Spotlight On: Captain EO

January 21, 2019

Walt Disney Imagineering. George Lucas. Millions upon millions of dollars. And the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. This could only happen in the 80s.


Welcome back to 1313 Disneyland Drive! Today we’re going to blast “Another Part of Me” and dive right into the 3D film Captain EO that screened exclusively at Disney parks worldwide and opened at the Disneyland Resort in 1986.


Captain EO poster | © Disney


     1. Development


Captain EO was conceptualized and developed in 1984, a time that could be considered peak Michael Jackson (two years after the release of an album you may have heard of called Thriller) and pre-peak Disney (five years before the Disney Renaissance would kick off with the release of The Little Mermaid). Imagine the context for a minute: Today, Disney owns ABC, we have Star Wars and Marvel themed lands on the way, and Neil Patrick Harris was part of World of Color in 2015. Disney is pop culture, and pop culture is Disney. But in the mid 80s, putting a pop culture icon as massive as Michael Jackson in Disneyland was a radical idea, heralded by former Paramount CEO and new Disney CEO Michael Eisner.


How did it happen? In an LA Times article from 1986, Imagineer Rick Rothschild said his team was given “three elements” to go off of. Those elements? “George Lucas, Michael Jackson, and 3-D.” According to Eisner’s 1998 book Work in Progress, Lucas served as a “lure” to get Jackson to agree to the project, since Jackson was a fan. Though the details of the story and the title changed several times, with early possibilities including The Intergalactic Music Man or Space Knights, the general premise remained the same: Michael Jackson’s character saves the galaxy in some way, shape, or form via the power of singing and dancing.


Michael Jackson agreed to the project, as did George Lucas, who would be the executive producer. Jackson wanted Steven Spielberg to direct, but he was too busy. Instead, Francis Ford Coppola joined the project to direct. Yes, the same Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather. At this point, the storyline was the same as the final product; Michael Jackson’s character and his crew of aliens visit a cruel space leader (played by Angelica Huston) and her planet, but evade capture and win her over with (surprise!) song and dance. Coppola was the one who gave the film and Jackson’s character their names, deriving the moniker “Captain EO” from the Greek word for dawn, “eos.”



Michael Jackson and George Lucas | © Disney via


Production began in the summer of 1985. The original budget was 11 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over 25 million dollars in 2018! But just wait, it’s going to get crazier. Anyway, Captain EO needed this budget for the incredibly ambitious special effects. For example, as also mentioned in the article linked above, one of Coppola’s visions for the film was that the ship itself should be mounted on hydraulics so it could shake and move around on its own.


The process of creating EO was far from pedestrian, for better or for worse. Based on the details provided by various people who worked on the film, it sounds like quite the ordeal. George Lucas was frequently absent from the set, distracted by Howard the Duck, the upcoming Star Tours attraction, his impending divorce, and the computer technology offshoot company that would eventually become Pixar. Side note, this may also explain why Howard the Duck is… what it is. But when Lucas did come by, he always had something to critique or change. The 3D technology meant filming took longer than expected, usually lasting until midnight. Coppola eventually stepped back and also stopped coming to set.


Filming, as wild as it sounds, was just the beginning. Special effects were the main draw of Captain EO, and this is where the cost began to climb. The $11 million was supposed to cover 40 effects shots for the film, but when the number of effects more than doubles to 140, well… Harrison Ellenshaw, visual effects supervisor for Captain EO, said:


I was in a situation where they said, “We want something no one has ever seen before … but we don’t want to pay for it.” In a nutshell, we went from great hopes, great ambition, to more hopes, more ambition, less money. By the time we were at the end of production, we were starting to descend into madness, because it was so illogical. It was so crazy.


Oh yeah. And Michael Jackson, who wrote and performed two original songs in the film, was grabbing his crotch too frequently during the dance numbers. Signature move or not, it panicked Disney executives who ordered EO carefully edited to hide those scenes. Check out this moment from a 1985 rough cut of the film that surfaced online in 2017, absent from the final product. Between special effects and concerns over Jackson’s pelvic movements, the film spent nine months in post-production. On top of this, there were issues with constructing the new theater, further adding to the delays. The original spring 1986 release was postponed to September 1986.


How much did EO end up costing? No one knows exactly, but it was likely somewhere between $17 million and $30 million. Even if it was only $17 million, for a glorified music video that’s only 17 minutes long, that’s a million dollars per minute!



     2. Opening


Captain EO was finally ready to debut. It went through a flurry of marketing promotion,  causing one LA Times reporter in 1986 to dub it “the most expensive and most ballyhooed short subject in film history.” The film opened in Epcot on September 12, 1986, and a few days later in Disneyland on September 18, 1986. At the opening ceremony in Disneyland, Michael Jackson himself was not present, but Janet and LaToya Jackson, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Anjelica Huston, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Eisner were all in attendance, among many other stars sighted in this grand opening TV special. OJ Simpson is one of them… it was definitely a different time.


Guests wore glasses to view Captain EO in 3D, but that wasn’t all. EO was one of the world’s first 4D movie experiences when it first premiered, with in-house lasers and smoke adding to the effects on screen.


