The 80s was a difficult decade for Disney. Facing acquisition or bankruptcy after an attempted shareholder buyout put the corporation $866 million in debt, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were hired in a last-ditch attempt to save the company. They immediately set about revitalising the Disney parks, with an emphasis on drawing in a teen and adult crowd with popular culture and cutting-edge technologies.
But what do you get when you combine 80s pop culture with the latest visual and practical effects? You get Captain EO, a strange, costly, 4D space-age cinema adventure starring Michael Jackson and produced by George Lucas, which opened in 1986 and wouldn’t even last a decade.
Captain EO closed for the first time in Epcot on July 6th, 1994, in order to make room for Honey I Shrunk the Audience. Reopened in July 2010 thanks to renewed interest following Michael Jackson’s death, EO closed again in December 2015 due to dwindling crowds.
From Thriller to theme park
In 1983, Michael Jackson was on top of the world. Just the year before, Thriller had revolutionised the music video, and his record-breaking sweep at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards cemented his status as the undisputed King of Pop. Having created new ceilings in popular music just to smash through them, Jackson was ready to turn his attention to a new medium: film.
Coincidentally, Jackson was also a lifelong lover of Disney. He had visited the parks extensively after hours or in disguise to avoid being swarmed by crowds and had a well-documented love of Peter Pan.
When Jeffrey Katzenberg offered to escort Jackson on a private tour around the Imagineering department, then, he readily accepted. This tour coincided with one that newly minted CEO Michael Eisner was giving to George Lucas, who was fresh off of working on Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back.
An update for the ages
1984 was a do-or-die year for the Disney company. Walt’s remaining relatives, Roy, Lillian and Diana Disney, made the executive decision to force out Walt’s son-in-law Ron W Miller in favour of Michael Eisner, who had years of experience working as the COO of Paramount Pictures.
Eisner inherited a company in dire financial straits; billionaire Saul Steinberg had attempted to buy the corporation out, forcing them to buy back all Steinberg’s stocks at a value of $325.5 million, when the company’s value was just $10 million.
Eisner’s mission was simple: reinvigorate the parks by sweeping away their reputation as wholesome but outdated family fun, and increase their offerings to the teenage and adult market.
It was this desire that led to Eisner’s close working relationship with George Lucas, who would eventually create Disney World projects like Star Tours. When Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star in the world at the time, expressed an interest in working with Disney on a cinematic project, it was Lucas who brought all the disparate pieces together.
An out-of-this-world team
Michael Jackson was reportedly delighted by the idea of creating a 3D movie for the Disney parks but needed to be assured of its quality. He reportedly only agreed to work on the project if it was helmed by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, and Lucas happily obliged.
Lucas pulled showbiz favours with every big name in the entertainment world, resulting in one of the most stacked cast and crew lists in history. Though Lucas was in charge of the project, Francis Ford Coppola was brought on to direct, and Rusty Lemorande of Yentl and Electric Dreams fame was tasked with writing the script.
Outfits were handled by John Napier, the Tony-winning costume designer of Cats; Flashdance and A Chorus Line choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday collaborated with Jackon on the dance sequences; and creature design was handled by the team behind Ghostbusters.
Composer James Horner, who would later go on to score Braveheart and Titanic, provided the score, while rounding out a cast of Disney puppeteers and dancers was Anjelica Huston, co-starring as the evil Supreme Leader.
Of course, all these names came with hefty price tags, resulting in a project that was over budget from almost the first day. In the end, the 17-minute Captain EO cost an estimated $30 million to produce, making it, by the minute, the most expensive film ever made.
The production, though, would be plagued with a “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem. Eisner needed the movie to be a success to prove his thesis about making the parks more cutting edge, and Jackson, Lucas and Coppola all had strong feelings about how the film should go.
Most troublingly, the Hollywood “out of towners” were constantly clashing with Disney’s own Imagineers, who felt overworked and under-appreciated. Imagineer Rick Rothschild was only given three days to put together and pitch story ideas to Eisner, Lucas and Jackson – with the concept Jackson liked the most imagining him as a dashing space captain tasked with taking down an evil alien despot.
