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“Captain EO,” Michael Jackson and Disneyland

24 September 2009 Stories and Appreciations 21,223 views 6 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

On the night the late Michael Jackson moved into Disneyland, a huge party was held. The secretive pop star had paid plenty of commando visits to the Happiest Place on Earth over the years, almost always in disguise, but on September 19, 1986 he made the Park his official home. For the next decade he’d live in Tomorrowland’s Magic Eye Theater, where his film “Captain EO” would screen a hundred times a day and a gigantic projection of Michael’s jewel-encrusted, three-dimensional self could battle space aliens and asteroids and Anjelica Huston from dawn to dusk.

The fact that Michael wouldn’t be physically living in the Park was but a minor detail; a housewarming party was thrown anyway. For the first time in its history, Disneyland allowed overnight guests. The Park stayed open from the morning of September 19 to the evening of September 21, to allow as many people as possible to see Michael’s 16-minute musical space epic. At one point, the line to get into Michael’s world stretched to three hours in length. And on that first night, I was in that line.

I remember only a few details of that long-ago all-nighter. I remember that the “Captain EO” logo was projected huge on the side of the Matterhorn. I remember lying down on the floor of the CircleVision Theater, where the soothing travelogue “American Journeys” put hundreds of us to sleep for twenty minutes at a time. I remember watching the morning sun break across the Park, coursing through the angles of Tomorrowland and bathing Sleeping Beauty Castle in soft silvers and blues. I remember buying a bag of sour cherry balls at the Main Street Candy Shop, because as a friend of mine put it, “long lines mean sour balls.” And I remember watching “Captain EO” for the first time.

Before I say another word, I must clarify that I am here to not to bury “Captain EO,” but to heap very qualified praise upon it. The 3-D music video, which enjoyed an exclusive engagement at Disneyland and EPCOT Center from 1986 to 1997, was created as a showcase for the singing and dancing talents of its star. Those talents are still visible in “EO,” and even in the crappy-looking version circulating on YouTube, Michael’s performance remains undiminished in its impact. You can say what you will about the man’s lifestyle and his misadventures in the California legal system, but you can’t deny that he could sing and dance like no one before or since.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so disappointing that Michael’s singing and dancing are the only parts of “Captain EO” that have aged well. Former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner surrounded the pop giant with the best talent he could buy at that time — director Francis Ford Coppola, producer George Lucas, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, actors Anjelica Huston and Dick Shawn, and the creative geniuses of Disney Imagineering – and together, they brought forth something that looked dated scarcely a year after it was made.

So much goes needlessly wrong in “EO.” Hornaday’s choreography pinched the “pyramid” formation from the “Thriller” video pretty much wholesale. Coppola seemed ignorant of the fact that he was directing around a large number of visual effects and allowed them to hijack the action. Worst of all, Lucas was just beginning to go all Jar Jar in the head: The cutesy aliens of “EO,” which only the maker of “Howard The Duck” could have imagined, are poorly-conceived, badly-operated puppets with names that describe their looks – the little guy with the big nose is called “Hooter,” the fuzzy sidekick is called “Fuzzball” and so on. They make the Gungan look like Lord Olivier.

I have no problem with a bunch of smart people consciously setting their minds to make a flawed, but pretty 3-D movie for kids; Robert Rodriguez makes one such film almost every week. But this was a Disneyland attraction, and the first major one in years; they could have worked harder to insure that the visuals lined up, the dialogue popped and the puppets worked.

That said, when I saw “Captain EO” for the first time, none of that mattered. My friends and I may have talked a lot of smack about Michael in his heyday, but once he threw his head back to belt out “We Are Here to Change The World” and “Another Part of Me,” we shut up and nodded along. It was impossible not to feel chills watching Michael punching the air and pounding his complex patterns into the floor. He was the only special effect that “EO” truly needed.

I mention all of this because until a couple of weeks back there was a red-hot internet rumor that “Captain EO” would return to Disney’s theme parks for a limited engagement, as a sort of tribute to the late superstar. At a recent fan convention, Bob Iger firmly denied those rumors, which told me everything without my having to read the full record of the Disney’s CEO’s comments: Iger had actually sat down and watched the film. From there, it’s actually a pretty direct path to “There’s no way we’re putting this goofball enterprise back into the theme parks.”

Though it would be fun to see Michael move back into Disneyland, I’m kind of glad that “Captain EO” is unlikely to return to this galaxy. Young audiences would laugh at the film’s terrible puppet work and visuals; the white-belted hipster crowd would co-opt the Day-Glo awfulness of the costumes; and a handful of parent groups would resurrect decades-old protests, all of which would overshadow the miracle of the film. In 1986, “Captain EO” allowed Michael Jackson to move into Disneyland. And I still envy him for it.

Geoff Carter

Portions of this piece originally appeared in Your Souvenir Guide.

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6 Comments »

  1. I never got a chance to see EO. I kind of lament that, but at the same time I’m pretty sure I’ll live. Your totally dead on about the hipster co-op, I can see the artfully ironic t-shirts already…

  2. Oh who can forget the first time they saw Captain EO? Honestly the thing I remember most is my Grandmother talking loudly through the entire thing because she insisted her “GLASSES DIDN’T WORK!”–She was blind as a bat to begin with and even the Magic of Disney and Michael combined couldn’t change that… Great piece Geoff!

  3. […] for same-sex couples to dance to. It was roofed over and enclosed in 1984 to accommodate “Captain EO.” I don’t particularly miss the open-air theater, but in enclosing a space that was not […]

  4. Ah, but they did!

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/02/michael-jackson-fans-line-up-at-disneyland-for-return-of-captain-eo.html

    If I ever needed a reason to go back to the park this year, I’ve found it :)

  5. I’m very happy to be proven wrong, Lisa. I’m looking forward to flying with EO’s crew again. Wonder what it would take to get Adventure Thru Inner Space back?

  6. […] that brought you the Yodelling Pickle and the Fuzzy Pink Skull (for girls!) — I wrote about "Captain EO," and why I think we'll never see it in a Disney theme park again. Also in Monkey Goggles: I […]

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