Somewhere deep in space, a pilot and his ragtag group of companions travel through the galaxy. Their quest? To visit the supreme leader. This supreme leader is more like an evil alien queen who seems to be cast under a spell. But, they are captured. How will they escape, break the spell, and bring peace to the galaxy?
The plot I’m describing isn’t an early draft of Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy, but something possibly more unique.
What I’ve described is a unique project that combined Michael Jackson, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Disney set during a time of a changing media landscape and an era d when the giant media company was struggling.
today I take you back to 1986 and one of the most unique and remarkable collaborations ever. This is the story of… Captain EO.
Setting the Stage for Captain EO
We’ve all seen the Michael Jackson Thriller video. There’s the official shorter version for regular broadcast that is 3:22 long, but the real offering was the nearly 14-minute version that acted like a short film. And this was the game changer. This groundbreaking music video not only helped to further Michael Jacksons’ superstar status but changed the way we approached music videos. Music videos could now be performance art.
They could be mini-movies with a plot and enhanced production values. When Thriller was released in December 1983 (after Halloween, I might add), it blew people away. The choreography, cinematography, story, and direction were something we hadn’t seen before on our small screens.
But three years later, Michael Jackson would do it again. This time, however, it was in a project that wouldn’t have the same lasting legacy as Thriller, but is still a remarkable collaboration between some of the best talent in Hollywood history that many people never got to see. Captain EO was a 17-minute long mini-movie or extended music video–depending on which way you want to look at it.
Released in 1986 at Disneyland and Epcot, Captain EO was a 3D and fully 4D attraction. It was a collaboration between Jackson, Disney, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. It combined the latest movie-making advancements from the time, 3D technology, featured original music and was incredibly expensive to make. But this is a story that’s more than just a unique collaboration but came during a time when Disney wasn’t exactly on top of the world and during an era when the media landscape was changing. But what exactly was Captain EO and how did this incredibly unique project all come together?
The Plot of Captain EO
Captain EO is about a starship captain trying to bring peace to the galaxy. The name Eo is said to come from the Greek word “Eos” meaning dawn. Was this to symbolize that Captain EO was the dawn of a new era for Disney? More about that in a bit…
Captain EO (played by Jackson) and his wacky group of companions embark on a quest to present a gift to the evil alien queen, the Supreme Leader (played by the great Anjelica Huston). The Supreme Leader is like an evil queen who lives on a desolate, steam-filled planet.
Fun fact: Shelley Duvall aka Wendy Torrence from The Shining was the first choice for the evil queen, but dropped out before Anjelica Huston came on board.
Houston was married to Jack Nicholson to give this some nice Shining synchronicity. Captain EOs crew is made up of his petite flying companion Fuzzball, two-headed navigators, the robotic security officer Major Domo, the tiny robot Minor Domo, who fits inside Major Domo, and the awkward elephant-like colleague Hooter who constantly undermines the mission’s success.
They reach the queen’s planet but are captured. Captain EO informs the Queen that he sees the hidden beauty within her and offers her the key to unlock it through his song, “We Are Here To Change The World.” The robotic crew members then transform into musical instruments, and the rest of the crew joins in playing the instruments. Eventually, the spell is broken, and the Queen orders her guards to capture Captain EO and his team.
Hooter quickly repairs his instrument and sends out a musical blast, granting EO with the power to fend off the guards. He uses his power to turn guards into graceful dancers who follow him in a dance performance. When the Supreme Leader unleashes her Whip Warriors–which are like cybernetic protectors–the rest of the crew runs away, leaving Captain EO to face them alone.
As the whip warriors prepare to strike a final blow, Fuzzball unties their whips, enabling EO to transform them as well. With no further obstacles, Captain EO transforms the Queen into a beautiful woman, the lair into a serene Greek temple, and the planet into a lush paradise. They celebrate with another song called “Another Part of Me,” as Captain EO and his crew exit triumphantly and depart into space.
There’s a bit of everything in Captain EO. It feels like Guardians of the Galaxy, Labyrythin, The Dark Crystal, and of course, Star Wars. Speaking of Star Wars, there are the famous stories that Jackson wanted to play Jar Jar Brinks in the Phantom Menace, but George Lucas wanted to go the CGI route, and Jackson wanted to play the character live action but in prosthetics–just like the Thriller video.