Production began, but Lucas and Coppola were both quickly distracted by other projects, with Coppola spending more time on Peggy Sue got Married and Lucas splitting his attention between two other troubled efforts: Star Tours and Howard the Duck.
Meanwhile, principal photography on Captain EO was completed and revealed the story to be completely incoherent, so much so that editing assistants allegedly conspired to hide the footage from Michael Eisner until it could be salvaged.
When Eisner finally viewed early cuts of the film, he was horrified by two things: Michael Jackson’s voice was too soft to convincingly evoke a swashbuckling hero; and the pop star had snuck far more signature crotch thrusts into the choreography than Eisner had bargained for.
The crotch thrusts were simply too numerous to cut around, and no one in charge of the production was brave enough to suggest dubbing or altering Michael Jackson’s voice to the superstar, so both issues were left unresolved.
Eisner was also facing Imagineer discontent, as the visual effects for EO were outsourced to Lucas’ own company Industrial Light and Magic, with Lucas himself jumping into the editing room to try to fix the various problems. However, the release window had been set for September of 1986, and so released the film was.
A mixed reception
Captain EO hit the Magic Eye Theatre in Epcot, Disney World on the 12th of September, 1986, after a star-studded premiere from which Michael Jackson was conspicuously absent. Jackson later explained that he was avoiding both the press and public at the time, but released a baffling photograph of him laying in an oxygen chamber, which he said was to promote the movie.
He did later sneak into the projection booth to watch audiences watch the project though, as he was eager to see how his performance would be received. Though the film received mixed reviews from critics, with many praising Jackson’s dancing and the visual effects but calling the project on the whole “empty flash”, the experience was an immense success with park guests.
Disney World’s Epcot remained open for 60 consecutive hours to satisfy the demand for the movie, and theatres showing Captain EO were opened in Disneyland California, Tokyo Disney and Disneyland Paris over the next few years.
Featuring fog machines, lasers and a giant fibreoptic star wall within the theatres themselves, Captain EO became one of the first true 4D movies in history, and was backed by an extensive merchandising effort, with t-shirts, souvenir cups and even plushies of Jackson’s sidekick Fuzzball.
Still, despite featuring cutting-edge visual effects and an ultra-modern sci-fi aesthetic, Captain EO faced the same problem as much of Epcot: it became dated fast.
As the 80s turned to the 90s, interest in the over-the-top Michael Jackson vehicle dwindled, both as developing computer-generated effects left EO’s cheesy flight animations and miniatures behind, and as Michael Jackson’s own star power was dented by sexual abuse accusations, painkiller addiction, and the breaking down of his first marriage.
Captain EO was closed on July 6th, 1994 and replaced with the Honey, I Shrunk the Audience show, with the Captain EO shows at the other Disney locations following suit over the following years.
Jackson’s death in 2009 briefly reignited interest in Captain EO, with what began as a private showing of the film at the Magic Eye Theater in Disneyland. Following fan pressure to bring the attraction back after the closure of Honey, I Shrunk the Audience in 2010, Captain EO reopened at Disneyland on February 23rd.
It subsequently returned to Disneyland Paris on June 12st, 2010, to Tokyo Disneyland on July 1st and to Epcot in Disney World on July 2nd. The show was missing many of its original special effects, including the giant fibre-optic starfield wall, lasers and fog machines, but still saw decent turnaround for the first few years.
As the shock of Jackson’s death dissipated, the show’s final round of closures began with Tokyo Disneyland in 2014, which closed Captain EO to make room for Stitch Encounter in 2015. In July of the same year, Disneyland commandeered the Magic Eye Theater to show a sneak peak of Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain EO was never screened there again.
Finally, Epcot’s Captain EO show was closed in 2015, in order to make room for the Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival. It is perhaps notable that in 2013 and 2014, two lawsuits were filed against Michael Jackson’s estate, alleging that Jackson had sexually abused both Wade Robson and James Safechuck as children. The media attention may have influenced Disney’s decision in 2014 to begin closing the Captain EO attractions seemingly for good.