Paris.
I remember thinking that the in-theatre special effects weren’t quite as I remembered them (in fact they were modified from the original presentation) but while it didn’t seem that Michael danced down into the theatre, I was stunned by the larger-than-life close-ups of him on the big screen. I sat through three straight screenings that first time around.
Afterwards I chatted to a friendly female staffer manning the merchandise stall outside the theatre. We both marveled at how, in Michael’s extreme close-ups, you could see the beginnings of a five-o’clock shadow emerging through his make-up! (It’s true! This is what impressed me!)
And, of course, I bought up big on Captain Eo merchandise!
The trip to Disneyland Paris was just one part of a round-the-world Michaeling odyssey in June-July 2010 which eventually brought me to Disneyland in Anaheim, where the good Captain had returned to the Tomorrowland theatre on February 23 of that year.
On July 1 it also opened in Tokyo Disneyland and on July 2 in Walt Disney World’s Epcot.
But on this trip I only got to see him in Paris and Anaheim. I was to return to see him for repeat screenings at Disneyland each subsequent visit to the US over the next three years, including Christmas 2011 and the night of Mickey’s Halloween Party in 2012 – a great time to be at Disneyland AND to see Captain Eo! (The Haunted Mansion ride broke down while Litte MJ and I were on it… which seemed only appropriate given the occasion. The ghosts were having the last laugh… after all, it was THEIR night!)
July 2013 was to be my final opportunity to see Captain Eo at Disneyland in Anaheim although I didn’t know it at the time. But by the time of my next visit, December 2014, the theatre in Tomorrowland was being used for screening promotional clips for new Disney films. Fortunately I followed my usual practice of attending multiple screenings each day I was in the park in 2013 – for which I was later grateful. Never let it be said that I didn’t always make the most of every opportunity!
Early in 2014 some good friends of mine in Hong Kong alerted me to the closing of Captain Eo at Tokyo Disneyland. They suggested we go see it before its final screening, scheduled for June 30 that year. Consequently, on the evening of March 15, 2014, Yoly, Queenie, Jessica and I duly joined the queue outside Tokyo Disneyland’s Captain Eo theatre.
It was bitterly cold outside, but there was a warm press of bodies in the theatre lobby where we eagerly awaited admission to the next screening. The lyrics of Michael’s songs from the film were emblazoned on the walls of the theatre. They really know how to pay tribute to someone in Japan!
We didn’t do much else that night except view Captain Eo repeatedly. When my friends eventually returned to Hong Kong, I relocated to a hotel close to the Disney parks (Disneyland and DisneySea – the latter being even more spectacular than its neighbour) and spent three days just exploring them and, of course, seeing Captain Eo again.
It’s worth noting that on its last day of screening at Tokyo Disneyland, there were queues up to 45 minutes long to get in to see Captain Eo. MJ fans packed the theatre, many wearing Captain Eo t-shirts, and gave the film a standing ovation send-off. (7)
That left just Disney World in Florida, where Captain Eo continued to screen at Epcot until December 6, 2015. I made it to the park in October of that year, and got to celebrate Halloween at “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party”, where, to my delight, “Thriller” played over loud speakers a couple of times throughout the evening.
Needless to say, I had a great time travelling and visiting the different Disney parks in the course of my quest to see Captain Eo everywhere I could. In the process of this journey over the years, I met other fans of Michael Jackson and his little 3D space odyssey.
So, on behalf of all the fans who did – or didn’t get to see Captain Eo in 3D at a Disney park, I hope you think I ‘done good’ for a gal from Down Under in managing to see Michael’s film in every Disney park in which it screened. (I’m still visiting Disney parks whenever I can.)
Meanwhile, until the good captain and his delightfully odd-ball crew return to a Disney theatre or are unleashed on DVD/Blu-Ray or some other medium, in the immortal words of Captain Eo’s buddy Hooter:
“See ya later, trashcans!”
All photos by Kerry Hennigan except photos of Michael Jackson with Captain Eo characters at Epcot, Walt Disney World, Florida (official Disney publicity photos).
(3) Wade Sampson, “More Untold Tales of Captain Eo”, https://www.mouseplanet.com/9123/More_Untold_Tales_of_Captain_EO