I mentioned in my LABYRINTH review that I thought Michael Jackson would’ve been a cool Goblin King. Sorry about that. I take it back. Mr. Bowie was uniquely suited for the character and I’m glad he got to hang out with all those puppets and implant himself in the creepy childhood memories of millions around the world.
And besides, Michael got his chance to get a little muppety, because the next Lucasfilm release was this 17 minute 3D film starring Jackson as “the infamous Captain EO,” leader of “a rag-tag band” of aliens and robots and crap sent on a dangerous space mission to deliver a gift to the Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston). EO gives his crew a speech about how everybody thinks they’re a bunch of fucking losers and if they don’t pull this mission off they’re gonna be “drummed out of the corps.” Which really makes you wonder how they got into the corps in the first place. What kind of boot camp can these weirdos make it through?
They seem to be kind of the Bad News Bears of space troopers. They’re bickering, cartoon-voiced goofballs who screw everything up and get yelled at by the Captain (except when they throw an egg at the hologram of Commander Bog [Dick Shawn, The Year Without a Santa Claus]), which makes him laugh).
The crew consists of a robot named Major Domo (voice of Gary DePew, producer of ANGEL 4: UNDERCOVER), another one named Minor Domo that attaches into the Major’s back, a furry two-headed monster named Idey (Debbie Lee Carrington, RETURN OF THE JEDI, HOWARD THE DUCK) and Odey (Cindy Sorenson, THE DARK BACKWARD), a green elephant-man named Hooter (Tony Cox, RETURN OF THE JEDI, SPACEBALLS, BAD SANTA) and a small furry guy with butterfly wings named Fuzzball (effects by Rick Baker, makeup man for the cantina scene in STAR WARS as well as Jackson’s Thriller video). All are small in stature, most are inept and cowardly. But EO leads them through a space battle, a crash-landing and a dark tunnel to the Supreme Leader, who turns out to be a grey and black Giger-esque biomechanical witch hanging from a web of cables and corrugated tubes. She is not happy to see them.
Jackson wanted to get into movie acting at that time, but they didn’t hire him for his acting. This is a glorified music video for the excellent original song “We Are Here to Change the World.” (I bought the “Ultimate Collection” box set mainly just to get that song.) EO’s gift for the Supreme Leader is to sing and dance for her; the robot transforms (through stop motion apparently done by Douglas Aberle, who did Claymation on Wil Vinton projects including The California Raisins and Michael Jackson’s MOONWALKER) into a set of instruments.
Jackson choreographed with Jeffrey Hornaday (FLASHDANCE, STREETS OF FIRE, TANGO & CASH, CARLITO’S WAY). I love Jackson’s dancing, and this is kind of like the ultimate version of it ’cause he’s wearing a cool sci-fi outfit, he’s on a big sci-fi set, when he opens his jacket his t-shirt design glows, the 36 dancers create a percussive rhythm with some of their moves, and most importantly not only do his arm movements create whooshing wind sound effects like a kung fu movie, they also shoot magic beams.
This is honestly a movie about the transformative power of music. When EO is attacked by “whip warriors” his magic turns them into his robot backup dancers. Then he goes through shooting beams at all these other guys, turning them into what can only be described as ’80s dudes. Basically, anybody that fucks with him is just gonna get a makeover and join his posse. But he did it in self defense.
When his gift turns the wicked alien into her true self – Angelica Huston dressed up nice and held aloft by two hunky dudes – EO immediately turns around and dance-struts into the sunset to the tune of “Another Part of Me” (another great song that was later on Bad) while everybody celebrates.
I wonder if their missions were always this kind of stuff? The narrator talks about their “struggles to bring freedom to the countless worlds of despair.” In this case he brings them music, joy and bold new fashions, but maybe that makes them more free. I think there’s some conflicting dialogue about whether the whole universe is at stake or if this is just some thing they gotta do right now as part of their job. I hope it’s the latter. This is kinda like DREDD, it’s just one of the cases he has. He’s probly dancing for monsters all the time.
CAPTAIN EO played only in the Magic Eye Theaters at Disney theme parks. It was not only presented in stereoscopic 3D, but with in-theater effects including smoke and lighting that made it look like lasers were shooting out of the screen into the theater. The 3D effects were impressive, especially the seemingly endless opening credits shot of an approaching asteroid and the shot at the end where Fuzzball flies toward you, which invariably made kids say “He flew up right in front of me!”
It played in Disneyland from 1986-1997, when it was replaced by another short full of clever 3D gimmicks, HONEY I SHRUNK THE AUDIENCE. After Jackson’s death Disney closed HONEY so they could show CAPTAIN EO privately to Jackson’s children. This served as a test run for it to return temporarily (from 2010 to 2014) as “CAPTAIN EO TRIBUTE,” apparently named that way as an admission to purists that it didn’t have all of the original in-theater effects. It did have a bunch of them, though, and rumbling seats, which I didn’t remember being part of the original, I believe they were left over from the shrinking movie.
