Captain Ego: How a Failed Disney Ride Starring Michael Jackson Became A Cautionary Tale of Art, Money and Hubris

By Josiah Hesse

Despite repeated warnings from Flavor Flav, at some point in our lives we all believe the hype.

No art is absorbed in a vacuum, and so the chatter that surrounds a project will almost always impact your perception of it. If wielded with charm and self-awareness, hype can be the seasoning that brings art to life (i.e. Banksy, Oasis). However, if hype comes swaggering into the party with some entitled, big-dick-energy, assuming you’re already interested before even delivering a drop of magic, the art itself will almost inevitably go limp in the annals of history.

This has been the fate of nearly every super group in rock history (with a few exceptions). Putting loads of individually successful icons in a room together and expecting their collective genius to result in a piece of quantifiably superior mega art—as if they were a bunch of corporations combining their wealth—is the type of thinking that has brought us the KFC Double Down Sandwich, the endlessly drab Oceans movies, or Disney’s 1986 “4D” music video theme park ride, Captain Eo.

In retrospect, a project starring Michael Jackson, executive produced by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and set inside the Magic Kingdom, was almost certain to drown in its own hype long before the first curtain call. After all, every single one of these guys had just (unknowingly) peaked with their own careers: Jackson with Thriller, Lucas with the Star Wars trilogy, Coppola with Godfather/Apocalypse Now.

When the project first came together in 1984, each of them was ensnared in the hubristic trap that kills most artists: Being given a blank check to create whatever they want, with no restrictions. When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, he had to rent a typewriter at 10 cents an hour, forcing him to finish the manuscript before he ran out of dimes. When Jackson/Lucas/Coppola made Eo, they more than doubled their projected budget, ending up with the most expensive film (per minute) ever created at the time.

And it’s mostly awful.

In the early 80s, Jackson was a massive Disneyland fan, often walking about the park dressed as one of the costumed characters to avoid detection. Around the same time, Lucas was intrigued about a collaboration with Disney, creating a sci-fi short film that would also be an amusement park ride with smoke, lasers and 3D technology. He was connected with Jackson, and then Coppola was brought on to direct (reuniting him with Lucas for the first time after their falling out on American Graffiti). A thin story was written about a ragtag group of space explorers on a mission to melt the heart of an android goth-queen. (The film would rely more on special effects and Jackson’s song-and-dance chops than it would an engaging plot.)

From day one almost nothing ran on schedule.

The budget swelled as 40 special effects shots morphed into 140. Coppola had never used a 3D camera before, so shooting was slowed due to his learning on the job. When Disney execs saw the raw cuts, production was delayed further as they scrambled to try and edit out Jackson’s vigorous crotch-thrusts, which were repeated dozens of times throughout the dance numbers.

For a period, they considered dubbing a new vocal track over Jackson’s, as his twee little voice made it difficult to believe he was the commander of an intergalactic spaceship. (Though no one had the balls to present this idea to Jackson and it was eventually dropped.)

In hopes to cut costs, Disney kept piling on more producers who guided the project in competing directions. At the same time, Coppola and Lucas had moved on to their next cinematic gems (Peggy Sue Got Married, Howard the Duck, respectively), and so the project suffered from not having a singular vision.

When the ride/film premiered in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland theater in the spring of ‘86, fans were introduced to Captain Eo and his haphazard (but mostly adorable) flight crew soaring aimlessly through space, attempting to find their planet destination, avoid an attacking ship, and explain to their commander (who appears via hologram) that everything is under control—even though it clearly isn’t. They crash land on a dreary, metallic wasteland, where they are instructed to “find the supreme leader, and give her the gift.”

They are quickly found by the supreme leader’s army, kidnapped and brought to her.

Played by Anjelica Huston, the supreme leader descends from the ceiling looking like an H.R. Geiger (Alien) creation with her industrial goth makeup, claws for fingernails, and dozens of black wires where her legs should be. She has no patience for Eo and orders her borg-like guards to give him “100 years of torture” in her dungeon. Eo insists he must first deliver her a gift, and just before he’s dragged away, his robotic crew transform into musical instruments. The sounds are weaponized by Eo into flashes of light, which he shoots into the borgs, transforming them from BDSM androids into bright, tropically dressed dancers who fall in line behind him.

“Whoo!” Eo shouts, followed by a mouth-wipe and some finger wiggling, and suddenly we are in MJ music-video land—an arena where Jackson shines much brighter than as the captain of a spaceship. They all launch into the song “We Are Here To Change The World” as Jackson converts more of the soldiers into sunshine ballerinas. Following a few more dance sequences, Jackson floats into the air, approaching Houston in her nest of black wires. He shoots musical good-vibes into this electric spider-goddess, transforming her into the beautiful woman that Jack Nicholson married.

In the end, there is no villain to conquer.

Only negative energy to eradicate through the power of pop music.

While most Disneyland patrons reported enjoying the event, critics panned the whole project as bloated and aimless, often comparing it (unfavorably) to Star Wars and branding it with the unflattering moniker “Captain Ego.”

The juxtaposition with Star Wars is nearly impossible to avoid, and for reasons much greater than Eo’s executive producer. Many of the film’s creatures feel plucked directly from the SW universe (the organ-playing Hooter appears nearly identical to the organ-playing Max Rebo in Jabba’s palace). The costumes and special effects are very familiar, and the premise of an underdog team of space rebels working against the odds to prove there is still goodness within a villain trapped beneath android technology is pretty much the entire plot of Return of the Jedi.

Though ultimately it would be more appropriate to compare Captain Eo to the Star Wars Christmas Special than to the original trilogy.

If you’d like to take the 17 minutes out of your day to watch it on YouTube, there is plenty to love about Captain Eo. As a music video, it’s as good as any of Jackson’s creations (which is saying a lot). Jackson’s bedazzled, ivory-white, galactic uniform makes him look like a glam-rock Han Solo (in the best way possible); and Anjelica Huston’s transformation into the legless cyborg spud is one of the most inspired in cinematic history.

Yet with no central thrust of the story, and no clear artistic sensibility (it attempts to inhabit both the Disney and MTV worlds, thereby wanting to be both hip and family friendly), Captain Eo feels like what history has confirmed it to be: A project that relied more heavily on star power than an inspired idea, more on hype than substance, one where accomplished filmmakers (drenched in sycophants) assumed their every idea was genius, where endless producers and studio executives were not on the same page, weren’t communicating with each other, and ended up with a kitchen-sink dud that would, for the most part, be forgotten by history.



Author of two novels, and contributor to Esquire, VICE and The Guardian, Hesse has fifteen years of experience blending journalism and creative prose, covering subjects as varied as marijuana, science, the arts, crime, politics, sexuality and religion.

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