If you’ve never heard of Escape from Tomorrow… well, there’s a reason for that.
The microbudget indie picture quickly gained notoriety in certain underground film circles as the movie shot entirely on location at Disney World without the knowledge, consent, or involvement of anyone at Disney. Judging from the nature of the film’s advertising and subject matter, it seems like the filmmakers were counting on a lawsuit from Disney to drum up some free advertising. To the notoriously litigious company’s credit, however, it appears that they have not yet been dumb enough to take the bait.
Even so, the film has been widely ignored by the mainstream, and it’s easy to see why. Leaving aside the fact that no one wants to risk the displeasure of the Walt Disney juggernaut, the movie takes direct aim at Disney World. Not only is the amusement park a crown jewel in the Disney empire, but it’s come to be a symbol of fond childhood memories. The park has taken on a kind of dreamily perfect reputation, though it bears remembering that Disney has gone to great lengths in cultivating that image.
And here’s writer/director Randy Moore, making a movie to show how ridiculous that perfect image is. Oh, and did I mention that this is the very first movie he ever made? Guy’s got balls, no doubt about that.
To start with, the film was shot entirely in black and white. Right off the bat, the film drains Disney World of all its color, which replaces the park’s flashy and youthful charm with a strange sense of demented dread. What’s more, the lack of color damages the lifelike presentation so carefully built by the Imagineers. This means that we see all the robots and facades for the artifices that they really are.
At its most basic level, the film comments on the absurdity of being surrounded by things that we know aren’t real, yet we play along and pretend anyway. Moreover, there’s so much pressure to be happy at The Happiest Place on Earth. Bring any kind of sadness or boredom into those gates and God help you.
The film argues that this is a kind of socially acceptable insanity. In fact, given what Disney World means to so many people and all the effort Disney puts into maintaining those associations, it’s almost a kind of socially enforced insanity. And the film develops that concept by way of a character who quite literally goes insane.
Our protagonist is Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s just been informed by his boss that he’s been laid off for absolutely no reason. Even worse, this news comes to Jim on the very last day of his family vacation to Disney World. Jim also has to deal with a somewhat shrewish wife (Emily, played by Elena Schuber) and a couple of kids (Sarah and Elliot, respectively played by Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton) who are naturally out-of-control as they wander through the Magic Kingdom. So naturally, Jim has already been mentally, physically, emotionally pushed to his breaking point.
And then Jim sees a mysterious pair of teenaged French beauties played by Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady. This, somehow, is what completely breaks him. His inexplicable obsession with these girls leads Jim to a clinically insane former Disney princess (Alison Lees-Taylor), a mad scientist (Stass Klassen), and a whole host of whacked-out visions that may or may not be hallucinations. Of course, Jim’s rampant alcoholism doesn’t exactly help matters.
The plot — with assistance from Jim’s deteriorating mental state — serves as a kind of checklist for everything that could possibly go wrong in Disney World. Kids get lost, people throw up after rides, people get hurt, the lines go on for hours and hours, rides get shut down (often after waiting so many hours in line), people catch and spread all number of diseases, the Orlando humidity is terribly unforgiving, and that’s not even getting started on all the problems and conflicts that arise when so many different people cross each other. Hell, there are documented cases (albeit mercifully rare ones) of people going on rides and getting fatally injured. These are all things that can and often do happen at Disney World, but no one likes to talk about them. They’re just sort of glossed over, to keep from interfering with all the fond childhood memories. Alas, as the film’s tagline so aptly puts it, “bad things happen everywhere.” There are good things and bad things about everyplace in the world, and theme parks are no exception.
On a similar note, the Jim/Emily dynamic deserves a bit of extra attention. Throughout the movie, Jim helps himself to pretty much all the alcohol he can get his hands on, yet Emily tries to pull him back at every turn. Though I agree with the idea of cutting a man off when he’s become visibly intoxicated, I’m pretty sure the bartenders are legally obligated to have that covered already. But that’s beside the point.
The point is that Emily refuses to let Jim drink because they’re in a kid’s place. Never mind that he’s legally able to drink and the alcohol is perfectly available to him (at exorbitant rates, I’m sure, though the film never mentions that), there’s some unspoken rule that he’s not supposed to partake in adult pleasures. Similarly, there are times when Jim tries to kiss his wife, and she pushes him away for the same reason. It’s preposterous, given how many happy couples are surely in Disney World right now, and I’m sure that Sarah and Elliot have seen their parents kiss a few times before, but the fact stands that there’s no kissing in Disney World. There’s no sex, nudity, drugs, or cursing in this place where everyone can be a carefree child.
So naturally, the film is peppered with sex, nudity, cursing, and alcohol. You’d be forgiven for feeling guilty, seeing all of that in the Magic Kingdom, and that’s exactly the point.
Though the film has a lot of intriguing points to make about Disney World, and the film is quite novel in its batshit presentation, there are times when the film gets way too fantastic for its own good. As an example, the film heavily implies that Disney Princesses work as high-end prostitutes for the park’s wealthier visitors. Though I’ve heard many horror stories about the overworked and underpaid employees of Disney World, that one is new to me. The working conditions behind the scenes at Disney World are bad enough, so why did the filmmakers feel the need to make a patently false one out of whole cloth?
As another example, one of the film’s most vital turning points involves Siemens, the electronics giant that currently sponsors Spaceship Earth. I get the oddity of bringing corporate sponsorship into something that’s already a massive capitalist circle-jerk, but it’s hard to hear the film’s statements about it over all the incomprehensible bullshit going on. Again, why did Moore have to go this deep into fiction when the reality is absurd enough? It’s not like he was worried about upsetting any huge corporations, for God’s sake.
Most importantly, the film’s plot is impenetrable. I couldn’t explain the sequence of events in any way that makes sense, even if I tried. I realize that stories involving hallucinations and hopeless insanity will always be convoluted to some degree, but there still has to be some baseline of reality. This film’s baseline is flimsy throughout the running time, and it’s pretty much completely shattered in the closing minutes.
Before I wrap up, I suppose I should talk about the film on a technical level. The film looks surprisingly good, given the guerilla nature of this production, though there are a few visible seams. There are some shots where the dialogue has clearly been dubbed in, and some of the green screen shots look egregious. There’s also a notable scene in which Jim is supposed to be puking, but of course the filmmakers couldn’t even fake vomiting without drawing unwanted attention. Likewise, there’s a scene in which a character gets slapped, but any actual violence would’ve been way too risky. So the puking is done by cutaway, the violence is done by speeding up the film, and both cases completely fail to sell the action onscreen. Still, for a no-budget production done completely on the fly, it bears repeating that the end result isn’t bad at all.
In the end, I get the impression that Escape from Tomorrow was meant to be a work of cinematic abstract art, rather than a work of cinematic storytelling. The film has a lot of fascinating statements to make about the inherent absurdity of Disney World and its title of “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and those statements took priority over a coherent plot. Also, the film makes plenty of statements that are either incomprehensible or completely untrue, which takes away from what credibility the film might have had.
Even so, this is such a bizarre and head-scratching little curiosity that it’s absolutely worth a look. If nothing else, Randy Moore has certainly proven himself one of the gutsiest filmmakers working today. I sincerely hope that crossing The Mouse in such flamboyant style doesn’t lead to a stillborn career, because we could use more filmmakers who are so completely devoid of fear.
P.S. The film made absolutely no mention of Walt Disney’s frozen head. Quite a missed opportunity, in my opinion.