October 16, 2013

Review: 'Escape from Tomorrow' – Disney As A Dark Fantasy

"A family experiences the disturbing underbelly of a theme park while on vacation."

It's difficult to judge writer/director Randy Moore's audacious debut film Escape from Tomorrow apart from its remarkable production. It shouldn't exist. Shot in secret, guerilla style at Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort without the knowledge or permission of The Walt Disney Company, it's an incredibly novel experiment in undercover filmmaking. The film itself is a strange, darkly surreal exploration of human fantasy and popular culture set at the one of the most iconic yet artificial of locations.

I can't imagine how the actors adjusted to the rather unique filming environment, shooting scenes with regular, unsuspecting park goers during normal operating hours. Roy Abramsohn stars as Jim White, a typical, mildly paranoid middle-aged father who loses his job on the last day of his family's vacation in Florida at Disney World. What follows is a dark, twisted, black and white version of our dreams and nightmares on what the world of Disney can be through different, altered eyes. There's some truly creepy, disturbing imagery contrasted with the genuine wonderment of the theme park. It's a noble effort yet still very limited in what it can do or say about its corporate subject matter.

Jim starts to immediately lose it and unravels, becoming obsessed with a couple French teenagers (think Lolita). He fights with his wife (Elena Schuber) while his daughter (Katelynn Rodriguez) and son (Jack Dalton), played very convincingly, start to act out and behave oddly. Among other things, he starts to learn of a larger conspiracy, being told the park's princesses serve as high-class prostitutes to Asian businessmen, and stumbles into a secret underground enforcement division within the park grounds.

It's hard not to marvel at how well blocked and choreographed some of the scenes in the park are. Jim's family heads to Epcot where he proceeds to drink heavily at the German pavilion, vomits on the Mexican pavilion ride, and spirals downward into his own manic dream state while encountering a real-life interpretation of a Disney witch. This is all played in the backdrop of well known park locales and on famous rides with amusing results.

What the film gets across is truly what a strange place a theme park, in particular, the happiest place on earth here, really is, beyond all the imagery. After all, it's suppose to be a place made for pure joy and wonderment. Escape from Tomorrow plays mostly as a mix of daily family stresses and some sort of drug-induced fever dream of corporate mascots and theme rides run amok. Moore delves into middle-aged themes of anxiety, paranoia, and sexual frustration through surreal cinematography reminiscent of David Lynch and tensely manic scenes of conspiracy in the style of Roman Polanski.

Escape from Tomorrow works far more as a piece of experimental filmmaking than the dark fantasy it sets out to be. Full of bizarre, mystic allusions, the film is fascinating in how twisted and starkly elusive its thematic qualities are. It uses iconic Disney imagery to explore expressionistic symbolism fairly well. However, its scenes of scattered, horrific surrealism often lead nowhere, one after another. Regardless, Moore uses his actors to stretch the boundaries of one troubled family's last day of vacation at the Magic Kingdom.

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