The story begins with Captain EO and his crew (made up of Fuzzball, Major Domo, Minor Domo, the Geex, and Hooter) in their spaceship on their way to deliver a gift to the Supreme Leader. The action picks up right away as they search for the landing beacon, trip the planet’s alarms, get lectured via hologram by their commander (played by Dick Shawn), lose their map (come on, Hooter), get chased by the Supreme Leader’s ships, and crash onto the dark, decrepit planet where they are promptly captured by the Supreme Leader’s troops. It’s quite a lot for the first seven minutes. But the action is just getting started—the Supreme Leader descends and sentences Captain EO to one hundred years of torture!


 Michael Jackson in Captain EO  | © Disney via 2018 MJJ Music


He evades this perilous fate by delivering his gift of music (“We Are Here to Change the World”), with the help of his crew and some newly transfigured backup dancers with fabulous hair. The planet, its inhabitants, and the Supreme Leader herself are won over and transformed into an idyllic scene. Captain EO and his crew depart triumphantly as “Another Part of Me” plays.


Want to see for yourself? Captain EO has never been released on streaming or DVD, but there are several copies floating around the internet. This one is decent quality:


 While the above video is not in 3D, it’s pretty obvious to tell where many of the 3D effects originally occurred. The Supreme Leader’s talons, Fuzzball floating in midair, and the asteroid at the beginning are a few obvious examples.


Critics didn’t like EO for its “empty flash,” but, Disneyland guests loved it. And why wouldn’t they? If you were a guest seeing Captain EO for the first time in 1986, you were seeing what was probably the first 4D movie of your entire life, Star Wars-esque action scenes, and the biggest popstar in the world singing original songs. AND he does the moonwalk. What’s not to love?


Captain EO also opened in Tokyo Disneyland on March 20, 1997 and in Disneyland Paris on April 12, 1992.


     3. Closing (and re-opening, then closing again)


Eventually, Captain EO’s ship had to land. As the 90s progressed, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!, a 4D spinoff of Disney’s 1989 feature film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, began to replace Captain EO across the international parks. Disneyland’s version closed in 1997.


However, this was not the permanent end of the line for Captain EO. Following Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009, there was a renewed cultural interest in his works and legacy. The original Captain EO returned to the Disney parks in 2010 under the name Captain EO Tribute. The film itself was unchanged except for upgraded audio and sound quality. Some in-house 4D effects were also either altered or absent compared to the film’s original run.


Captain EO Sign  | © Evan Wohrman, via Wikimedia Commons


Many fans were enthused to see Captain EO’s return to Disneyland. February 23, 2010, saw ceremonies, a large lineup of guests, and plenty of nostalgic merch. Disney claimed that EO was back for a limited time only, but at Disneyland this ‘limited time’ stretched into four years, not closing until June 22, 2014. By December of 2015, Captain EO was once again absent from all Disney parks.


     4. What’s Left/Fast Facts


At Disneyland, many things have occupied the theater originally constructed for Captain EO, ranging from a recap of the Star Wars films to a compilation of Pixar shorts to previews for upcoming Disney movies. As of the writing of this column, a preview for Ralph Breaks the Internet is showing in the theater, but considering the movie has already been released you can probably count on something different taking over the space before too long. However, not since Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! or the reopening of Captain EO has there been an original, exclusive film to draw in guests. The space honestly feels underutilized. Hopefully we can see something new arrive to ‘change the world’ soon… or just revive EO for the second time.


Here’s some fast facts about this intergalactic tale:

  • Captain EO showed once on MTV in 2D. This is the only time it’s ever been shown officially outside of a Disney park.

  • “We Are Here to Change the World” wasn’t available to buy until the release of 2004’s “The Ultimate Collection” boxset of Michael Jackson’s work, and even then it’s shorter than the version in the movie.

  • “Another Part of Me” was available much sooner, re-recorded for the iconic album “Bad,” released in 1987.

  • There’s an official comic book adaptation of Captain EO.

  • Whoopi Goldberg hosted a TV special about the making of Captain EO that was also shown in the queue for Captain EO Tribute at Disneyland.

  • You can still find Fuzzball plushies on eBay! My birthday’s in a month, just saying.

That’s a wrap on everyone’s favorite sci-fi short film starring Michael Jackson, Morticia Addams, and a flatulent blue elephant alien. In my opinion, with or without nostalgia goggles, Michael Jackson’s acting is still impressive to this day. He clearly took the whole thing very seriously even while acting against only wacky alien puppets and costumes for the whole first chunk of the film. He is definitely one of the most talented performers of this era.


Want to keep learning about Captain EO? By all means, don’t stop ‘til you get enough. You can watch the TV specials mentioned earlier for an peppy look at what went into creating EO, but for a fascinatingly deep dive into this crazy project check out the Yahoo! Entertainment article on the history of the film. It’s a very interesting read with information straight from the mouths of those who worked on the project, and it greatly aided in my research for this column. Lastly, for more pictures, make sure to check out Yesterland.


Thanks for reading and see you on your next visit to 1313 Disneyland Drive!


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