This movie should not exist.
Filmed guerilla-style at DisneyWorld and DisneyLand over the span of a couple weeks, it made a splash at Sundance this year as the ballsiest production move of the decade. So far, the filmmakers have managed to steer clear of legal action - a conscious decision by Disney to avoid drawing any more publicity to the movie.
Not that Disney approves of its content. The film explores a mythical dark side of the Happiest Place on Earth - a place where the Siemens corporation surveils guests from inside Epcot’s Spaceship Earth (maybe) and the princesses serve as high-class cosplay prostitutes for Asian businessmen (maybe).
I say “maybe” because Escape from Tomorrow blurs the lines between reality and fantasy as a matter of course. Some have compared it to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, but it’s way more accessible than that.
Like Eraserhead, it’s shot in black and white. This was done so that the filmmakers needn’t worry about color balancing and changing light situations as they ran around serrupticiously shooting content. Writer-director Randy Moore used hidden mics and consumer-grade equipment to blend in with all the other videocameras in the park. They rehearsed for weeks before going in - even tracking the sun patterns beforehand to do without lighting equipment - and green-screened whatever they couldn’t get on property.
The sheer marvel of a renegade movie shot in DisneyWorld (and some bits in Disneyland) kept me glued to the screen in wonder despite an otherwise slow moving story arc. I suspect that will be the charm for most folks. It’s just a remarkable achievement that can never be repeated.
Anyway, let’s get back to the plot. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is on the last day of vacation with his family when he gets a phone call firing him from his job. Determined not to ruin their last day at the parks, he keeps it from his wife and two small kids.
But the news is taking its toll on his psyche, tumbling him headlong into a mid-life crisis of sorts. He becomes way too fascinated with a pair of giggling Parisian adolescents and emotionally detaches from his family as his fantasies turn sexual and sinister.
Especially considering the challenges of shooting, the performances are impressive. I especially enjoyed Elena Schuber’s portrayal of the typical mother-trying-to-make-sure-the-kids-have-enough-sunscreen-and-why-aren’t-you-watching-little-Bobby. A healthy dose of humor - both dark and light - is peppered throughout to keeps things fun.
Escape From Tomorrow is more art film than conventional Hollywood but please don’t let that scare you off. You can handle this kind of creative filmmaking. Just keep in mind it is to be EXPERIENCED (like a poem) instead of followed closely (like a novel).
To fuss about which parts are real and which parts are in Jim's head misses the point entirely. Just sit back, keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times, and enjoy the ride.
You can currently download Escape From Tomorrow from iTunes or find it on Video on Demand services. It probably won’t show up on Netflix for a while.
*** SPOILERS ***
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at DisneyWorld. Not only have we visited many times as a family, but I also worked at The Great Movie Ride in Disney’s Hollywood Studios for a season. I know the parks inside and out, and I’ve spent a lot of time around the people who go there.
* Being a world-famous destination, there are families who save many years to be able to attend. It may be the only time they are ever able to go in their lives and they know it. As such, many of these folks unwittingly trade the magic for stress, biting at each other as they yank their kids from one attraction to another, noses in their guidebooks so they don’t miss a thing, making themselves perfectly miserable. And tired.
* We tend to feel a little out-of-body when we go on vacations to new places. There’s a sense that we’ve entered an alternate universe for a time and, when we return home to The Real World, what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas. It puts us in a sort of “no consequences” mentality.
* DisneyWorld may not have the temptations of Nevada, but it is sunny Florida - tops are low cut, shorts are short, and spirits are high.
* There was a trying time in my life when we took a vacation to The Happiest Place on Earth. I had hoped it would grant me respite from my problems - an escape from life for at least a week. And wouldn’t you know it, despite consciously trying to not make it so, I could not keep the outside world out of my head.
Medicating myself with the joy of others and forcing myself into ostensibly fun experiences just made it worse. I became angry for failing to enjoy it and I’ll always remember it ironically as an absolutely miserable time. I couldn't escape from tomorrow either.
Conclusion: I'm not going to interpret this story for you. But I will say that, even after working there, I’ve never felt that DisneyWorld has a “dark side” - it’s almost as clean cut below the surface as it is above. Nevertheless, I completely understand Jim’s spiral into madness. The setting lends an irony to the plot that works better than maybe any other for this type of story.
For more insight into the filmmaking process and the themes of the story, check out this excellent behind the scenes story and video on Vice.com.