As of this moment, I really have no idea how I feel about Escape from Tomorrow. So much of the discussion on this film has centered around the audacious and unprecedented nature of the way it was shot – covertly, without authorization at Disneyland and Walt Disney World – and the potential legal ramifications of it. While it’s just shy of miraculous that this movie even exists in the state that it does, I feel that the technical conversation has overshadowed the fact that the film’s narrative is falling apart at the seams.
Let me back up a little bit. My relationship with Disney might be fairly defined in some contexts as obsessive. I’ve been visiting the parks since I can remember, the movies in Disney’s canon have helped to define my love of film, I can rattle off obscure and largely useless bits of Disney trivia, and I have long held a general fondness for the company and its products. At the same time, though, there’s plenty about the company that is more than deserving of criticism: the current executive administration is far more interested in purchasing and re-packaging other people’s content than making any of their own, the Walt Disney Company is leading the charge in the toxic Hollywood franchise movement, unique and original experiences in the parks are being cannibalized for franchise tie-ins and merchandise locations, and there has long been a disturbing trend of historical revisionism to some more unsavory elements of the company’s past. In short, while I am very fond of the company’s history, and much of its output, all the pixie dust in the world won’t convince me that there are not some things seriously wrong with the company’s practices.
So despite what you may expect from someone who openly defines himself as a “Disney nerd,” I was looking forward to Escape from Tomorrow. Using the innately recognizable iconography of the Disney parks and characters to offer up a critique of some of the more insidious aspects of the company is an exciting proposition; it only helped that the whole thing is so remarkably ballsy. In the end, I left the theater disappointed, but still not sure I entirely disliked the film.
The premise is that on the last day of Jim White’s family vacation to Walt Disney World, he receives a phone call from his boss informing him that he’s fired. However, for the sake of his family, he paints on a happy face and begins one last trip to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. However, once he’s in the parks it’s clear that Jim is becoming unhinged: ghastly faces replace the friendly smiles of the dolls on It’s a Small World, Jim entertains a disturbing fascination with a pair of French teenage girls, and surreal happenings ensue that may or may not be the result of a broken mind.
The core of this is really great. Addressing the dissonance of personal crisis while in the “Most Magical Place on Earth™” is an extremely poignant theme, especially for anyone who has had a less-than-magical experience in one of the Disney theme parks. A few years ago, my family had a particularly tricky time getting everyone together for a trip to Disneyland. We all wanted to go, but our schedules kept conflicting and circumstances kept getting in the way that made it almost impossible to arrange. When we finally settled on a date that worked for everyone and finally made it out to Anaheim, our first day in the park was met with a phone call informing us that my uncle had just passed away. It was a tragedy that hit all of us really hard – my mom in particular – and it painted that trip in a very weird light. Also of note is the fact that Disneyland is where I singlehandedly dismantled a relationship with a childhood friend who I had fallen in love with – a moment which led to years of hurt and consequences that I still live with. It’s a remarkably uncomfortable feeling to watch part of your world collapse in front of you while being surrounded by lights, music, balloons, and smiling mice.
Disneyland is the home of some of my fondest memories, but also some of my most painful tragedies, and at its best, Escape from Tomorrow expertly captures that fundamental contradiction. I’ve read that Randy Moore, the director of this film, apparently has a similar background to mine – growing up in the parks, and having its identity tangled up in much more deeply personal memories – and that comes across clearly in the film. He captures the parks with both a genuine fondness and a bitter distaste, which is absolutely the best thing this film could do. I was worried that this film might be the all too common middle finger pointed at Disney for no other reason than the fact that they are the biggest in the business, but it’s much more personal than that.
Unfortunately, when the film tries to drive home some of these points with more subversive imagery, the whole thing falls to pieces. Watching a man come undone by personal crisis in the middle of a place that is designed to manufacture happiness is powerful, hearing a woman refer to her G-spot as a “hidden Mickey” is shallow and distasteful. When Moore is more restrained, he’s able to hit just the perfect note and critique the plastic happiness that Disney attempts to sell at its parks while also being personal and poignant, but when he lets loose and turns the subversion up to eleven, it often comes across as crass, obvious, and frankly ineffective. I can’t get into too many details, because much of this comes at the end of the film, but a lot of this movie feels unwieldy – narratively confusing, and thematically flat. As the film ratchets up its surrealism and attempted subversion in the films later moments, it comes off the rails and loses any of what made it work at the start. It may be visually rich and intriguing, but thematically it simply doesn’t work.
In the end, the most interesting thing about the film remains the technical and logistical marvel that it is. This is a movie that, by all reasonable definition, shouldn’t exist, yet here it is, playing in theaters and streaming over VOD services. I’ve seen some people comment on the fact that everyone in Walt Disney World has a camera on them, and that this isn’t terribly impressive, but those people are merely exposing their ignorance of what is actually here. This doesn’t look like a hidden camera film or even excessively handheld; it’s executed with professionalism and feels incredibly cinematic. There are moments where I sat in awe wondering how in the world they were able to achieve certain shots. There’re a handful of fairly obvious green screen sequences, but the bulk of the movie is the real deal, and I’m at a loss to imagine how some of it was done. Additionally, even though not suing was a smart move on Disney’s part, it’s a minor miracle that Disney did not pursue legal action against this film. Moore is careful to not use any copyrighted music or film elements (the highly recognizable Sherman brothers song is absent from It’s a Small World and the helicopter shots on Soarin’ are completely different from any in the actual attraction), but the movie still features a slew of copyrighted characters and iconic Disney fixtures.
It’s worth noting that I expect a lot of people who are familiar with the parks will be driven mad by some of the geographical inaccuracies of the film. The setting of the picture is Walt Disney World in Florida, but long sections of the film take place on the other side of the country in Anaheim, California. The reverse angle of one shot is the submarine lagoon in Tomorrowland, while the opposite shot is right in the middle of downtown Toontown. The fact is, though, that these kind of cheats are present in almost all the films that you see, you just don’t realize it because you aren’t as innately familiar with those other settings. I’d wager that a solid majority of audiences would have a hard time picking out which scenes were shot on which coast, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The view behind the camera doesn’t matter in the context of the film, the fact that you know what’s there doesn’t really matter. You have to approach the film on its own terms.
Escape from Tomorrow is a film that didn’t completely work, but I’m not really prepared to call it bad. It’s a fascinating film to watch, and when it gets the tone right, the narrative sings; the problem is that it frequently struggles to hit the right tone, especially near the end. If you’re willing to take this film on its terms, knowing what you’re getting into, it’s probably worth watching, but I can almost guarantee that a lot of people who watch this film won’t like it. As for me, I’m happy I saw it, and I might even be willing to revisit it at some point, but the narrative issues are significantly disappointing. I commend Randy Moore on making something that is so audacious and so unique, but I also hope that next time he doesn’t just stop at audacious.