Friday, November 20, 2009

Captain Eo Returns


Incredible as it sounds, reliable sources say Disney Imagineers are mulling over plans to un-mothball Captain Eo for a return engagement. Disney Chairman Robert Iger is downplaying the rumor--but not dismissing it altogether--while members of Team Disney Anaheim are reportedly hammering out the logistics for a possible January rollout.

The 1986 musical sci-fi extravaganza starred Jackson as the human captain of a band of gregarious space creatures on a mission to vanquish the forces of darkness with joy and music. Academy Award-winner Angelica Huston (Prizzi's Honor, The Royal Tenenbaums), played the sinister, reptilian Supreme Leader who is ultimately redeemed by Eo's music, while comedic actor Dick Shawn appeared in a holographic cameo as Eo's supervisor, Commander Bog, looking very Jor-El-like with his Marlon Brando hair and eyebrows. The film was heavily influenced by The Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars, with Angelica Huston's makeup reminiscent of H.R. Giger's designs for Ridley Scott's Alien.

The film's dance numbers were choreographed by Jeffrey Hornaday (Flashdance), and Jackson himself wrote the two musical numbers, We Are Here to Change the World (later included in the 2004 limited-edition box set, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection), and Another Part of Me, a version of which appeared on Jackson's record-breaking album, Bad, and was also released as a 1988 single.

Captain Eo was shot in 70mm 3D for projection in specially-equipped theaters at Walt Disney World Orlando, Disneyland Anaheim, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Park Paris. At WDW Orlando, the film was shown in Kodak's Magic Eye Theater (now the Imagination Institute), located in the Imagination! pavilion at Epcot Center. The venue had previously hosted the 3D film, Magic Journeys, and was retrofitted with lasers, smoke machines and fiber-optic effects to create a more immersive experience. The film was produced by George Lucas and Rusty Lemorande, with Francis Ford Coppola directing. (According to OC Weekly's Matt Coker, Steven Spielberg was offered the job, but passed due to other obligations.)

With all that talent on board, Captain Eo was bound to be expensive, and it was. The 17-minute epic cost about $30 million, which works out to a little over $1.76 million per minute, making it one of the costliest films ever produced for the running time. It had legs, though. The film played at Walt Disney World Orlando from September 12th, 1986 till July 6th, 1994, when The Magic Eye Theater was closed for retooling into its current 3D attraction, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! (based on Disney's 1989 film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!).

Captain Eo was a likable little movie that benefited from having been lensed before Jackson's surgical addictions had gotten the better of him. And the film was loaded with eye-popping 3D visuals. When exhibited with the full arsenal of in-theater enhancements--i.e., fiber-optic star fields, realistic explosions, and lasers whizzing overhead--the effect was fairly spectacular. (Read a lively first-person account of the show at .

Wax effigy of Michael Jackson recenty unveiled at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in HollywoodWax effigy of Michael Jackson unveiled last August at the new Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum on Hollywood Blvd. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

It's a fun show. But why bring it back after all this time?

The answer has to do with the public's insatiable appetite for all things Michael Jackson. According to an article by Dawn C. Chmielsewski of the LA Times, the posthumous surge in Jackson's popularity and music sales inspired Disney President Robert Iger to arrange for a special presentation of Captain Eo for a handful of top studio executives, to "see if there were some possibilities." According to Chielsewski, Iger reportedly found the film "charming," and "funny, too."

According to noted Disney sourcehound Al Lutz of, the September 8th screening took place at Disneyland Anaheim, and happened this way: 'The Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! show was quietly closed, and Imagineers moved in with a truckload of equipment used to install the Captain Eo show for a special executive presentation planned for early Thursday. The executive review of Captain Eo went off without a hitch from a technical standpoint, and after another show for Jackson's children and family, the Eo equipment was dismantled and the Honey! attraction reopened to Disneyland visitors by Saturday.' 

Clearly, Disney's chief exec had more than a passing interest in Captain Eo. Apparently he wasn't the only one. According to Lutz's usually reliable sources, Disney Imagineering in Glendale and Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) both felt that Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! had long overstayed its welcome. Attendance at the attraction had dwindled to a fraction of what it had been a decade earlier, and both Glendale and Anaheim were thrilled at the prospect of slotting Eo back into its old venue. According to Lutz, Imagineers felt that "a return of Captain Eo would be a great shot in the arm for this almost forgotten facility," while Anaheim "was giddy over the thought of all the locals who would descend on the park to see this piece of 1980's kitsch reborn for the 21st century."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the D23 Expo, Disney's big 3-day fan convention that took place at the Anaheim Convention Center September 10th-13th. By the time Bob Iger arrived on September 10th--two days after the special screening of Captain Eo in Anaheim--he apparently had cooled to the idea of an Eo revival. According to a September 11th article in, Iger reportedly stated, "There aren’t plans to bring back Captain EO at this time." As if sensing the cosmic sigh of disappointment, he added, "We are looking at it. It’s the kind of thing that, if we did it, would get a fair amount of attention and we’d want to make sure we do it right." 

Disney chief Robert Iger answers questions at Disney's D23 Expo in AnaheimDisney President Robert Iger at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, Sept. 10, 2009 (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

So, which is it, Bob? 'No plans to do it' is not the same as 'we want to do it right.'
Lutz thinks Iger got lawyered-up: 'Iger had lawyers and PR reps from Burbank whispering in his ear...about the possible backlash to the attraction stemming from Michael Jackson's controversial legal problems.'

But that doesn't sound like Bob Iger. He may be a lot of things, but timid isn't one of them. This is the same guy who, as an executive at ABC, went way out on a limb by urging the network to pick up David Lynch's hypnotically baffling series, Twin Peaks, which went on to earn high praise from critics and became one of the network's highest-rated shows.

The lesson is that Iger ought to listen to his instincts, not his minders. Regardless of what the legal acolytes say, interest in Jackson is at an all-time high, and Iger cannot honestly believe that anyone really cares about Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! The only reason anybody visits the attraction at all these days is to get out of the rain. It's overflow parking for tired pedestrians.

Regardless of what Iger is saying publicly, the idea of a Captain Eo revival is far from dead in the water, says Lutz. "As of now there is still a strong possibility that Captain Eo will at least return to Disneyland, especially considering all of the technical work already completed by WDI and the logistical plans made by TDA in the last two months...the plan is for Captain Eo to run for at least six or nine months and then close after the summer of 2010."

So why the vague doublespeak on the part of Iger? According to Lutz's sources inside the company, Iger's team are trying to figure out how to link the return of Captain Eo with Disney's 2010 marketing campaign centered on good works and community volunteerism. "That will all take time to develop, though," says Lutz, "and Iger wasn't about to commit to it at the D23 Expo, which helps explain the answer he gave to the Captain Eo questions at D23."

At Walt Disney World Orlando, President Meg Crofton and her staff are being tight-lipped about the rumored return of Captain Eo. Once Iger makes up his mind, we'll likely hear plenty.

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