I come here not to bury “Captain EO,” but to heap very qualified praise upon it. The 3-D space opera, which enjoyed an exclusive engagement at Disneyland and EPCOT Center from 1986 to 1997, came “to change the world,” and it did. From its mighty Tiberian banks flow such mighty tributaries as “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” “High School Musical” and Michael Ian Black’s comedy bits on VH1. It is an epochal work.
More than anything else, “Captain Eo” represented the first time, at least in my estimation, that artists from the cream of every artistic discipline — director Francis Ford Coppola, writer George Lucas, actress Angelica Huston, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, the creative corps of Disney Imagineering and, naturally, musician Michael Jackson — had consciously set their minds to make a flawed, but pretty piece of cult-movie crapola. It’s no big deal these days — Robert Rodriguez makes one such film almost every week, and I hear they’re taking “Xanadu” to the off-Broadway stage. But “EO” was the first, and I think the best. While Lucas may have honestly believed “Howard the Duck” had artistic merit, I’m pretty sure he had no such illusions about “EO.”
By the by, I won’t use this opportunity to speak ill of “EO’s” author and executive producer. I mean, who among us has never dreamed of sullying the memory of one of the best-loved cinematic trilogies of all time with three new films that amounted to a parody of the originals? Wouldn’t the original “Star Wars” films have been that much better with more minstrel-show histrionics and ham-fisted allegory? C’mon.
The 17 minute-long “EO” has a relatively straightforward story arc. It goes a little something like this:
MINUTE 1. Story opens with an effects shot of a spiral galaxy and a tumbling asteroid that looks like a spray-painted potato. (It’s the best 3-D shot in the film, and one of the best in-theater effects: The starfield extends off the screen and into the proscenium.) The late, great Percy Rodrigues intones “The cosmos (is) a universe of good and evil” and claims that “the rag-tag band led by the infamous Captain EO” will somehow save us from it. A laser blast destroys the asteroid and we are introduced to a spaceship full of puppets that were unconvincing even in their day. One of them is voiced by “Bad Santa’s” Tony Cox.
MINUTE 2. Michael Jackson introduced in a head-to-foot shot that also introduces the greatest jewel-encrusted speed-suit since the halcyon days of Elvis Presley at the International Hotel. He utters a masculine line that made the opening-night crowd giggle nervously. Puppets say cutesy things. Jackson rallies them to action with a speech assembled from stock cliches.
MINUTE 3. Shit starts blowing up. A hologram of Dick Shawn appears, complains. Objects fly off the screen; practical laser effects fire over the heads of the audience.
MINUTE 4. Shit continues to blow up.
MINUTE 5. Spaceship crash-lands on a planet made of gravel and futurist machine parts. Dick Shawn delivers necessary exposition.
MINUTE 6. Jacko and his rag-tags are captured by dancers with metal shavings glued to their jumpsuits. They’re taken to Anjelica Huston, who is made up in H.R. Giger-like face paint and brandishes long metal claws. She’s suspended from the ceiling by hoses, and looks thoroughly badass — almost as frightening as she was in “The Grifters.”
MINUTE 7. Oscar-winner Huston banters with Jackson. Jacko: “We come here uninvited and unannounced.” Huston: “So we both admit to your stupidity. Why have you come?” Jackson tells her that he’s there to reveal her inner beauty — no, seriously, that’s the point of the whole thing, to reveal Anjelica Huston’s inner beauty.
MINUTE 8. Fan service for the 3-D geeks. Jackson’s puppets turn into musicians and instruments through a series of stop-motion animations. “We Are Here to Change the World” begins.
MINUTES 9-14. Pretty much the same dance routine — pyramid formation! — that Jacko did in “Thriller,” with assorted 3-D and break-dance asides. Huston writhes in pain.
MINUTES 15-17. Huston is transformed to, um, a hippie occult shop owner. Cyberpunk set is transformed to a Maxfield Parrish wet dream. Jackson sings “Another Part of Me” and leads puppets out the door in triumph. Spaceship takes off into star field, leaving a rainbow trail behind it. Fade out.
Looking at “EO” today (it’s available, in pieces, on YouTube), I have to say that there’s very little of it that doesn’t make me feel … uneasy. The “cuddly” supporting characters have a rubbery, somewhat unsavory look that seems to anticipate the plastic surgery disaster Jacko would soon become. And there’s the matter of those two child molestation acquittals, both marked with an asterisk. Back in 1986, I couldn’t even have imagined the circumstances under which Disney would be reluctant to cash in on a long-form Michael Jackson video, and yet “Captain EO” is in the proverbial Disney Vault, and there it will stay along with Vivian Leigh’s head. “Song of the South” will probably emerge before “EO” does.
However, as bizarre and discomfiting as “Captain EO” may seem today, the experience of watching it on Disneyland’s big screen was something else entirely. When it debuted at the Park in September 1986 we waited hours to see it, and we were not let down. As I mentioned before, the in-theater practical effects — the lasers, the smoke machines, the 3-D starfield — were exceptional even by today’s standards, and Jackson’s two songs were absolutely tremendous in surround sound.
Disney would later make 3-D films that were even more successful in bringing the action off the screen (“It’s Tough To Be a Bug” is the best of the bunch), but “EO” was more imaginative and original than the films that succeeded it. It’s also batshit insane, but I’m relatively certain that Disney will never release it again. The madness is contained, and our cosmos of good and evil can go about its business.