Speaking of prosthetics, a lot of the characters in Captain EO are actually puppets. The only thing missing from making this the ultimate collaboration was Jim Henson, but Henson recommended Bruce Schwartz, an elite puppeteer, for one of the roles.
Another one of the performers was Tony Cox, who performed the role of Hooter, which was an elephant-like creature that may or may not look similar to Max Rebo, the blue elephant-looking keyboard player from the Cantina band in star wars. Cox was in many classic 80s movies. He was in Willow, appeared as an Ewok in return of the Jedi, played one of the Dinks in Spaceballs, was the minister in Beetlejuice, and you may remember him as the limo driver in Me, Myself, and Irene.
How Did Captain EO Come Together?
As mentioned, Captain EO was a truly elite collaboration. It was made for Disney, written by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and featured choreography by Jackson and Jeffrey Hornaday who did the choreography for Flashdance. But how did this extraordinary collaboration come together? Captain EO was created during a unique time in media. Today, we are of course used to giant entertainment mergers, relentless cross-promotions, corporate synergy, and corporate branding.
It’s not that this wasn’t a thing in the 80s, but just not at the levels we see today. In 1983, Pepsi tapped into this with a massive five-million-dollar partnership to feature Jackson in their advertising campaigns.
That’s nearly 15 million when converted to today’s money. This deal shattered the record for celebrity endorsement deals and really set the standard for what celebrity endorsement campaigns would look like going forward. The Pepsi ads began to run in 1983 and 84 and did wonders to rejuvenate and elevate the soft drink company.
Coca-Cola apparently offered Jackson a million-dollar deal, which he passed on for Pepsi. And this is interesting because did this set in motion the disaster that became New Coke? I have a previous article all about this but thanks to Michael Jackson, Pepsi became the cool Cola and increased its market share over Coca-Cola. Coke, desperate to catch up and regain popularity, introduced New Coke in 1985, which became one of the biggest marketing disasters in history.
The filming of the Pepsi commercials is also when an infamous accident occurred which resulted in Jacksons’ hair catching fire. This was in 1984 and the singer experienced second and third-degree burns. Going into the mid-80s, Jackson was arguably at the height of his popularity, and the King of Pop was everywhere. Thanks to Pepsi, he was now the voice and face of the youth-targeted New Generation and Disney wanted to get in on the action.
Tough Times For Disney
Disney, of course, rules the entertainment landscape today, but this wasn’t exactly the case in the mid-80s. At this point, it had been years since their golden era of animated classics, and they only had a few moderate hits like Herbie the Love Bug, and Tron. But there was a stretch of unremarkable hits, including things you may not have heard of like Amy, Night Crossing, and Tiger Town. And then there was the disaster of the Black Cauldron, which–at the time–was the most expensive animated film ever produced.
Since the latter part of the seventies, and into the first half of the 80s, Disney had moved away from animated films, opting for my live-action offerings. besides The Fox and the Hound in 1981, The Black Cauldron was their only other animated movie in nearly 7 years.
When it was released in 1985, the Black Cauldron flopped pretty badly. It didn’t even make back half of its enormous budget. The studio was banking on this movie big time and it was out-grossed financially by the Care Bears movie. Again, hard to comprehend, but at the time, the financial disaster that was the Black Cauldron almost sunk the animation department of Disney. Along with the struggles on the big screen, other areas of Disney were also struggling a bit, including the theme parks.
IN 1984, Michael Eisner came on board. He came to Disney to turn things around and change the direction of the company. Eisner wanted to rejuvenate some of the struggling divisions in a combined effort and this was the genesis of Captain EO. Captain EO would combine the production side of the company with the theme parks while also showcasing their engineering. This project would be a production that would not only play at the theme parks but show the world Disney was back and better than ever. And this meant bringing in the biggest star in the world: Michael Jackson.
Disney is a product, and like Pepsi, hopefully, Michael Jackson could give the brand more exposure and star power. Luckily, Jackson was a huge Disney fan. There are stories that he would often go to the parks in disguise so he wouldn’t be absolutely mauled by fans. But they would also keep the parks open after hours for Jackson and his friends.
In his memoir Moonwalk, Jackson discussed how Disney wanted him to design a ride and he would pretty much have carte balance to create whatever he wanted. Eventually, this idea turned into a movie.
