When the microbudget indie horror film Escape from Tomorrow premiered at Sundance last year, it was declared a film that could not possibly exist; one that in the most literal sense could not possibly have been made. Furthermore, it was believed that one showing was all anybody could ever see of this remarkable project. The star player in this drama too powerful to be defied in the way they were in this film. It was destined to be ground up into dust and scattered to the winds, but somehow it made it all the way to DVD release late last month.
What the hell am I talking about? Well, Escape from Tomorrow represents something that almost never happens in our society: a staggering victory for independent art over the corporate machine that has nearly every law skewed in its favor in addition to limitless resources. And one of the biggest corporate machines of all in popular American culture is the Walt Disney Company.
Film fans have an interesting relationship with the company. We all grew up on the classic films and can agree that there’s no park quite like a Disney park. Our childhoods are so wrapped up in the sights and sounds of this corporate entity that we can’t help but love it. But then there’s always those nagging feelings that we’re being manipulated and fleeced by the most evil and cynical of capitalists.
Disney is the very picture of a monolithic, out of control corporation named after a Nazi sympathizer that systematically destroys and buys out every single challenger to their childrens’ entertainment throne and routinely reduces art to a merchandisable commodity. A mafia-esque empire built on an image of superficial joy, draconian labor, and childrens’ tears. They are the ones who won’t allow the release of the full cut of Kill Bill, killed the Star Wars expanded universe, and converted Pixar into a sequel factory. The ones who are excessively pepper spraying drunks in front of kids at their parks, spent most of their existence shoehorning insane racism into their cartoons, put a dick on the cover of The Little Mermaid VHS, and installed a clinic in Splash Mountain where female employees are forced to have abortions and the dead fetuses are mixed into the hamburgers they serve to visitors. I might have made that last one up.
The point is that we have a love-hate/respect-fear relationship with Disney. In spite of all the rosy nostalgia and sugary musicals, most of us know deep down that things aren’t really what they appear in the House of Mouse. That’s where Escape from Tomorrow comes in.
The film was pitched as a heist, but was not about a heist. The film itself was the heist. Director Randy Moore was going to make a movie inside of Disneyworld without the company’s knowledge. Taking on one off the most sue-happy, deep-pocketed entertainment companies in the world on their home turf with a budget of about half a million? Good luck with that, buddy.
But it worked. And it only worked because it was so completely audacious. The idea of anybody even attempting such an insane project was so unthinkable that they got away with it. The actors, producers, and director posed as tourists, and went into Disneyworld and Disneyland; got their shots with camcorders, and got away with enough footage to make a horror film that takes place in the happiest place on earth with the legal right to distribute it. There needs to be a movie about this movie.
It’s a small, small, world, motherfucker
So now that you know the story behind Escape from Tomorrow, the obvious question is about how good it is. Well, it’s pretty damn indie. If you immediately understand what I mean when I say that, then you should consider it recommended. If you think when I’m talking “indie” I mean My Big Fat Greek Wedding you might struggle with this one.
First off, the movie is entirely black and white. If that is enough to turn you off of it then run far, far away because it’s only going to get worse for you. I called Escape from Tomorrow a horror film earlier, and that’s somewhat true, but not in the usual sense. I was picturing the attractions coming alive and killing people (which would have been awesome, but costs money), but it’s really more of a psychological mind-trip/corruption of innocence kind of horror. Think David Lynch.
The story is of a family on vacation in Orlando. The father receives a phone call where he is fired just before the family enters the park. As the family tours Disneyworld, things like the oppressive cheerfulness of It’s a Small World, the shrewish attitude of his wife, the whining of the children, the harrowing ordeal that is the line to get into Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, and a seriously icky obsession with a pair of teenage French girls begin to affect his mind.
Everything in this film is just a bit off; a hallmark that is responsible for the Lynch comparisons. We recognize the sights (sadly, the sounds were unable to be licensed) of the happiest place on earth, but what we are watching is a family falling apart there. No matter how happy the place itself is, people are still people and subject to some pretty unsettling behavior.
At one point the protagonist meets a woman who confides that she was once employed as a Disney princess. She questions what kind of person would hug total strangers for a living, implying something that is later expanded on when we see a group of middle-aged Japanese businessmen fondling compliant princesses. That’s right; prepare to have your childhood ruined.
Like a lot of indie films, the story eventually begins dipping in and out of reality, leaving the viewer to question what the hell they just watched. Did I just watch a man randomly cough up bloody furballs? Maybe. Did some guy just put an Epcot globe on his head and talk some crazy conspiracy nonsense before being decapitated and exposed as a robot? I guess. What’s the deal with that ladies’ crazy sparkly necklace, and why is there a naked woman superimposed over the Soarin’ screen? Beats me. Being an experimental film fan means sometimes you’ve just got to roll with it.
Escape from Tomorrow is too weird and off-putting -even by indie standards- to ever hope to make a dent with mainstream audiences, but cult cinema fans will find a lot to like. Its main draw is always going to be the fact that it got made right under Disney’s nose, but it is a surprisingly well-made for having been shot under such stringent and secretive conditions.
If Disney thought they had a legal leg to stand on, this film would never have made it past its first screening. But Randy Moore and his team did their homework and got off scot free. The cynical realist in me figures that Disney can’t be bothered pursuing something that will not yield them any profit out of spite, but the wacky conspiracy theorist in me is afraid that the man will have every company he attempts to work for bought out before being fired until he becomes homeless. Then one day a hobo will stab him to death in a public bathroom before placing a mouse-eared hat on his corpse and disappearing into the urban jungle.
Shouldn’t have messed with The Mouse.
The last time I know of that an independent filmmaker took on Walt Disney and won was 1977. Low budget animator Ralph Bakshi had already taken potshots at Disney in his X-rated feature Fritz the Cat, which featured a scene where the US government sends military jets to bomb a ghetto and the silhouettes of Mickey Mouse and friends are seen cheering them on from the shadows. Disney responded by re-releasing Fantasia on the same weekend that Bakshi’s fantasy film Wizards attempted to bring the controversial director to the mainstream.
Wizards defied all odds and defeated Fantasia in its opening, but both films were almost immediately swept from theaters by the shocking runaway success of a little film named Star Wars. Seeing that Disney now owns Star Wars, it’s no secret who wins in the long run, but fans of independent cinema have to relish these rare victories, no matter how small and fleeting.
Escape from Tomorrow is, as they say, a film that should not exist, but it does. And on top of that it’s a uniquely disturbing exploration of the dark side of a children’s entertainment company that we all know is there and, more specifically, the dark side of humanity that manifests itself no matter how cheerful our surroundings are.
This movie could not have been shot anywhere else and had the same emotional weight. Some critics have insisted that the story could have been filmed in any amusement park and it was only shot at Disneyworld for a publicity gimmick. While the first part is technically true, the fact is that the premise could not carry the emotional weight it does if it were any old amusement park. I love me some Six Flags and Knott’s Berry Farm, but there is nowhere on Earth like the Magic Kingdom when it comes to generating childhood nostalgia. Seeing that specific place corrupted onscreen makes the story hit much closer to home than if it were any other place. It’s what makes the film work.
Escape from Tomorrow has got a serious psychedelic WTF factor that might get in the way of the awesome premise for some people, but it’s also a work of ragged art that will have you thinking about it for days after you watch it. Its flashes of brilliance and willingness to go places other films never have (literally and figuratively) make it a must-see for hardcore indie fans, but mainstream audiences might be better off pretending this doesn’t exist. If nothing else, it’ll save them some lost sleep.