On a Disney vacation, the minute you disembark your plane you become a symbiotic part of the company—you’re their guest and your every wish is their command. Surrounded at all times by representatives of happiness, from the perpetually smiley staff to the galavanting costumed characters to the candy-coated facades, the parks especially defy cynicism. The Magic Kingdom was given the title “The Happiest Place on Earth” for a reason, and everyone involved works their asses off to ensure the perfect time for all. Removed from the Disney spell, the fairy dust and magic, it’s tempting—and easy—to wonder about the company’s base motivations. Of course they want your money and of course they’ll exploit Third World workers to entice you to spend. Merchandise stores occupy a full third of the combined park space, tickets are expensive but come with the promise of luxury. If you stay on property, your credit card is tied to your room key, which also serves as your electronic identification and in return they promise you’ll become one of the priviledged, a member of the Disney Family.
The darling of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was the inarguably daring debut film of Randy Moore. Shot surreptitiously in both DisneyWorld and Disneyland, Escape From Tomorrow attempts to lift the family-friendly veil from the corporate juggernaut and expose the otherworldly insidiousness lurking behind the hyper-reality composed of all-encompassing artificiality. What demons are hidden behind all the happy animatronics? What horrors lie behind those doors marked “Cast Members Only”? That the Disney Corporation has gone and continues to go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, grow their brand and consume other corporations only adds to the temptation to seek for alien motivation. Which is why the making of Escape From Tomorrow is as facinating and compelling as it is. The cast and crew went to great lengths to shoot a feature-length film undetected by the parks’ thousands of employees, surveillance and copyright lawyers. As Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny stated this film “should not exist”. At the very least, you’d expect the corporation to descend like a Biblical plague upon Moore and company for daring to infringe on its slightest copyright and suppress the film from public eyes for eternity. Yet, that isn’t what happened. Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t compare to its making-of. The story behind the story makes a much better story.
The film opens with Jim White standing on his hotel room balcony, overlooking Disney’s vast Orlando property beyond. His boss fires him over the phone, but Jim is determined to have a perfect “last day” at the parks with his family, which includes his high-strung wife Emily and their two plot-device children, Elliot and Sarah. It’s quickly established that Jim and Emily’s marriage is already strained and that he feels alienated from his children. That Elliot’s introduction involves him locking his father on the balcony then scampering back to bed with his mother can be interpreted in a variety of ways, especially Freudian. From there on, Elliot’s only concern is to ride the Buzz Lightyear attraction.
The incumbent stress that comes with a family vacation, with the additional tension of losing one’s job during the obsession to have fun—and, due to the cost of the trip, to have a superhuman amount of fun less the money seem wasted—already has Jim and the audience on edge. During the already-intolerable It’s a Small World ride, he begins hallucinating, demonic faces glare back at him from the multi-cultural puppets. Worse, he sees Elliot’s eyes change to solid black, hears Emily lean in and cheerfully delare, “I hate you”, while the ride goes on and on and on.
Then we’re given a little insight into Jim. He becomes obsessed with two young, pseudo-Sapphic French teenaged girls (including one young enough to still wear braces). Slack-jawed, the Ugly American Father splits from the family unit and uses Elliot as an excuse to stalk the girls through the park. Elliot asks if his father thinks their pretty and he dodges the question. “’Pretty’ is open to interpretation.” When asked if he still finds his wife pretty, Jim responds with a rambling, absent-minded, “Oh, yeah, sure. Your mother’s beautiful. But not in the classic sense. More like an Emily Dickinson, bookish way.”
On one hand, Jim is entranced with the Disney interpretation of beauty, with its eternally young princesses and their flowing gowns, compared to the beauty of youth of the two teenagers coming out of their awkward stages and embracing their inner nymphets. On the other hand, Jim comes off as enormously creepy almost to the point of criminality. For the next half hour or so, the audience stays with Jim and Elliot as they ride one popular trademark attraction after another as Jim fantasizes about being with the girls as they gush and coo over him. Later, after reuniting with the other half of the family, Emily berates him for neglecting fatherly things like forgetting to put sunscreen on the kids, falling into that stereotype meant to justify Jim’s childish desires for the younger girls.
Jim’s Freudian desires become reality when he wakes from a seemingly hypnotic trance to find himself tied to a hotel bed, beneath a strange woman who begs him to find her “hidden Mickey”. She may have used her piece of garish costume jewelry to entrance him. She tells him that the actresses playing the princesses sell themselves for thousands of dollars to Asian businessmen. Later, at EPCOT, his drinking and side-tracked amour frustrated Emily to the point of slapping Sarah and storming off. The inebriated Jim loses Sarah and winds up getting tazed by cartoonishly-dressed security. After a five-second INTERMISSION title card, he awakes strapped to a chair beneath Spaceship Earth (the giant golf-ball mascot of EPCOT), while a scientist with an alternating French and German accent operates various SIEMANS’ brand panels (again, the corporate sponsor of the ride) to create a deco-sphere around Jim’s head, purging his imagination. “Almost as great as W.D. himself,” the mysterious man tells him.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Jim’s now-insidious are-they-or-aren’t-they? halucinations. Combined with the disorienting geography of the parks, the claustrophobia of the crowds, the unwashed lower-class masses upstanding WASPs encounter (portrayed as an overweight Southerner with a neck collar and a rascal scooter whose loutish son pushes Sarah over), plus the warnings of the uber-contagious “cat flu” spreading through the park and you already have a recipe for paranoia. With the inherent surrealism of the park, all kinds of horrible mysteries should be expected. Does Disney work for alien overlords? Is it a front for Hell itself? Have the animatronic robots taken over, Westworld-style? Those are just examples of the roads not traveled in Escape from Tomorrow.