This was actually a bit of a risk for Disney because as big as Michael Jackson was–and the incredible technological showcase that Captain EO would be–would it appeal to everyone young and old? Disney created its own characters and stories. Would the inclusion of Michael Jackson diminish that this was a Disney project or would it feel more like a Michael Jackson showcase? Fortunately for Disney, Jackson loved movies and wanted to make something creative and unique.
Captain EO would be more than just a futuristic short film. It featured 3D technology and even a 4D presentation. It would be part film/part ride and audiences would experience hydraulic seats, lasers, smoke, and even smells to enhance the visual experience. But how would they bring this vision of the future to life? At this point in the 80s, there were only two people who could deliver something on this grand scale…
Disney Brings in the Big Guns
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the two obvious choices to create this science-fiction spectacle. Spielberg dropped out, but the king of the swashbuckling space opera was still available. George Lucas wrote Captain EO but wasn’t able to direct it, as he was busy with his own projects and Industrial Light and Magic. Lucas was also working on a new computer project that would go on to become Pixar.
And The same year that Captain EO came out, 1986, Lucas also release another science fiction-style film that featured ILM and was based on a little-known Marvel character: This was the infamous Howard the Duck movie. So Lucas couldn’t direct, and Spielberg was out, but Lucas convinced longtime friend Francis Ford Coppola to take on the director role.
Francis Ford Coppola is, of course, an all-time legend in Hollywood, but in the mid-80s, he had a string of less-than-stellar hits. One of Coppola’s notable hits that helped turn things around, Peggy Sue Got Married, had yet to come out and he was in some financial trouble from the rough box office run.
Working on Captain EO was a way to keep his head above water before work on Peggy Sue Got Married began. But Captain EO would be a challenge for the legendary director, as he has to think about it as a ride, attraction, and music video as much as a film. Shot composition and dramatic story beats had to sync up with lasers and releases of steam, which would occur during the viewing. Not a common way for a filmmaker to work.
And as mentioned, it was critical that Captain EO be a technological showcase. At this time, Disney wasn’t exactly pioneering special effects, but the production was able to bring in Harrison Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw created many of the backgrounds in Star Wars and would serve as visual effects supervisor on Captain EO, which was being called Space Knights at the time.
Captain EO also had a who’s who of industry heavyweights. The production featured award-winning costume designers, makeup artists, and creature designers. They even had legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro as the lighting director. This is one of the most influential cinematographers in movie history and filmed movies like Apocalypse now, and The Last Emperor, which he won Academy Awards for.
Disney was leaving nothing to chance here. Filming began on July 15th, 1985. And right away, production became complicated–and expensive. And it was a little dangerous. Michael Jackson apparently had to visit the hospital in the early stages of filming after injuring his hand.
Filming in 3D also proved to be complicated. This was live-format 3D, which made lighting and production difficult. Again, they were pushing the technology and had been working with Kodak to make custom cameras to create the 3D.
Having that many talented people together sounds like a blessing, but it began to complicate things–and slow down production. Everyone had great ideas, but a variety of strong opinions would often bring things to a halt. Not to mention the parade of A-listers coming by the set to see Jackson and what this production was all about. And the early footage was apparently a mess and would take a lot of work to put together.
And remember, Captain EO was more than just a short film–it was partly a music video and a showcase of Michael Jackson’s singing and dancing ability. Jackson created two new songs for the project: “We Are Here to Change the World,” and “Another Part of Me,” the latter of which would end up being on the Bad album released in 1987. The dance numbers–combined with the music–brought the essence of the Thriller video to Captain EO. The music and performance was a key part of Captain EO as it took up 7 of the 17-minute run time.
The Release of Captain EO
Despite all the difficulties, the principal photography was finished in around 2 weeks. But there were a ton of expensive special effects shots to complete which would be handled by Industrial Light and Magic. They also had to build and create 700-seat theatres in both parks, along with the real-life effects that would play around the film.
And this brings up the issue of the exorbitant costs to make Captain EO. Some reports say Captain EO cost up to 30 million dollars to create. Some say it was around 23.7 million, and others report it was in the 17 million dollar mark. Either way, it was A LOT and even at that lowest amount, this would be one million dollars per minute, which reportedly made it the most expensive feature ever created until Titanic in 1997. Speaking of Titanic, James Horner, who created the score for Titanic, also created the score for Captain EO.
