Ever since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, Escape from Tomorrow has become one of the year’s most talked-about films. Most notably, it was in regards to the guerilla filmmaking techniques employed by writer/director Randy Moore, the majority of the film shot on location at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida and the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California without the permission of the Walt Disney Company.
In order to conceal evidence that a movie was being shot, Moore and his cast and crew relied on several underhanded tactics, including buying season passes, rehearsing in locked hotel rooms, entering the parks in small groups, shooting footage on cameras that looked more like those used by typical tourists, and storing and sharing information, the script included, on iPhones. In an effort to further prevent Disney from getting wind of the film, Moore even had it edited in South Korea.
Now that Escape from Tomorrow has picked up a distributor and received a limited theatrical release, despite serious doubts that such a thing was possible due to Disney’s fierce protection of its intellectual property, it has become all too clear to me that the making of the film is much more interesting than the film itself. This is a bizarre, unfocused, self-indulgent, deeply unpleasant exercise in disillusionment – which comes at the expense of the Walt Disney Company. At first, I was lured in with the hope that its construction as a Lynchian dreamscape getting more surreal with each passing scene would make for an absorbing, hypnotic experience; the further it went, the more confusing and repulsive it became, and by the time it was over, I felt as if I had been psychologically abused. Upon learning of Moore’s emotional baggage, hopelessly intertwined with his memories of Disney vacations, I finally understood that the film’s weirdness had no narrative purpose and existed solely as an extension of his cynicism.
Shot in monochromatic black and white, necessitated by the absence of a lighting crew, the film has characters, a sequence of events, and even a climax, but I hesitate to say that it has a story. The central character is Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s fired from his job while on vacation with his family at Walt Disney World. He keeps this from his overbearing wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), and his kids, Sarah and Elliott (Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton), as they try to go about their day. As they go back and forth from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot Center to their hotel room, Jim is plagued by disturbing visions and strange occurrences. As he and his family ride “it’s a small world,” for example, he sees the faces of several of animatronic dolls morph into evil sneers. He will also repeatedly be distracted by a duo of French teenage girls (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady), who enter every scene giggling and hugging.
Jim will have run-ins with an obese Southern man in a motorized wheelchair and a neck brace, whose son shoves Sarah to the ground in the middle of Tom Sawyer’s Island. He will also meet an unnamed seductress with pendant around her neck (Alison Lees-Taylor); decency, along with my own opaque understanding of this character, prevents me from revealing what her real intentions are. Let it suffice to say that, in spite of her physical encounter with Jim, she has her eye on Sarah. Jim will eventually have a vision of a naked woman while on the Soarin’ attraction, and before long, he will learn the secret of what lies beneath Epcot’s Spaceship Earth. Mind you, he will be no closer to comprehending the implications of that secret. Neither, for that matter, will the audience. All I know is that the discovery ties in with another trademarked company having its name prominently displayed without anyone’s permission.
Moore has been candid in interviews about how his relationship with his father has deteriorated in recent years, and about how, following his parents’ divorce many years prior, he would visit his father in Orlando and spend time with him at Disney World. Perhaps Moore is saying that, in the same way Disney theme parks have for decades, and much like the Jim White character, his father hid behind a façade of happiness and falsely promised protection from the troubles of the world. Recusing myself as a hardcore Disneyland enthusiast, I would argue that whatever happiness the park evokes has less to do with how it presents itself and more to do with what you emotionally bring with you. In other words, the park doesn’t force anyone to feel any particular way. If I may be so bold, I think Moore is unfairly using the Disney company as a scapegoat for his unresolved personal issues.
“I could still go back,” Moore told Eric Kohn of Indiewire.com when asked about whether or not he could ever return to Disney World and enjoy it. “I’ll still look at it with a little bit of cynicism, if not contempt. It’s a strange place.” He went on to say, “I don’t consider myself a rebel, but I have kids, and you cannot keep Disney from invading their minds.” “Invading” is such a strong word. It’s almost as if he believes Disney is a cult hellbent on brainwashing our children. Could it be possible that the ubiquitousness of its characters and theme parks has nothing to do with an evil corporate master plan, that there’s a genuine demand for it due to the company’s extensive track record of producing quality entertainment? I give Escape from Tomorrow credit for its repeated displays of audacity, but ultimately, it’s just a self-serving exercise overshadowed by its own notoriety.