Movie Review – Captain EO

Captain EO (1986)
Written by George Lucas, Rusty Lemorande, and Francis Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It would be effortless to write up a mocking review of Captain EO. It is a piece of 1980s cheese, battered in cheese and fried in it. It’s a short 3-D movie made for a ride at Disney World starring Michael Jackson and a bunch of Lucasfilm design puppet aliens. Oh yes, and Anjelica Huston is in there too. However, I don’t feel interested in mocking it because that’s lazy. Instead, I would rather talk about Francis Ford Coppola’s creative drive and how, when you are a genuine artist, you make compromises to enable future work that means something to you. That’s the actual story of Captain EO, the story of how to be creative in this rotten capitalist system; you have to sell parts of yourself and learn how to keep moving on in the wake of that.

There’s not much of a story in Captain EO. The titular captain (Jackson) is part of a ragtag team of diverse alien beings flying around in a spaceship, helping people. They are on their way to deliver a gift to The Supreme Leader (Huston) on a world that looks like the Borg were hired as interior designers. They arrive on the planet and are taken hostage by The Leader’s brainwashed troops. Oh no. Captain EO realizes the only way to cure this is to deliver their gift: a song. Thus, we get a short song & dance number from Michael Jackson, which saves the world, the troops, and even the Supreme Leader herself. Yay!

I could not travel back in time and space to go to Orlando circa 1986, so I watched the descaled version on MTV. It’s fine. It’s not close to being one of Jackson’s better music videos, so I can see why you don’t hear many people talk about it. It’s also lacking that Lucasfilm production design touch as the creatures & robots featured aren’t very inspiring and feel creatively scrambled. Some things look like fun Muppet-like creations, while others are clean, chrome, and sharp. Because we only spend a handful of minutes with these characters, we never get to know who they are too well, so they are forgotten. I think the best rides, and most rides at places like Disney, have to come from an IP the general audience is familiar with. That way, we can layer our background knowledge onto the immediate experience. That just isn’t possible with Captain EO. Maybe if there had been a feature film, it would have been different.

From a “corporate synergy” perspective, everything about this makes sense on paper. Your star is Michael Jackson, a cultural figure whose celebrity eclipsed pretty much anything else in my lifetime. That’s printing money. Then you bring in George Lucas as a producer, lending his resources to the production design. Coppola is the most interesting thing about this equation because Disney brought him in NOT at the height of his acclaim but in one of his darkest periods. He’s still recovering from One From the Heart and now The Cotton Club. This is a person who is really struggling, obviously financially but also creatively. I don’t know Coppola personally, but I’m human with empathy, and I can easily imagine the creative drive he must have to have kept going. 

There’s really not much more to say. The ride lasted until 1998, far outliving its 80s-soaked aesthetics. In 2010, the attraction was brought back as a tribute to Jackson’s life for a few years and then shuttered again in 2015. I think Coppola’s own words tell how he felt the best:

“There was a period in my career when I had gotten into financial trouble over One From the Heart [1981]. I was in a tough, pseudo-bankruptcy situation. I had to do one movie after another to pay the bank and get them off my back, which I eventually did […] Some projects, like Captain EO, I didn’t have a hand in creating — I had suggestions. Michael Jackson had an idea, and George Lucas had an idea, and Disney had an idea. [So] the director was more someone who took all the fragments that everyone thought of and did the best they could. It’s a lot different than doing something that comes from your own being; you constantly negotiate. When I first thought about [Captain EO], I didn’t know what sense to make of it […] I knew I wanted the big dance at the end to be more integrated with the story, rather than [the movie] be this short little dumb story and have a music video tacked on the end of it. But Michael Jackson was really wily, and no one knew what the music or song was going to be until the time that they did it. He felt he didn’t want the dance to be integrated within the story. So we shot this little story, and then he came and had the song, and we did it the best we could. [The dance number] was tacked on to the end. I thought it should have been more integrated into it. But I found Michael [to be] very sweet, and I was fond of him. He was like a big kid.


One thought on “Movie Review – Captain EO”

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