In the fall of 1986 Michael Jackson came to EPCOT Center in Florida as part of “a small group, struggling to bring freedom to countless worlds of despair.” And now he’s back.
Captain EO, the breakthrough 3D science fiction adventure that starred Jackson, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, quietly returned to EPCOT earlier this month in all of its breakdancing, stargazing glory. The 17-minute-long attraction is right where it was when it first debuted back in 1986: the Imagination Pavilion in the Futureworld West section of the park.
It’s hard to imagine how huge Captain EO was when it first came to the parks in 1986. This was Michael Jackson at the height of his popularity, five years after Thriller broke every record there was and less than a year before his equally powerful Bad would be unleashed. It was also George Lucas’ first collaboration with the Disney theme parks, three years after Return of the Jedi closed out the original Star Wars trilogy and a year before Star Tours would be joyfully jostling Disneyland attendees. And by 1986 Coppola had cemented himself as a legendary filmmaker, having already helmed the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, and (more recently) The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. It was almost too good.
There were a number of technical innovations that also went along with Captain EO; it is largely thought of as the first “4D” film, with in-theater effects like smoke, lasers, and a glittery star field that was draped across the theater ceiling. (In both Florida and California Captain EO replaced Magic Journeys, a gentle 3D fantasy.) Captain EO featured two new songs from Jackson, including one (“Another Part of Me”) that would appear on Bad. (The other, “We Are Here to Change the World,” would only be released, in truncated form, in the 2004 Jackson box set The Ultimate Collection.) Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who lensed The Conformist and would later shoot Disney’s Dick Tracy, was responsible for the 3D photography. The late, great James Horner (whose Rocketeer score we absolutely adore) provided the score. An in-depth hour-long special called Captain EO Backstage, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, premiered on The Disney Sunday Movie on ABC and another hour-long special aired from the film’s Disneyland grand opening (it was hosted by Patrick Duffy and Justine Bateman along with musical guests Starship and Robert Palmer). This was it.
And it goes without saying that the film was (and still is) totally awesome. It features dancing and monsters and Anjelica Huston as a witchy, H.R. Giger-esque space princess (when Jackson compliments her appearance, she hisses, “You find meeee beautiful?”) At 17 minutes, it tells a complete story but never feels flabby or overlong; it zigs and zags and boogies with the best of them.
Back when the film opened, the Imagination Pavilion was a much different place. Journey Into Imagination, the flagship ride, was a sprawling ode to the unlimited capabilities of the human mind, and once you finished riding the attraction, you were funneled up to a play area called the Upstairs Image Works. This is where you got to interact with exhibits like a giant, colorful tunnel (that was a favorite of Jackson’s whenever he would visit the park) and a kind of color canon that would allow you to fire paintbrushes (and virtual paint) at blank canvases. When you would complete your play, you would get on an escalator that would bring you into the specially outfitted theater where Captain EO played. Walk around versions of several of the characters would mill around outside the pavilion. It was the kind of sprawling, synchronous experience that defined those heady early days of EPCOT Center.
In 1994 Captain EO closed and a year later Honey, I Shrunk the Audience premiered. It was aired (once) on MTV in 1996 in a downscaled two-dimensional version. But after Jackson’s tragic passing in 2009, the film returned to the Imagination Pavilion theater (it also reappeared at several other parks, including Disneyland). This new version of the attraction premiered in the summer of 2010 at EPCOT and was labeled a “tribute.” It swapped some of the earlier effects for those installed for Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, including a nifty gag where the floor bounces up and down as the villainess’ dark forces approach, and was digitally projected. When it returned, Captain EO was even more beautiful than when it first premiered. Audiences clapped and sung along and snapped up merchandise, including T-shirts modeled after Michael’s nifty rainbow model and plush versions of the characters.
Over the past few months, the theater has been used for a variety of purposes, mostly to exhibit upcoming Disney features like Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland and Disney•Pixar’s Inside Out. But now Captain EO is back and we couldn’t be more excited. It’s an attraction that feels so classically EPCOT, one that has one foot in fantasy and the other in science fiction; that is both futuristic and warmly nostalgic. It’s an attraction shares EPCOT’s view of the future as a place where anything is possible and everything is super fun. Captain EO is the story of “a ragtag band led by the infamous Captain EO,” and almost 30 years later, it’s enough to make you smile … and dance.