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For this week’s column, I’m taking you with me on my latest theme-park adventure, in which I follow an internationally adored man-child on a magical virtual voyage. No, I’m not talking about that Potter punk again, I promise. This eternally arrested adolescent with an oddly overdeveloped sense of importance is actually the domain of Walt Disney World, not Universal. And it isn’t Peter Pan, either.
On the morning of July 2, a gaggle of hardcore Disney fans waited under cloud-filled skies to witness the Big Cheese (aka an underpaid kid in a sci-fi Mickey Mouse suit) cutting a red ribbon, officially welcoming back to Epcot one of the biggest pieces of cheese ever created: Captain EO starring Michael Jackson. If the very name doesn’t instantly conjure eerie images of spandex-clad hoofers hovering above your head, you’re obviously not a child of the 1980s. Now even those too young to remember when the King of Pop was a charismatic young black man (instead of a wacky white woman) can now experience an authentic artifact from the peak days of M.J. mania.
Since the most rabid Rat regulars frankly frighten me (you should have seen the mob at Epcot’s 25th anniversary), I decided to skip the grand-reopening ceremony. I caught the film a day earlier during a private sneak-preview for annual passholders, a perk sometimes tossed to those of us willing to pay our dollar-a-day Disney tax.
If you approach Epcot’s Imagination! pavilion from a certain perspective, the sight of the freshly restored original “Captain EO” marquee above the theater’s entrance almost takes you back to 1986 when the film premiered. The interior queue also tugs the nostalgia strings with a vintage portrait of Jackson, accompanied by a hallway-length inscription of the attraction’s theme song and catchphrase, “We Are Here to Change the World.” Before entering the main theater, guests are treated to period-produced behind-the-scenes video, in which collaborators George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola oversee construction of massive soundstage sets, while Jackson choreographs in the dance studio surrounded by leg warmers and giant hair.
Once you’re seated for the main event, 3-D glasses firmly in place, it’s almost like going back to the future. Unfortunately, this future’s not so bright, even if you gotta wear shades. The 17-minute original was shot in 70 mm celluloid and stuffed with so many special-effects that it was billed as the most expensive movie per minute to date. The restored footage also is 77 mm celluloid, but the transfer process left a noticeable loss of sharpness and resolution; the original was apparently not given an extensive cleaning, evidenced by frequent dust and dirt spots onscreen and inconsistent brightness between the left- and right-eye images.
The original presentation was breathtaking, breaking new ground for 3-D imagery, but the update gave me a mild migraine for my troubles and wasn’t even the best Disney-generated 3-D I saw that day. Ironically, I had just come from a screening of Toy Story 3 that featured the most unobtrusive and involving use of 3-D I’ve seen in a mainstream film – even better than Avatar. When local cineplexes and living rooms can do 3-D better than the theme parks at a fraction of the cost, maybe it’s a sign for Disney to get back to designing detailed dark rides that can’t be replicated at home.
Headache aside, the restored Captain EO is still mildly entertaining, mostly because of Jackson’s undeniable screen presence and dancing prowess. The audience applauded his character’s initial entrance and a brief moonwalk garnered some cheers, but they quieted down as Jackson and his knockoff-muppet sidekicks slogged through the nonsensical script involving an evil alien queen (Anjelica Huston, unrecognizable under an H.R. Giger-inspired prosthetic) who irrationally hates pop music. Even the innovative in-theater 4-D effects aren’t as fun: The fiber optics, fog and lasers are replaced by gratuitous water spritzers and leg ticklers. One welcome addition is the motion-simulator floor that makes you feel every explosion as well as a few of Jackson’s snap kicks; thankfully, they don’t bounce with every bass beat in “Another Part of Me” like at Disneyland’s Captain EO Tribute attraction.
As I exited into a torrential downpour, the attitudes of the guests around me appeared dampened by more than just the weather. A few kids – who were way too young to remember why Jackson was once adored worldwide – chattered about the funny creatures and costumes; their parents registered an unmistakable expression of “WTF were we thinking back then?” Viewed back-to-back with the posthumous documentary This Is It, it’s evident that Jackson’s obsessions with mechanized militarism and messianic musicality never really evolved in his final 20 years. Captain EO’s revival brings a welcome respite from the tired “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” 3-D show that replaced EO back in 1994. But before you go buying an $80-plus park ticket to relive your childhood, check out what’s posted on YouTube.com. Then write and let me know if it’s as good as your prepubescent self remembered.