MJ Studies Today LXVII

Abstract: This month’s MJ Studies Today column looks at Michael Jackson’s 3D film Captain Eo made by the Disney Corporation for screening in its amusement parks commencing 1986.  Kerry Hennigan discusses the film in the context of its being an opportunity for Jackson to combine his love of Disney and his love of film, in particular films like Star Wars and E.T.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXVII: “We are here to change the world.”  Michael Jackson’s Disney collaboration, Captain Eo. Part 1.” (14-07-2021).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 1  (2021). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxvii/

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“We are here to change the world.”  Michael Jackson’s Disney collaboration, Captain Eo. Part 1.  By Kerry Hennigan

Montage copyright © Kerry Hennigan

Thirty-five years ago, in 1986, the Disney amusement parks launched a new attraction featuring none other than pop icon Michael Jackson.  Using what was at the time revolutionary 3D film technology, Captain Eo was a 17-minute space adventure that screened in specially equipped theatres that gave audiences a 4D experience complete with lasers and smoke effects.

The musical fantasy starred Jackson as the sole human member of a crew of intergalactic peacekeepers whose mission was to bring light into darkness – in this instance on the home world of an evil queen, the Supreme Leader, played by Anjelica Houston.  Boasting a remarkable piece of costume design, Houston’s character would eventually inspire that of the Borg Queen from the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact. [1]

Very much a product of the 80s, Captain Eo owed its look and eclectic crew to Star Wars, ET and a generation of filmmakers such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who managed to bring audiences back to cinemas to see intergalactic adventures played out on giant screens with enhanced sound systems.  These were the sorts of films, and filmmakers, that Jackson loved. [2]

Though Captain Eo can be considered corny compared to CGI enhanced films of the 21st century, for its time it was an ambitious venture, and Jackson was already the best-known musical star on Earth.  He had an appeal that would draw international visitors to the Disney parks to see the film.  What’s more, it came with some hefty credentials, with George Lucas as Executive Producer and Francis Coppola directing in place of Jackson’s first choice, Steven Spielberg, who wasn’t available. 

Back in 1985 when it was filmed, Disney and Jackson seemed a perfect fit.  A long-time admirer of Walt Disney, Jackson had even appeared in Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary TV special in 1980, singing “When You Wish Upon A Star” and a “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”/”Ease on Down the Road” mash-up. [3]

Keen to have him involved in their theme parks, the Disney company reportedly showed Jackson a mockup of a dark ride attraction constructed by their Imagineers.  However, while he liked the mock-up, Jackson was not keen on being featured in a ride attraction.  Alternatively, there was talk of a 3D film, and this certainly caught the pop icon’s interest.

In Moonwalk Jackson recalled flying up to see George Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch, “and gradually we came up with a scenario for a short film that would incorporate every recent advance in 3D technology.  Captain Eo would look and feel like the audience was in a spaceship, along for the ride.”  He went on to explain that Captain Eo was about transformation, and how music can help to change the world – an idea close to Jackson’s heart throughout his life. [4]  The songs he recorded for the film reflect his philosophy to “shake it up and break it up / We’re sharing light brighter than the sun…” [5]

“At least one Imagineer suggested John Landis, based on that director’s success with Jackson in the video ‘Thriller’,” writes Wade Sampson for Mouse Planet.  “However, the final decision makers opposed that suggestion supposedly for budgetary reasons, including the fear that they wouldn’t be able to ‘control’ Landis and he would go over budget. The whole discussion became moot when Lucas decided that Francis Ford Coppola would direct.” [6]

For Jackson, the experience fired his movie ambitions.  “Working on Captain Eo reinforced all the positive feelings I’ve had about working in film and made me realize more than ever that movies are where my future path probably lies.” [7]  Sadly, his ambitions were not able to be realized, nor was he afforded the opportunity to work with Disney again.

As recently revealed in a podcast by composer Alan Menken, Jackson had been interested in being involved in the soundtrack for the company’s animated film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1996, but was turned down by Disney.  It is likely that, as with other plans and projects that the pop icon hoped to realize in the 90s and beyond, the shadow of false accusations unfairly tainted his reputation and scuttled many of his dreams. [8]

Nevertheless, while it was never to have the longevity of a ride like Disney’s Star Tours, which opened in 1987, Captain Eo evokes nostalgia for many Disney aficionardos and holds a special place in the hearts of Jackson’s countless fans the world over who would love to have the good captain and his screwball crew available for viewing in high quality in their own homes.  But thus far, Disney has not seen fit to brave the controversy such a release would doubtless evoke from post-Leaving Neverland audiences. 

It was a year after its opening that this writer first saw Captain Eo at Disneyland in California. Between that first viewing in 1987 and the year it closed for the second time (in 2015 – having been resurrected in 2010 as a tribute to Jackson) I was able to take in multiple screenings in every Disney park in which it had screened i.e., in California, France, Japan and Florida. Like many of Jackson’s traveling fans, given the opportunity, I’d happily do it all over again. [9]


[1]  jeager-n-eaves battle over the borg queen 1 June 2009. https://johneaves.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/jeager-n-eaves-battle-over-the-borg-queen/

[2]  Jackson, Michael.  Moonwalk.  Arrow paperback edition 2010: p 260.

[3]  https://youtu.be/ZHZ_-_kYRSI

[4]  Jackson, pp.258-259

[5]  Jackson, Michael and Barnes, John.  “We are here to change the world.”  Recorded 1986.  Released on Michael Jackson The Ultimate Collection, 2004.  Entry on MJTunes.com data base: http://www.mjtunes.com/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=239

[6]  Sampson, Wade.  “More untold tales of Captain Eo”.  Published electronically, 20 January 2010.  https://www.mouseplanet.com/9123/More_Untold_Tales_of_Captain_EO

[7]  Jackson, p.259.

[8]  Spiegel, Josh.  “‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 25: An Oral History of Disney’s Darkest Animated Classic” on Slash Film. Published electronically 21 June 2021.  https://www.slashfilm.com/hunchback-of-notre-dame-oral-history/

[9]  Hennigan, Kerry.  “We are here to change the world…” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/he-came-to-change-our-world-chasing-michael-jackson-across-the-continents-and-disney-parks/

Further Reading and Viewing:

Hennigan, Kerry. “Revisiting Captain Eo – Michael Jackson’s 1986 cutting edge 3D space fantasy and its future.” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2018/09/19/revisiting-captain-eo-michael-jacksons-1986-cutting-edge-3d-space-fantasy-and-its-future/

Watch Captain Eo (in 2D) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znJvyrxflH8 and the Disney Channel special on The Making of Captain Eo, hosted by Whoop Goldberg here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLew-TYg60I

Patterson, Jenny.  “Celebrate Disneyland’s Reopening With Michael Jackson!” on insidethemagic.net. Published electronically 29 April 2021. https://insidethemagic.net/2021/04/michael-jackson-in-disneyland-jp1/

Artwork: Photo montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan.  No infringement of artistic or photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.