Lest this become a criticism of a movie I’d have preferred to see, let me finish by saying that Escape From Tomorrow’s hints at horror have been compared to the works of Polanski and David Lynch, and that the human mind is capable of conjuring inexplicable terrors. Which is not only valid but removes any sort of narrative responsibility from the fiction. Keeping the unreal in Jim’s POV leaves interpretation up to the audience. Is there evil afoot beneath the Disney wholesomeness? Or is it base human need to find flaw in artificial perfection in the way that created stories of Mr. Rogers’ blood-soaked adventures as a sniper in Viet Nam? In this day and age, are things like imagination, wonder and “fairy dust” to be mistrusted and even disdained? Again, the filmmakers leave this responsibility of meaning to the viewer.
Because Disney is such an unstoppable capitalistic engine, legendary for encompassing lawsuits, strict security and enforcing their own rules, hearing about a movie shot on their property without their knowledge instantly stokes the curiosity. It’s particularly enticing to the legions of Disney-bashers already on the side of the “common man” that fears Disney may have too much power, control or share of the free market. The natural expectation for Escape from Tomorrow is to view something heinously subversive, almost heretical, slinging mud upon the House of Mouse. Expectation is high for scab-picking and wound-poking. The mere suggestion of high-priced Disney hookers should be enough to extract glee, but actually going so far as to show glimpses of the sex inherent in the system! Delicious blasphemy, right?
Moore’s audacity is the force driving the hype and excitement of Escape from Tomorrow. Scenes were blocked in hotel rooms days in advance prior to filming on park property. Consumer cameras were used to allow the filmmakers to blend in with the rest of the obsessively-filming crowd. Brilliantly, Moore used this compulsive sharing culture as a masquerade. Scripts were hidden on cell phones and the various “units” were organized via call and text. Even Moore himself has expressed shock at what infractions they were able to commit, from groups of people constantly cycling through the same line, having endless varations of the same conversation. The film production was, in fact, operating behind the very veil they were hoping to peel back, with Disney employees (almost) completely ignorant of their presence beyond visitation.
Paranoia over Disney’s legendary undead cadre of copyright lawyers drove Moore to edit the film in South Korea and he was shocked that the heavily-sponsored Sundance would even accept the film. In fact, the film festival organizers used that paranoia to their advantage by only hinting at the subversion the creators pulled off. Fest attendees climbed over each other to see the movie that got one over on the Great and Powerful Disney Corporation. Heralded as “the ultimate guerrilla film”, Escape from Tomorrow was decreed an impossible feat. Everyone in the business was certain that the film would never see a wide release, that the Happiest Company on Earth would sue the producers into oblivion. In order to circumvent heavier expected fines, Moore removed the “It’s a Small World” earworm song from the track, replacing it with a similarly designed bit of old Hollywood treacle (and brilliantly composed by Abel Korzeniowski), and was careful not to use actual scenes from the animated epics playing on the constant background hum of monitors throughout the park. The beloved Disney characters—particularly Mickey Mouse—was used at an absolute minimum, and the costumed character’s appearance actually serves as a shock cut late in the film. And still, the majority of those who’d borne witness to the film feared worse than a lawsuit—that one day Disney would just blackbag Moore and company, disappearing them forever.
So with all of this expectation, the eagerness to see the emperor uncloathed, it is impossible for the film to artistically succeed. The story is trite and Jim White is a shallow protagonist. Played by Roy Abramsohn, Jim is nearly impossible to like or sympathize with. Elena Schuber’s Emily is shrill, the kids are pretty much props to get Jim from one end of the park to another, and if they were a real family, you’d go out of your way to change tables at a restaurant if seated near them. Alison Lees-Taylor as the mysterious former-princess who hints at the various immoral activities seems to be having far more fun as a wanton cipher, but by the time the film revisits her and her “game” of stealing children, I was already looking at my watch. I’d been so prepared for shock and outrageousness, to see the triumph of the little indie filmmaker in the face of the corporate giant, that the film’s terrible pace and characterization were the only things that caught me off guard.
After viewing, my magnificently-witty Facebook post was that the movie was like “the world’s greatest heist where after the thieves spent the loot on chewing gum”. I stand by that. Escape from Tomorrow was doomed to be disappointing, like any over-hyped movie will be, but my main surprise came at how banal the final assemblage was. None of the work and subversion and misdirection that went into the production is visible on screen. In fact, with how careful Moore was with the final product (the name “Disney” is only uttered onscreen once and gets audibly bleeped), the story could have taken place at any theme park. The magic and majesty and real life power of the parks have very little presence. Shooting the film in black and white, to overcome difficult color balancing and lighting requirements, gave the movie an old fashioned look and seems like a lost Wonderful World of Disney special, and indeed Moore does make good use of the iconic monuments, but he rarely integrates them into the story. It’s as if all the risk and chutzpah were unnecessary. The results could have been achieved as an all-greenscreen film.
When all was said and done, Escape from Tomorrow received a handsome release package from Warner Brothers and is currently available as VOD. Meanwhile, Disney has adopted a cavalier attitude towards it, calling it "An independent surrealistic cult film surreptitiously filmed at Walt Disney World and Disneyland," on its online companion to the Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. Rather than add to any hype or, as many have suggested, purchasing the film and releasing it under the official banner, thus capitalizing from both Disney supporters and detractors, their official response seems to be more of a shrug.
Nothing can be taken away from Moore and company: they went up against giants and got away with their scheme. They managed to overcome every obstacle from budget to police, but in the end, it was lack of imagination that scuttles Escape from Tomorrow. "As great as W.D. himself." Whatever his flaws, real or attributed, Uncle Walt's visions extended beyond shagging a pair of barely-legal French girls.
Should Disney decide to base a movie on the making of Escape from Tomorrow, I rather think I’ll be first in line.