Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Heath Holland On...Coppola's Forgotten Film

Oh, we’re going there.

This week I want to shed light on a film that has been inexplicably forgotten. This project seemed to have everything going for it: it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the filmmaker who gave us The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. It was produced by George Lucas, three years after Return of the Jedi. It had a score by the very talented composer James Horner, and it featured Oscar winner Anjelica Huston in a major role. And in 1986, its release was one of the biggest events in the entertainment business, spawning cross-media merchandising and tie-ins. But here we are, close to thirty years later, and it’s been lost to time. This film is not hard to find, and only requires a small amount of your time: seventeen minutes, to be precise.

Of course, this forgotten collaboration can be only one film: Captain EO.

That’s right. This column is about Captain EO.

Captain EO was conceived by Disney as a way to bring people into the theme parks and is just one in a long line of collaborations between George Lucas and Disney that culminated with his sale of Lucasfilm to the company for four billion smackeroos. This time, he brought his old friend Francis Ford Coppola along for the ride and the two of them hashed out a loose story that would serve as enough of a framework for the real star of the project, Michael Jackson.

The idea was to present a film in 3D featuring Jackson’s music and dancing, Lucas’ special effects and storytelling, and Coppola’s direction. As a bonus, the film would be shown in a special theater that would utilize special “4D” technology that would add live special effects such as lasers and interactive elements to the film as it played.

Michael Jackson was at the height of his fame in 1986. It was after Thriller (the album and the short film shot by John Landis) but before the release of Bad (the album and the short film directed by Martin Scorsese). It was long before he became the gaunt cautionary example of plastic surgery gone wrong. It was also long before any allegations of sexual misconduct. At the time of Captain EO, Jackson was 28 years old and was the biggest star in the entire world.

The “story” of Captain EO is pretty thin. There are extremely high quality versions of it all over You Tube (just make sure you’re watching the 17 minute version), but I’ll give a brief overview: it opens on Captain EO’s ship as it flies through space, blasting 3D meteors out of the sky. The crew of this ship consists of two robots called Major and Minor Domo, a two headed pilot named Idey and Ody, a tiny little puppet called Fuzzball, and a little elephant-alien named Hooter (tee hee) that looks a lot like Max Reebo from Return of the Jedi.

This crew is on a mission to a dark, industrial planet (that looks literally JUST LIKE the Death Star) to find the Supreme Leader of the planet and deliver a gift. They’re having some trouble getting where they need to go because Hooter ate the map (I lost 12 IQ points just by typing that), but after flying through trench after trench of this planet and giving the audience a fun ride, they do eventually crash their ship on the surface.

They are almost immediately apprehended by these freaky looking industrial dudes who look just like the Borg from Star Trek, and taken to the Supreme Leader, played with much goth appeal by Anjelica Huston. She spends the bulk of her screen time hanging from the ceiling, suspended by black cables and machinery. When Captain EO tells her that he’s there to deliver her a gift, she sentences him to 100 years of torture. Depending on whether you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen so far, 100 years of torture could be used to sum up the film. But the day needs to be saved, so what’s an interstellar, androgynous captain to do? Sing and dance, of course.
And that’s what the last half of the seventeen minutes consists of. Michael Jackson singing a song called “We Are Here To Change The World” and actually changing their dark, industrial world with the power of music, dance, moonwalking, and his cool rainbow colored t-shirt.

It’s all fairly airy, and it’s true that there’s not much substance to it. However, this little theme park attraction is quite an accomplishment in storytelling, with the sum being far superior to its parts. That’s why I wanted to write about it. There’s a lot of talent on the screen. Yes, it’s INCREDIBLY dated, but when this thing came out, it was at the cutting edge of technology and had the most powerful talent in Hollywood (perhaps the world) involved with it. I don’t say that as hyperbole, either. This was George Lucas in the aftermath of the most successful film trilogy of all time, and after Coppola had done just fine for himself, as well.

The special effects long predate any computer-created imagery, so what we have here is purely practical. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the Star Wars trilogy unmolested (insert Michael Jackson or catholic priest joke here) that it’s hard to remember what those original effects actually looked like, but I think they looked better than this. So much of this little short film feels familiar, like it’s just out of frame in the background of Star Wars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the industrial planet from this film is actually leftover parts of the second Death Star model from Return of the Jedi. It sure looks like it.

Things also feel fairly rushed. It’s hard to find out exactly how long was spent working on them, but some scenes are CRUDE. Remember the scene in Jason and the Argonauts with the skeletons sword-fighting? That looks like Avatar compared to some of what they throw on the screen in Captain EO. In spite of how dated these effects were, Captain EO was one of the most expensive film projects ever made at that time, and cost almost $2 million per minute of screen time.
But the music and the dancing…well, that’s what Michael Jackson was known for, and like Wolverine, he’s the best there is at what he does. The song “We Are Here To Change The World” starts off innocuous enough, but good luck getting it out of your head for a week after you watch this thing.

