George Lucas’ second big-budget 1986 film opens this weekend, but no matter what the critics have to say about it, or how many people go to see it, he doesn’t have to worry about it crashing to Earth like “Howard the Duck.” “Captain EO” figures to fly.

“Captain EO,” the most expensive and most ballyhooed short subject in film history, premieres Friday night at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., and Saturday afternoon at an “A list” party at Disneyland. It will become part of the regular attractions, one more line to get into, at both family parks Sept. 19.

After more than a year of treating the project like the Stealth bomber, Disney suddenly turned its publicity and marketing machines loose and made the opening of “Captain EO” into either the film event of the year, or the rock video event of the decade, or the 3-D event of the century. Take your pick.

By now, everyone is aware of its pedigree. The star: Michael Jackson. The director: Francis Coppola. The executive producer: George Lucas. The budget: Astronomical. The host: Mickey Mouse.


Add to the credits producer Rusty Lemorande (“Yentl”), set designer John Napier (“Cats,” “Nicholas Nickleby”), art director Geoffrey Kirkland (“The Right Stuff)”), choreography Jeffrey Hornaday (“A Chorus Line”) and photographic consultant Vittorio Storaro (“Reds”) and . . . well, yes . . . this might be something.

Disney is officially mum on all costs connected with “Captain EO.” Estimates of the film’s budget have run as high as $20 million. It could be more. According to one Disney executive, Lucas stuffed more special effects into these 17 minutes than there were in two hours of “Star Wars.”

In addition, both parks had to build special 700-seat theaters for a film that is not just a film, but an all-sensory experience. It is state-of-the art 70-millimeter 3-D accompanied by state-of-the-art digital sound recording and playback. It is also state-of-the-art staging, with lights, lasers, smoke and audio concussive effects. The seats may even move. They wouldn’t tell us everything.

As a story, “Captain EO” falls into the high-concept category that sets studio execs to drooling. It is the story of a space commander (Jackson) and his crew of robots and fuzzy-wuzzies who crash-land on a colorless, hostile Orwellian planet ruled by a hideous queen (Anjelica Huston) and, through song and dance, transform its inhabitants into peace-loving creatures.


Captains EO’s crew, which includes a dwarf elephant, a Gizmo-like fur ball, a two-headed creature with two personalities and a pair of robots that, on command, transform into mechanical instruments that the other crew members play.

Michael Jackson wrote two songs for “Captain EO"--"We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me"--and the song-and-dance segments take up about seven of the film’s 17 minutes.

The storyline was conceived by four Disney “imagineers” during a four-day brainstorming session in February, 1985.

“We were asked to come up with some concepts to go with three elements,” said Rick Rothschild, of Walt Disney Imagineering in Florida. “The elements were George Lucas, Michael Jackson and 3-D.”


Rothschild said he and his colleagues came up with three concepts and pitched them to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, Lucas and Jackson on Valentine’s Day. They all agreed that day, he said, to go with the one they had called “The Intergalactic Music Man.” It was changed to “Captain EO” after Coppola was brought in as director. (It’s from the Greek word eos , which means dawn.)

The film went into production at Laird Studios in June, 1985, and principal photography was completed in August. But the work had just begun. At least half the shots in the movie are said to be special-effects shots. The visual effects were all done at Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic in Marin County. The animated effects were done at the Disney studio in Burbank.

Although “Captain EO” has not been shown outside Disney’s extended family, the studio isn’t hurting for interest. Patrick O’Neill, Disney’s corporate director of marketing for “Captain EO,” said the RSVPs for the two Disneyland premieres came back in record time.

The three principals--Jackson, Coppola and Lucas--are scheduled to appear at Saturday afternoon’s Disneyland premiere, along with more than 100 celebrities who will participate in what O’Neill described as an “A-plus party.”


The Saturday program will be used to conclude two of Disney’s biggest promotions for “Captain EO.” One is an NBC-TV special, which will air Sept. 20 (8-9 p.m.). The other is a one-hour documentary on the making of the movie. The documentary, being narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, will be shown on the Disney Channel in December, according to O’Neill.

A second premiere, for press and other guests, will be held in Tomorrowland, outside the new Magic Eye Theater, Sept. 18, on the eve of the public opening. Will “Captain EO” ever come to a theater near you?

Not likely, said O’Neill. The costs would be prohibitive. But you may eventually hear the songs on your car radio, and you may someday see a video on TV.

“They are both possibilities,” O’Neill said. “They are in the discussion stages.”


For now, O’Neill said, “Captain EO” is a Disney exclusive, “presented at Disneyland and Walt Disney World Epcot Center and nowhere else in the universe!”

Be it ever so humble . . . .