“Don’t mess with the Mouse,” is a maxim in American intellectual property law. Ask any law professor. Those who challenge Disney in court usually lose. But the view that Disney can’t be beaten is part of the myth Disney has created itself, and the success of the critically acclaimed independent film Escape from Tomorrow is throwing movie watchers’ pre-conceived notions of Disney as sacrosanct out the window. Escape from Tomorrow was filmed nearly entirely on location at Disney theme parks without the permission of Disney. It turns out there’s nothing Disney can do about it. The result is better than just a stunt project, but it has its misfires as much as it has its triumphs.
The talented Roy Abramsohn, mainly a character actor who has shown up in TV series from Charmed to Medium to Monk and Without a Trace as well as a recurring role on Weeds, takes on the lead role of Jim, a father and husband of the Clark Griswold variety on his last day of vacation at Epcot and Disney World, the celebrated “Happiest Place on Earth.” Jim just learned he’s lost his job and is having one of those days where everything goes wrong. But this is no National Lampoon’s comedy. Jim is living out his own House of Horrors.
Structurally, the film is brilliantly executed for a first effort. Were you to go back and look at THX-1138 and Duel and predict the future of its directors, no one could have predicted Star Wars or American Graffiti or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws. Escape from Tomorrow is better than THX-1138, but not as compelling as Duel. Does that mean we have a future genius on our hands? Not likely, but it will make viewers take notice of the next projects of writer/director Randy Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham.
Pushing aside the obvious use of black and white film, which was for continuity more than effect (since filming was more difficult because of multiple takes on multi-colored cars on various rides), Graham’s work has the quality production values and look of a major 1950s release. Both the feel and plot points will have viewers thinking of black and white classics, like Billy Wilder’s work on Sunset Boulevard and the creepier elements of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. Graham shoots this film so well, if it weren’t poking fun at Disney World, you’d think it were a beautiful travelogue promoting the destination as your next vacation spot.
A key component of the setting is establishing a substitute for Disney music. Anyone who has been on the “It’s a Small World Ride” will understand the meaning of the word incessant. Composer Abel Korzeniowski created music to mimic the feel of the park when a soundtrack was needed, yet also created a compelling, spirited, and sometimes even elegant score to drive the film forward that could compete with any major studio release.
What doesn’t make for a great film versus merely good film is the meandering script. This is likely a result of the limitations caused by the guerrilla methods required to film this unique production, as well as waiting until the film was complete to seek legal advice on how to make the film while skirting copyright law pitfalls (as described in the DVD special features). There’s the feel of filler scenes, shock value scenes that don’t tie to the plot, and more “showing” than “telling” along the way when the audience could actually use some explanation for Jim’s motivations.
Yet, as a reflection on that bit of life where “something goes wrong every damned time you try to do something” and life’s coincidences that can make any sane person paranoid, Moore nails his themes. This is explored everywhere from a kid that won’t eat, to a kid that eats too much, to a dense spouse, to breaking your toe on the end table at the hotel, to another family’s kid that knocks your girl to the ground, to losing your child on vacation.
Moore’s perceived message, as suggested by the corresponding guerrilla-esque social media marketing campaign? Take your family to a national park for your next vacation instead of an expensive tourist trap. In actuality the message revealed in the film is toned down: “Bad things happen everywhere.” Instead of the promised message “Disney sucks” we get the more global message “life sucks,” although it feels worse where you’re promised to “live happily ever after.”
Interspersed with what is good about the film is what should have been the best parts–the odd fantasy element–including sci-fi robots and unexplained fixtures that morph into hideous creatures. Yet a very real Disney-esque witch with a jeweled necklace that hypnotizes Jim works well enough to lay on another layer of the parody element reminding the viewer that the happy go lucky Disney myth may still behind the horrors befalling Jim at the park. Unfortunately it’s just not explored enough. Fans of dark comedy should still find enough to be happy with here.
The lesser parts of the film aside, Escape from Tomorrow will likely be studied in film schools for years to come for its guerrilla movie-making and attempt to stretch the boundaries of parody.
In theaters for only a brief release, Escape from Tomorrow is now on DVD and Blu-ray, available here at Amazon.com.