If you can’t tell, I really, really love Captain EO, but it wasn’t always that way. My first exposure to this little gem was in 2011 on a visit to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center during the film’s “revival” in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. It would be generous to say that Disney rolled this thing back out as a tribute to Jackson (that’s their story) instead of seizing the opportunity to cash in on the craze that followed his passing.

Let me be clear. Captain EO is pretty terrible. Because of the nature of technology and the advancements being made in the mid-to-late eighties, the special effects were practically outdated before they even hit the screen. It’s easy to look at it for exactly what it is: a cash grab by all involved -- a way to increase park attendance with a quickly produced, pandering piece of fluff that makes everyone feel good but doesn’t have any lasting legacy.

But that’s just the thing. For me, it does have a lasting legacy. There’s an underlying sense of innocence and sweetness that I really appreciate. My wife and I walked out of Captain EO making fun of it, talking about how corny it was and how bad the special effects were. But in the days following, we started making little references to it. First at its expense, but then just in the spirit of it. And little by little, it wormed its way into my brain. Just like Captain EO brought the message of love and music to the supreme leader, this little movie brings those things to my own life.

We live in an ironic, cynical culture, and I’m just as guilty of being negative and pessimistic. But I don’t love Captain EO ironically, I love it because it’s wonderful. It’s optimistic and positive, and when Jackson sings that he’s here to change the world, I totally believe him.
I’m not sure if George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Disney executive Michael Eisner felt like they accomplished their task, but I have to imagine that Disney backed up trucks and trucks of money to each of their houses. Captain EO eventually ended up in Disney parks all over the world and ran for eight years at Epcot, eleven years at Disneyland, ten years in Tokyo, and six years in Paris. Millions and millions of people have seen it all over the world. Since 2010, it’s now playing again in all of those parks, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

But even if it wasn’t a success, I admire it. It’s cheesy and saccharine, and it seems to have no place in our world today. And I suppose that’s what SECURES its place in our world today. We need these little beacons of light and positivity. It’s a remarkable, largely ignored little corner of film, but it sure has come to mean a lot to me.

Sail on, Captain EO. Hee hee!


  1. Add to your assessment Huston's make up looks a hell of a lot the Alien Queen and the whole thing is a rehash of the "Brand New Day" part of "The Wiz".

    Was there an original idea in that whole thing?

  2. Nice write-up Heath :-) I saw Captain Eo way back in 1987 when I was 5 and LOVED IT except for being completely terrified of Angelica Huston. I've re-watched it a few times since MJ's death in 2009, and the thing I'm stuck with (besides nostalgia) is that it (to paraphrase Patrick) "justifies its existence" because those two songs in the short are really good. Plus, I agree with you that EO is really charming.

  3. Great column Heath! Totally sums up how I feel about the Cap. Just this side of ironic, but still an attraction I want to return to again and again. Although I've always wondered how a guy that can turn torture-hungry industrial monsters into back-up dancers EVER failed his previous mission. Shouldn't he be Admiral?

  4. Thanks, guys! I'm glad you liked it. Myke, that's a good point, why not Admiral Eo? Maybe too many vowels.

    *Moonwalks away*

  5. For a second I thought you were going to talk about the porno Coppola allegedly made in the early 80s.

    Captain EO is cool too. :)

  6. Captain EO is absolutely the best type of cheese from the 80's. I actually saw the Captain at Disney World back in its original screening in the late 80's and remember when Hooter flew out at me (in 3D!) that it scared the crap out of me.

    While certain elements of EO have definitely aged poorly (EO's crew aka rejected Jabba's palace rejects) the music number really make the film pop. In fact when I saw the revival for the first time a few months back I heard a little girl about 7 or 8 after the film say "that was fun I hope Honey I Shrunk the Audience never comes back!", the previous 3d movie based on Honey I shrunk the kids.

    Its cool to see the F this movie crew hit some non traditional films here, may I recommend for a future column Heath a discussion on Jim Henson's Muppetvision 3d. Its a hysterical parody of 3d films in general and also one of the last things Henson worked on prior to his unfortunate passing. I've literally seen the movie a few hundred times (used to work there) and that movie would still crack me up once in a while.

    1. OMG, you were a cast member in the parks? I bet you have stories! Did you write the book "Cast Member Confidential?" I am a big Disney Parks fan. I love Disney movies, but I love the parks more. So much work goes into making the experience completely perfect. It's a completely artificial environment, but a ton of work goes into making that environment a reality. millions and millions of dollars, every day.

      If you want to talk about Muppetvision 3D, let's just do it now. I think it's great. I will confess that the ending, with the reveal of who Waldo C Graphic is. That feels really messed up to me. I know what park we're in, but why is that character such a douche?

      But yes, I do love me some Muppetvision 3D. It's a great experience. I've done that every time I've been. I even like the queue.

      Regale us with stories, Bartman!

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