Review: 'Escape From Tomorrow' is a surrealist treat that will give Disney's lawyers nightmares
One-of-a-kind film screens as part of the Sundance NEXT category
- Critic's Rating B+
- Readers' Rating A+
PARK CITY - Probably a half-hour into "Escape From Tomorrow," I turned to William Goss, another critic who was at the screening with me, and whispered, "How does this exist?"
Perhaps the most unusual thing I've ever seen at a film festival, "Escape From Tomorrow" is a slow descent into madness, told from the perspective of a father who finds out that he has lost his job on the final morning of a family vacation. As he spends the day with his family, trying to make them happy, his grip on reality seems to come gradually unhinged, leading to… well, I'm not sure I could describe what it leads to even if it weren't a spoiler. Shot in black-and-white, the film has a strange disassociated vibe to the storytelling, and writer/director Randy Moore has a very clear authorial voice. It is not an understatement to say that it is one of the most unsettling things I've experienced in a theater in quite a while, and part of that is because, even now, even after seeing the Q&A with Moore, even after talking it over with Goss while we ate dinner, even after going over it in my head, I still don't fully understand what I just saw.
All I know is Walt Disney's lawyers are probably climbing onto helicopters and planning a raid on Park City right now.
See, the entire film is set inside the property at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and a fair amount of the film appears to have been actually shot on the property, during business hours, without anyone's permission. It is largely stolen feature film, and while they were careful to change all the music so they're not playing anything in the film that they could get sued over, they are still including tons and tons of familiar Disney iconography. Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck… all the costumed characters appear. We see huge chunks of the "Snow White" ride, portions of the "Winnie The Pooh" ride, material shot inside the Haunted Mansion. There's an entire sequence built around waiting in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride. They go to Epcot, and Spaceship Earth is prominently featured and even blown up at one point. It feels like someone saw "Eraserhead" and said, "Hey, why don't we get that guy to shoot an infomercial for the Magic Kingdom to get more families to come?" and this is the oh-so-not-what-they-wanted result. It is a magnificent, impossible nightmare.
It is not possible that this film exists. It is not possible that they shot long scripted sequences on the actual rides. It is not possible that I just saw a film in which it is suggested and then shown that the various Disney princesses all work as high-priced hookers who sell their wares to wealthy Asian businessmen. It simply cannot be true.
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And yet… not only does it exist, but it's fascinating. Reading Moore's statement in the press notes, he also grew up around the Florida theme park, the child of a broken marriage, and he spent most of his holiday time with his father in those parks. He has very strong feelings about his family, about his father, and about Disney, and those memories are all tangled up together for him. He cannot think about his relationship with his father without thinking about Disney. To his credit, the easiest way to do this would have been to make it a found-footage movie so there would be an excuse for everything being staged in front of a consumer grade single camera. He didn't do that, though. Working with his cinematographer, Lucas Lee Graham, Moore shot on the Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLR camera, and the results are miraculous. This looks like a "real" movie, and yet it had to have been shot under the most insane conditions, and there was no way for them to do any traditional set-ups or lighting.
Roy Abramsohn plays Jim, the father who is losing his mind, and it's one of those performances that I find hard to describe in traditional terms. He has to play things perfectly natural in places, and he has to play this crazy heightened reality in other places, and somehow, he has to make it feel like all of this makes perfect emotional sense because his reactions are in many spots in the film the only "normal" thing we have to hold on to. The film taps into all the nightmares that are inherent to modern parenthood, all the pressures and the private worries, and it works as a bad dream if that's how you want to read it. There is an upsetting thread running through the film about two teenage girls who he notices early in the day. Jim can't stop looking at them, and as his very strange day wears on, he keeps running into the girls, keeps following them. He practically pants after them. Danielle Safady, one of the girls, really is a young teen, and she looks it. Her friend, played by the gorgeous Annet Mahendru, also looks young, but is evidently in her early 20s. Doesn't change the way Moore makes you feel complicit in Jim's transgressions, constantly ogling the girls, making it uncomfortable from the very start.
The movie also serves as a very wry commentary on the entire nature of the pre-packaged family fun park experience, and in some ways, this is what is most upsetting about it. By using the real Disney parks and then by tweaking it in small ways, Moore turns this familiar space into something both oppressive and surreal, and he seems to be fascinated and disgusted in equal measure by the sort of plastic happiness that the Disney parks sell to the public. It is genuinely sinister, and I am sure the next time I have my own family at one of the parks, lots of the imagery from this film is going to linger with me.
The movie is undisciplined at times, rough around the edges in places, technically uneven, and there's no sense of pacing to it at all. Even so, there is a sort of naive charm that makes it impossible to look away. I don't love every element of the film, but I love that this is a movie, that I actually saw this thing, and that Moore was deranged enough to make it the way he did. I'm no fool… I can tell that there were sections they accomplished by shooting background plates and then performing some scenes in green screen, but there is far more of it that they shot in the real locations without anyone's knowledge, and that stuff has an energy that's unlike any other movie I've ever seen.
I honestly feel like this is never going to see the light of day. I can't imagine any other studio or distributor wanting to tangle with Disney's legal department on what could or couldn't be shown. There will be changes made, and I'm guessing there's a chance it'll just vanish. But I think the film's existence raises some fascinating questions about how you can use something shot in a public space, what control Disney truly has over images shot on their property, and the nature of what constitutes a legitimate use of a trademarked figure. Is this social commentary? Pointed satire? Legitimate anxiety that should be protected as free speech about the world we all live in? I'm not sure. All I know is that Moore has made something singular, a completely original film, and he's done it in a way that feels like a magic trick. Here's hoping he gets a chance to share it with more audiences.
"Escape From Tomorrow" will screen again tomorrow morning, Sunday the 20th, Thursday the 24th, and Saturday the 26th, and if you're in Park City, I would urge you to see it now while you can. Who knows if it will ever be allowed to escape again?
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