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Tune Tuesday: Looking back on the creation of "Captain EO"

Tune Tuesday: Looking back on the creation of "Captain EO"

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Rick Rothschild still remembers when he got that phone from Michael Eisner’s office back in 1985.

“Eisner wanted us to come up with some concepts to show George Lucas and Michael Jackson. Michael was hoping that he could get these two to collaborate with the Imagineers on a new 3D movie for the Parks,” this former Imagineer remembered. “Oh, yeah. And did I mention that Eisner’s office wanted these story concepts in just three days time?”

So Rothschild and his team put their heads together and quickly cooked up three concepts. One would have had the King of Pop portraying this Pan-like character who lived in a magical forest surrounded by mythological beasts. When this mystical realm was threatened by the Ice Queen, Michael was then supposed to have used the power of music to melt her cold, cold heart.

Captain EO stars Michael Jackson
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“The only problem with that idea was that we’d be tasked to come up with a concept for a new 3D movie for Tomorrowland. Something that would marry George Lucas’ style of space fantasy to Michael Jackson’s music,” Rick explained. “And that first concept wasn’t really Tomorrowland material. It was better suited for Fantasyland.”

Rothschild and his team also came up with a story concept that was to have exploited Michael’s well known love of the Disney theme parks. This 3D movie was to have had Jackson stayed inside of Disneyland after that theme park had closed for the night. And through plot machinations that are too convoluted to recount here, Michael was eventually to have wound up performing a “Thriller” –like dance number with all the AA figures that you see when you ride through “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“But when we showed these three story concepts to Michael and Frank (Wells, the then-President of The Walt Disney Company) and they immediately zero in one scenario. And the same thing happened when we showed these same story concepts to George Lucas and Michael Jackson. They all went for the exact same story concept,” Rick said. “And that was the ’Intergalactic Music Man’ one. Which eventually became known as ‘Captain EO.’ ”

Captain EO returns to Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

And once Eisner, Wells, Lucas and Jackson had signed off on that particular story idea, Rothschild recalls that the “Captain EO” project came together very quickly.

“I remember one meeting in the Model Shop where we were showing George Lucas concepts for sets, props and costumes,” Rick continued. “And George briefly looked over all of this material and then said ‘I like this one, this one, I don’t like this one, use this one.’ And – with that – this meeting was over.”

Which is not to say that the production of “Captain EO” didn’t throw a few challenges George Lucas’ way. Rothschild remembers one late night session with Lucas, where they were seated together in the Tomorrowland Theater, waiting for the Disneyland technicians to get one particular balky in-theater effect for this new 3D film to work properly. When – just to make conversation -- Rick turned to George and asked how “Captain EO” compared to some of the other films that the creator of “Star Wars” had worked on.

Michael Jackson starred in the Disney film Captain EO
(L to R) Michael Jackson, "Captain EO" director Francis Ford Coppola and
George Lucas.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“Lucas told me that – given that ‘Captain EO’ was only supposed to be 17 minutes long. Which is 1/7th the length of your average feature film – that he thought that doing this 3D movie for Disney would only take 1/7th the amount of time that it took for him to make a typical motion picture,” Rick went on. “But George admitted that he was wrong. That – due to the 350 effect shots featured in “EO” (which evidently out-numbered the number of effects shots that Lucas used in the original “Star Wars”) – that getting “Captain EO” done on time took just as much work, if not more, than your average feature length film.”

But all that extra effort really paid off when “Captain EO” debuted on September 18, 1986. In order to accommodate all of those Guests who wanted to experience this new 3D movie, Disneyland staged a special event where that theme park was open for 60 hours straight.

Captain EO stars Michael Jackson and has returned to Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“You have to remember that – up until now – Disney had never ever done anything like this. The 3D movies that we’d done previously – like “Magic Journeys” – were more poetic,” Rothschild said. “And here was ‘Captain EO,” a 3D movie with a plot. A beginning, a middle and an end. Not to mention that this was the first time that a show had been created for the theme parks that had such strong ties to contemporary entertainment. We got a huge positive reaction to this project.”

Of course, that was nearly 25 years ago now. And a lot has changed in the world of entertainment. Which is why WDI – in the age of “Avatar” – was very concerned about how Disneyland’s “Captain EO Tribute” attraction (which opened at the Tomorrowland Theatre back on February 23rd) would be received by today’s Guests.

Captain EO returns to Disneyland
Over 500 "Captain EO" fans attended the very first showing of the Tribute version
of this Tomorrowland classic back on February 23rd. Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer.
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

In the end, there was no real need to worry. If the audience reaction that I experienced this past Sunday is any indication (Alice and I caught a late afternoon screening. Where there wasn’t a seat to be had in the Tomorrowland Theater. This particular presentation of “Captain EO” played to a full house), this quarter-of-a-century-old 3D movie still has a huge number of fans. 

Sure, there were occasional weird outbursts of laughter when one of Jackson’s back-up dancers appeared on screen in close-up with a haircut that just screamed 1980s. But the audience – on a whole – was very vocal and enthusiastic during this screening of “Captain EO.” They cheered and applauded when Michael made his entrance. And one of the loudest reactions came during “We Are Here to Change the World” ‘s dance break when Jackson briefly moonwalked. And when I told Rothschild about this reaction, he seemed very pleased.

“It’s just nice to see something that we all worked on so hard nearly 25 years ago still hold up, is still capable of entertaining people,” Rick continued. “My own 7-year-old twins just saw ‘Captain EO’ recently for the first time and loved it. Which is a real testament to this 3D movie’s appeal.”

Captain EO returns to Disneyland
The new marquee outside of the "Captain EO Tribute" show
at the Tomorrowland Theater. Copyright 2010 Disney

Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So how did it feel for Rothschild (who returned to Imagineering for four months late last year to serve as Director of In-Theater Effects on the “Captain EO Tribute” show) to be revisiting a project that he had previously helped produce?

“I was just talking with Tony Baxter about this. And – to his knowledge – this is the first time that WDI has ever done something like this,” Rick explained. “Yes, the Imagineers have done things like update ‘Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln’ by adding a new AA figure or used the Subs’ ride system as well as some original show elements to create the “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.” But to bring back a 3D movie that’s basically unchanged? According to Tony, that’s never been done before. So it’s been great to have been there right there at the very start with ‘Captain EO’ and to now be part of this 3D movie’s rebirth.”

“Captain EO” is presented multiple times a day at Disneyland Park. For further information on this classic Tomorrowland attraction, please click on this link.

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  • Is there any new information on whether it will spread to the other parks, or if this will continue to be a Disneyland-only feature?

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