By Tom Kapr
The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.
Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.
As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.
Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.
I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80′s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.
The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)
These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”
Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…
Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”
There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.
EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.
And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.
I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.
My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.
Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.
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