"Escape from Tomorrow" might have the most fascinating behind-the-scenes story of any film released in 2013. Shot incognito over a period of several weeks on the grounds of Orlando's Disney World Resort and Anaheim's Disneyland, first-time writer-director Randy Moore took a huge gamble that cost roughly $650,000 with no guarantee in sight that the finished product would ever receive general public exhibition. Surely, a piercing horror-satire that turns the Mouse House on its head and then crushes it to obliteration would be held up for yearsor foreverby legal matters. Moore consulted lawyers, however, who confirmed that under the fair use doctrine, and due to the movie's purposes of parody and commentary, they would be protected against trademark and copyright lawsuits. "Escape from Tomorrow" went on to be accepted into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it became the talk of the town. Few who saw or heard about it assumed it would ever find proper distribution. To much surprise, Disney has been silent on the matter, presumably as a strategic move to not give the film any more publicity than it already has gotten, and "Escape from Tomorrow" has, indeed, been released to theaters and Video On Demand services.
From the ominous opening-credits montage of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and its mournful accompanying score by Abel Korzeniowski (2009's "A Single Man
"), a weight of crushing existential hopelessness invades the frame. As visitors to the Magic Kingdom run around, smilingly taking in the sights and attractions, Moore has a way of astonishingly peering past the park-imposed mirth and straight into the stark underbelly of a billion-dollar corporation that makes its money off of selling an artificial façade of happiness to its customersno matter the price. Equipped with Lucas Lee Graham's crisp black-and-white photography, trading bright pastels for monochrome malignancy, Moore's offbeat imagery feels forbidden, and not just because he made it on the fly without location permits. He isn't out to disparage Disney, per se, but to provocatively point out that beyond the child-hugging princesses, hulking turkey legs, overpriced merchandise and cheerful rides is a place that is, frankly, really, really weird.
Jim (Roy Abramsohn) wakes up on the final day of his family vacation to Disney World with word that he has been fired from his job. Having not properly processed the information, he chooses to keep the bad news to himself and heads out with harpy wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and precocious kids Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Elliot (Jack Dalton) for a day at the theme parks. As they move from one ride to the next, Jim is drawn to a pair of young Parisian teens (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady) he keeps seeing around. On the "It's a Small World" ride, he witnesses the cheerful faces of the little animatronic childrenand that of his familytransform into demonic visages. When Emily and Elliot head back to their hotel, Jim's wandering eye and raging libido lead him into the clutches of a flirtatious single mother (Alison Lees-Taylor), who may be a witch in disguise. Reuniting later on, the family travels to Epcot for the evening fireworks display, tensions mounting along with the living nightmare of fantasy and reality encroaching upon their souls. Although they are planning to leave in the morning, there might be no way out.
If David Lynch were to find a way to make a movie at the Magic Kingdom and its surrounding areas, it would probably look a lot like "Escape from Tomorrow." Slick yet seedy, rooted in pointed social observation and metaphoric significance (the Siemens Corporation, sponsors of the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, is milked for all it's worth), the film is mounted with such a clear-cut vision that it is amazing director Randy Moore and his cast and crew pulled it off. Part slice-of-life drama, part mind-bending cautionary tale, it absorbs the viewer instantly, first as a sort of offbeat, eavesdropping travelogue and then as a hallucinatory saga of broken dreams and adulthood desperation. It is exceedingly clear that Jim and Emily aren't a happy couple, and haven't been for a long time. She's too controlling, and he's too unreliable. When Elliot asks his dad if he thinks Mom is pretty, he replies, "Sure, but not in a classic sense. More like an Emily Dickinson sense." Later, Emily instantly feels ashamed when she takes out her bubbling-over frustrations on daughter Sara with a blunt smack to the face, their dysfunctional discord proving once and for all that the so-called "Happiest Place on Earth" is not immune to the cruel and unfair actualities of life.
"Escape from Tomorrow" brings the urban legends and sometimes forbidden truths of Disney to lifethe gruesome accidental deaths, the upbeat "cast members" hiding their unsavory true selfs behind their manufactured costumes and wigs, even the rumor that the turkey legs sold in the parks are really made of emu meatwhile painting an audacious portrait of a family in crisis. The simple act of being at Disney isn't going to save them. Drifting all the further out there, Moore's climax set beneath the Spaceship Earth ride is, perhaps, too on the nose, but the concluding passages following this are pitch-perfect in their malificent insinuations. Subversive, surreal and deliciously stimulating, "Escape from Tomorrow" ends, coincidentally enough, with the very smile Jim has been told he should have on his face all along. Not since Heath Ledger's grossly painted-on expression in 2008's "The Dark Knight
" has a smile been so relentlessly haunting.