Since it’s a theme park attraction, not a normal movie, it has never been released on video. But I’ve seen it alot over the years because I had a VCR ready one it played in 2D once on MTV as part of a “Michael Jackson Weekend.” Though the “tribute” has flown away like E.T. (or Noa and Cindel) you can enjoy this version of the short on Youtube (sorry, the best one I found takes the 4×3 TV version and stretches it).
CAPTAIN EO came about because new Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to bring together the company’s movie studio and theme parks to do a big show-offy project together, and they’d also been wanting to do something with Jackson. Jackson wanted Lucas (who was already working with Disney on the Star Wars movie ride STAR TOURS) to produce and Steven Spielberg to direct, but since Spielberg was busy (maybe doing THE COLOR PURPLE and Amazing Stories? Or because he was executive producing GOONIES, BACK TO THE FUTURE and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES around that time?) Lucas brought in his homeboy Francis F. Coppola. Lucas was pretty busy around then himself, producing the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, the Ewoks TV movies, LABYRINTH and HOWARD THE DUCK. You know, all those guys who came up together, they were all getting into executive producing. That was the rage back then. So Disney brought in Rusty Lemorande, a former executive, producer of YENTL and writer of ELECTRIC DREAMS, as a more hands-on producer. He also ended up doing some second unit and editing. He wrote the screenplay to the specifications of Lucas and Coppola, based on ideas brewed up by the Disney Imagineers.
There’s a good article about the production on Yahoo! Movies of all places. Apparently Rick Baker was pissed off because he had to paint Fuzzball red at the last minute when lighting director Vittorio Storaro (yes, the cinematographer of LAST TANGO IN PARIS and APOCALYPSE NOW) decided the aliens should be the colors of the rainbow. Storaro butted heads with the cinematographer, Peter Anderson, who had to worry about the technical requirements of shooting in 3D, which included brighter lighting than Storaro wanted. While Storaro came with Coppola, Anderson had come out of Disney, doing camera and effects work for THE FOX AND THE HOUND, THE BLACK CAULDRON, the original live action version of FRANKENWEENIE and TRON. He went on to be an expert at 3D ride films, working on the legendary T2 3-D: ADVENTURE ACROSS TIME and MUPPETVISION 3D as well as ones for U2, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Marvin the Martian, Sesame Street, King Kong, Star Trek, Cirque du Soleil, and others. He also did effects for STAR TOURS, the other ride film Lucas was developing for Disneyland at the same time as CAPTAIN EO (though that was not 3D until its recent revamp).
The film was edited by Lisa Fruchtman (APOCALYPSE NOW) and Walter Murch (also APOCALYPSE NOW, co-writer of THX 1138, sound designer for THX and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, and later director of an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars). The score is by James Horner, who had not worked with Lucas before then, but had done a good job scoring Roger Corman’s STAR WARS rip-off BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.
I didn’t believe it when I saw it on IMDb trivia, but the article confirms that Disney thought Michael’s voice was too high and wanted to dub him. Apparently the only reason they didn’t is because they didn’t have the balls to ask him for permission. This seems crazy. Everyone had heard his voice in the “Thriller” video, if not in interviews, the banter in “The Girl Is Mine,” THE WIZ, the Jackson 5 variety show, etc. I think they would’ve noticed if he suddenly had a low voice.
The article describes numerous meetings and editing sessions at Skywalker Ranch, but also says Lucas was very busy and would kind of come by every couple days and tell people what to do. One thing he did was insist on the sets looking all beat up and old, like in STAR WARS. He didn’t like the designs of the ships, so after they’d already been shot he had Joe Johnston do new designs, which ILM shot. Though he wasn’t always around, he wanted to keep tinkering with it until he was happy with it, which caused Disney to reluctantly keep pouring more money into it. Keep in mind they were shooting on film, in actual stereoscopic 3D, at 30 frames per second to capture the dancing better, sometimes with two Panavision 65mm cameras connected together, so they could project it in 70mm. According to the lowest estimate it cost about $1 million a minute, making it at the time the most expensive movie ever made. From a certain point of view.
Coppola was in debt from ONE FROM THE HEART and it sounds like he kinda just did this as a job. He had two weeks of filming before he had to leave for PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and as soon as he left his son Gio took over, uncredited. Tragically, Gio was killed in a speed boat accident a few months before EO opened.
A couple of our favorite actors showed up for the big premiere at Disneyland:
“Here comes one of the most consistently fine actors in Hollywood, Mr. Charles Bronson,” said Justine Bateman, co-hosting a promotional TV special about the premiere with Patrick Duffy. (If you can’t tell, the other picture is “from ROCKY IV, a real winner, Dolph Lundgren.”
Michael did not make himself known at the premiere. Most likely he wasn’t there, though Eisner claimed or joked that he was there in disguise. He also didn’t go on talk shows to promote the movie or anything like that. Instead he leaked the for-some-reason-infamous photo of himself supposedly sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, to get the tabloids talking about what a weirdo he is.
I’m not sure he needed to promote it though. I think people were already gonna go to Disneyland for their summer vacations anyway.