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By Phil Hall | February 28, 2014

BOOTLEG FILES 521: “Captain EO” (1986 3-D film starring Michael Jackson).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely, there is a music clearance issue.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It does not seem to be a priority to any of the involved parties.

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service announced that it would issue a commemorative stamp honoring the career of Michael Jackson. In view of this somewhat unexpected honor, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the King of Pop’s less-than-stellar attempt to become a Disney film star.

Jackson made his film debut at the Scarecrow in the 1978 musical “The Wiz.” Although nearly every critic praised his charming performance as being the highlight of an otherwise dismal production, the commercial failure of “The Wiz” was difficult to shake, and few producers saw big screen potential in Jackson.

Fast-forward to 1984. Following the dramatic success of Jackson’s “Thriller” and the worldwide popularity of Jackson’s music videos, the star began to consider making a return to films. Disney Studios CEO Michael Eisner and Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg successfully lobbied Jackson to consider creating a musical film at Uncle Walt’s fun factory. Jackson, who had an undisguised obsession with all things related to Disney, was eager to collaborate with the studio.

Jackson’s involvement in a Disney project created a spare-no-expense environment – no mean feat, considering the project in question was intended to be a short film and not a feature. Jackson sought the involvement of either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas – Spielberg was in production on “The Color Purple” and was not available, but Lucas was happy to step in, albeit as the executive producer and the co-writer of the screenplay. Lucas called on Francis Ford Coppola to direct “Captain EO” – the filmmaker had been going through a career rut in the early 1980s and the assignment reaffirmed his viability as a big screen talent. Oscar winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was also recruited to serve as a lighting consultant, while “Flashdance” choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday collaborated with Jackson on the film’s dance sequences. Jackson wrote two new songs for the film, and Disney approved the added expense of presenting “Captain EO” in 4-D, which was basically 3-D plus a variety of in-theater effects synchronized with the film’s special effects.

But despite all of the talent involved, “Captain EO” turned out to be both eye catching and sleep inducing.  Much of the problem with “Captain EO” is, strangely, Jackson’s lack of charisma. As the twirling, vamping presence in a music video, Jackson was in his element. But as the not-so-steady commander of a goofy spaceship populated with clumsy zoomorphic beings, Jackson was literally lost in space. His dialogue readings cruelly revealed a very weak speaking voice, and Coppola’s insistence on tight close-ups offered ample evidence of thick eye make-up on Jackson’s otherwise inexpressive face. Of course, the big-screen 3-D cinematography severely emphasized the King of Pop was not the King of the Silver Screen.

Jackson’s dreary screen presence enabled everyone else around him to steal the show. Dick Shawn, the madcap comedy star of 1960s classics including “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Producers,” played Jackson’s boss, Commander Bog. Shawn was only seen in a holographic image of his head, but his manic line readings (complete with wonderfully bogus eyebrows that underwent aerobic wiggling) gave the film its main laughs. Lesser comedy relief was found in the creatures under Captain EO’s leadership: a small elephant-like being that constantly created havoc, a furry flying being that constantly zoomed right into the lens for 3-D effects, a two-headed furry navigator and a robot that disassembled itself to become a rock show instrumental set. Anjelica Huston, coming off her Oscar-winning triumph in “Prizzi’s Honor,” offered some good-natured campy hissing as the evil “Supreme Leader” that Captain EO transforms from a monster into a beautiful woman. (Jackson reportedly had her footage trimmed down because he feared she was upstaging him.)

Jackson’s two musical numbers, “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,”  were among his weakest song-and-dance efforts. Indeed, with their small armies of dancers (all fluffed up with mid-80s big hair and big shoulders) in military-style precision movements, these sequences seemed like lame parodies of Jackson’s music videos rather than the genuine number.

To its credit, the film had some vibrant special effects that played wonderfully in 3-D. And the film’s production design was top-notch throughout. The Disney technicians did a marvelous job in synchronizing the film to the in-theater effects, offering a magical high-tech experience.

But those tricks came at a cost, both financial and emotional. While “Captain EO” was in production, there were signs that the effort was not working. The 17-minute film wound up costing $23.7 million, nearly $14 million over its original budget. Coppola bailed out after principal shooting was completing, leaving Jackson and producer Rusty Lemorande to handle reshoots; Lucas, for whatever reason, declined to help direct the additional scenes. According to film scholar Wade Sampson, the finished film was so disappointing that Jackson and his team continually delayed screening it for Michael Eisner. When the film finally had its Disneyland premiere, Jackson was not in attendance.

“Captain EO” became an attraction at all of the Disney theme parks, but it never achieved the degree of popularity of the other shows and rides at the Disney locations. By the early 1990s, Jackson’s popularity began to wane due to negative publicity relating from his increasingly bizarre behavior, and audiences were not going out of their way to see his film. Disney eventually pulled “Captain EO” from its parks, only briefly returning the film in 2009 following Jackson’s untimely death.

Jackson expressed no great fondness for the film – it is barely mentioned in his 1988 autobiography “Moonwalk” – and I am assuming that problems in clearing the music rights to Jackson’s songs is the key reason that “Captain EO” was never released in any home entertainment format. At this writing, there is no evidence that the Jackson estate and Disney are in collaboration to bring the film to Blu-ray and DVD.

However, the film is not completely missing. “Captain EO” had a single TV broadcast on MTV, but in a “flat’ version that made most of its 3-D effects look dull and silly. (It never played on the Disney Channel.) Nonetheless, Jackson’s fans eagerly videotaped this rare presentation, and a surplus of bootleg DVDs and unauthorized YouTube postings ensure that “Captain EO” remains in sight.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Scott says:

    Yup, we went on it last month – Max Rebo from RoJ is the Elephant keyboard guy.

    *checks his Disney app* – currently a 15 minute wait – it’s a good way to get out of the sun for a little bit as there’s rarely a huge line and you can get into the a/c while waiting for the next show.

    It is so very 80s.

  2. VampireDanceParty says:

    You’re right. He was great in The Wiz. I love that movie. It may be a bit of a mess, but it’s a lot of fun. I just meant EO was his first acting gig to be front & center. To carry the film. He does a much better job in Smooth Criminal. And, I think Coppola just left him to flounder in a set full of crappy puppets. Seems like Coppola & Lucas took the paycheck & left Jackson holding the bag. I kept hearing rumors of Tim Burton & Jackson doing an Edgar Allan Poe film. Sounds so wrong, I probably would’ve loved it. There was also rumors of something called Mid Knight that Jackson was to have starred in. I just wish, once, that a great director would’ve worked with him to get one solid film out of him before his time was up. Too bad…

  3. Phil Hall says:

    @Scott – it is? Thanks for the update – I thought it was back in the vaults. I really wonder what kids today might think of the film.

    @VampireDanceParty – Jackson’s first major acting gig (really, his only) was “The Wiz,” and he was really strong as the Scarecrow. If the film wasn’t such a mess, he might have snagged a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination because he was that good.

  4. Scott says:

    It’s currently playing at Epcot in Florida with the full movement stage and all. It’s been back for a few years now.

  5. VampireDanceParty says:

    You can’t really blame Jackson. The creature design was weak & haphazard. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t really direct Jackson (in his first major acting gig) to a solid performance. And, we’ve all seen what garbage Lucas has put out, when left to his own devices…

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