Review: Escape From Tomorrow

I was at the gates of the Magic Kingdom when I saw her.

She was a little girl, about four feet tall, wearing a Cinderella gown. The dress, that perfect shade of icy blue, shimmered and glinted under the sun. But the more I looked at her, the more I saw she it wasn’t just the dress — she herself sparkled.

The girl, gleefully twirling in the blue gown, had her blonde hair swept up in a tight, neat bun, in front of which sat a small, glittery tiara. But it wasn’t just the tiara that lent such a sparkle to the child. Her hair, a bit shiny thanks to some gel and hairspray, was speckled with glitter.

“Man, if I were five or six years old, I’d totally want to be here looking just like her,” I said to a friend.

Then I saw a second one.

This girl, again four feet tall, wore a brilliantly golden Belle dress. Her hair, like the first, was styled into a slick bun. With glitter.

As the day passed, I saw enough of these girls to form an army of pint-sized princesses. All were roughly the same height. All had the bun, the glitter, the tiara.

And they all had one other item in common. On the back of every girl’s head, underneath the bun, was a rhinestone barrette in the shape of the classic Mickey Mouse logo.

I was unsettled by it. And really, Disney World as a whole is unsettling.

From a visual standpoint, Disney World features a bizarre juxtaposition of retro-futurism and modern material. (Consider, for example, the classic monorail or the Carousel of Progress, a ride that Walt Disney himself designed as an ode to technology and invention. While the relic is intended to explain the history of invention, it stops at the 1990s with the creation of virtual reality. And the animatronics…God, don’t get me started on how creepy those things are.)

Disney World is a place that celebrates a revisionist history free of “Song of the South” or Walt Disney’s alleged antisemitism. And Disney World is the prime example of commercialism at its finest. I learned, for example, that the Disney World grounds have “salons” that offer princess makeovers. For the right price, your little girl can get the princess outfit of her choice, her hair fixed into that perfect ballerina bun, a tiara bestowed upon her and a douse of glitter for good measure. Oh, and the barrette, of course.

Which brings me to the Mouse himself. If you’re not staring into the dead eyes of an actual costumed character, you’ll see the iconic shape everywhere you look: stamped into the pavement, formed into balloons, in barrettes on young girls’ heads ⎯ even the sprinkles tossed onto ice cream sundaes are shaped like Mickey Mouse.

So when I first learned of Escape From Tomorrow, I was beyond intrigued. The film, directed by Randy Moore, is a fantasy-horror-comedy set at the happiest place on earth. And more interestingly, it was shot at Disney World completely on the sly without the company’s awareness, let alone consent.

Because of that, many were certain the film would never see the light of day thanks to Disney’s iron-clad legal department. Yet the corporation has chosen to make no public comment about the film and no lawsuits have been filed. So the little film that could, so to speak, screened at Sundance and won a wider release starting October 11. I, along with a packed room of others, caught an advance screening of it thanks to UW-Madison’s Cinematheque program.

In just a few words, the film tells the story of Jim, an everyman husband and father who, at the tail end of his family’s vacation at Disney World, learns he’s out of a job. Bearing the weight of this news, as well as a nagging wife, disobedient son and the general pressure of providing a picture-perfect vacation, Jim begins to crack at the seams.

Escape From Tomorrow makes for an interesting study of extremes. From a narrative perspective, we’re talking about a man who loses his mind at a place where dreams supposedly come true. He’s a man who appears to be taking in family-friendly entertainment   ⎯ but he’s also quietly eroticizing just about everything he sees. Jim is a flawed guy striving for the cliché life with a perfect wife and a perfect family having the perfect vacation at the most magical place on Earth. But damn if everyone and everything keeps undermining that.

The idea of extremes extends to the film’s visual characteristics as well. Escape From Tomorrow is gorgeously shot in black and white, which not only made it easier to shoot, but also works as another means of subversion. Disney World is fundamentally hyper-saturated; the monochromatic palette robs us of the familiarity we have with Disney World and presents it as an alternate reality. We’re seeing a robotic Winnie the Pooh frolic in pools of honey and shots of little girls in their glittery princess uniforms (which delighted me), and while that’s familiar to those of us who have been to Disney World, we’re very clearly looking at a different Disney World. We’re in the Twilight Zone, and it’s creepy as hell.

While it has a promising start, Escape From Tomorrow isn’t without problems. The core plot is sidetracked by clumsy subplots, only some of which help move things along to a (predictable) conclusion; the other events are more isolated vignettes included for atmospheric purposes. In addition, some of the critical moments are tarnished by rushed, incoherent delivery that genuinely left me confused.

If you cast aside the guerilla filmmaking strategy and judge Escape From Tomorrow on the merits of the final product alone, it achieves average success. But you really can’t do that — like The Wizard of Oz, the behind-the-scenes story of Escape is just as important as the film itself.

So with that in mind, I’d still entirely recommend Escape from Tomorrow as an exercise in Subversion with a capital S. Everything you see is a deliberate choice that alienates and disorients, making it a unique experience that, unlike much at what you find at Disney World, makes for an entertaining ride.