But they were creating something groundbreaking and revolutionary. This was important for Disney and required a big launch. A grand opening ceremony took place in September 1986 at Disneyland with a parade and broadcast hosted by Patrick Duffy from Dallas and Step by Step and Justine Bateman from Family Ties. This huge event–to be aired on NBC–featured 100 celebrities and performances by Belinda Carlisle, The Moody Blues, Robert Palmer, and Starship–basically, the most 1980s lineup ever.
There was even a one-hour documentary hosted by Whoopi Goldberg about the making of the movie to air on the Disney Channel. Michael Eisner wasn’t messing around and they were going full-on with Captain EO to show the world they were at the pinnacle of progress and entertainment. The film–and the event–were all about taking Disney to the next level and to the next generation. In an article from September 10th, 1986, the LA times said how Disney made the Captain EO launch the “film event of the year.” And Michael Jackson didn’t show up.
But Critics didn’t exactly love Captain EO. The LA Times called it “the most expensive and ballyhooed, short subject in film history.” I didn’t have a good personal definition for the word ballyhooed, but Webster’s defines it as “a noisy attention-getting demonstration, and flamboyant, exaggerated, or sensational promotion or publicity.” That is a pretty interesting description.
Fortunately, audiences ate up the ballyhoo (Did I use that right??) Captain EO was available to the public starting on September 19th, 1986.
But here’s the problem; that you may remember if you grew up during all this. obviously, not everyone can get to Disneyland or Disney World Epcot Center–would Captain EO be released elsewhere? This didn’t look to be the case.
But I don’t think Disney was worried about that, as the intent with Captain EO was that it was essentially a commercial to get people to the theme parks and show the world that Disney was cool again. And it worked. The film played on a continuous loop and the park took in 2 million dollars at the gate that first weekend.
In an article for Yahoo, Harrison Ellenshaw, who did the special effects, said that 93% of attendees said Captain EO was their reason for visiting Disneyland. Wow. It definitely created a lot of interest, but also frustration for many people knowing they would never be able to see it. Ultimately, it looked to have helped with Disney being seen as part of 1980s pop culture. They aligned themselves with the biggest pop star in the world and made their parks a bigger destination than they had been in years.
Eventually, Captain EO opened in Tokyo, then EuroDisney–before it blew up. Captain EO ran at Epcot until 1994, and at Disneyland until 1997. After Jackson’s death in 2009, some of the parks started to show it again.
But what about the fact that you could only see this thing in the theme parks? Well, in 1996, Captain EO aired once on MTV. Eventually, various versions of it were released online.
The Legacy of Captain EO
I’ve watched this thing, and there is a cheesiness element to it, but that’s part of its charm, and as much related to the time period it came from. And Captain EO really is a combination of several pop culture classics. There is the star wars element but Captain EO, to me, also feels like The Last Star Fighter, Labyrinth, He-Man, The Wizard of Oz, Captain Power, and even a bit of Fraggle Rock.
It also really reminds me of The Orville, which is the sci-fi series created by Seth MacFarlane. It’s hard to ignore the star wars element to Captain EO, but I don’t think we were meant to as Disney was really leaning into this aspect.
Captain EO featured that “used future” look that Lucas used so well in Star Wars where everything isn’t shiny and new, but worn and aged. But I could see 8 or 9-year-old me absolutely loving Captain EO. The effects really are good considering how old it is and the work by Industrial Light and Magic looks great.
The sets and models are really extraordinary, some of which look like they’re right out of Return of the Jedi. I can only imagine seeing this in 3D on a giant screen, as you can see where the various 3D elements play into it that are lost when watching in 2D. I imagine that a 4k, truly remastered version of this would look pretty amazing, even in 2d, and even by today’s standards.
Captain EO was really a groundbreaking piece of work. Part movie, part music video, part theme park attraction, and part piece of marketing, Captain EO combined the very best of Hollywood talent and capitalized on the enormous popularity of Michael Jackson.
It pushed the limits of the available filmmaking technology, featured 70 mm 3D film, and state-of-the-art digital recording and playback. And It helped to usher in a new age for Disney. Captain EO was a project that thought outside the box in every way imaginable, and it completely captured 1980s pop culture in one 17-minute production.