Randy Moore's bold, uneven 'Escape from Tomorrow' takes on Disney, but its commentary barely leaves a mark
Escape from Tomorrow Producers Distribution Agency
Director: Randy Moore
Screenplay: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Alison Lees-Taylor, Lee Armstrong, Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes
October 11, 2013 (Also available on VOD)
(out of four)
The fact that Escape from Tomorrow got released in the first place may be the most decisive testament of its overall harmlessness. It made waves at Sundance this past January because of the gonzo nature of its production - it was shot without permission at Disney World and Disneyland - to the extent that many speculated it would get tied up in legal trouble and possibly never be released at all.
Yet here it is. And as it turns out, the legend is greater than the reality. The story behind the film is a fascinating one, and one I wish would have resulted in something more potent. But the finished product - this version, at least* - isn't really damning toward Disney at all, nor their corporate partner Siemens. In fact, I'd even hesitate to call it gentle ribbing - save for the Disney iconography, this movie could have been staged at virtually any amusement park on Earth, and it would have been pretty much the same.
* The version that screened at Sundance was about 15 minutes longer; this version has been re-worked and shortened. It's possible the original cut was more defamatory, but I personally don't know.
So perhaps this is a sanitized version of writer/director Randy Moore's grand experiment. Or, more likely, Disney realized the film was so benign that it simply wasn't worth the time and effort of its robust legal department. Some of Moore's best ideas are never given the time they need to really germinate. Like the suggestion that the Disney princesses sprinkled throughout the park are, in fact, high-class prostitutes who service rich Asian businessmen after hours. Or the idea that Disney World in general is a wasteland of shattered illusions and false dreams, exemplified by one key character; billed only as Other Woman (Alison Lees-Taylor), she was once, in her younger days, a Disney princess, a fantasy come true . . . now, some time later, she resorts to kidnaping children and entertaining them - in full princess regalia, dusty gown, faded crown, smeared mascara - in her hotel room.
In those two sequences and maybe one or two more (maybe), Moore is throwing cold water on the idea of Disney World as a land of enchantment, instead sardonically characterizing it as a nightmarish, alienating netherworld of chaos and hidden danger, a place where bitter resentments and buried feelings erupt, where families are torn apart and where conspiratorial forces are watching your every move.
At least that seems to be what he's getting at, only he never fully gets there. When the movie begins, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) has just been fired - over the phone, no less, in his underwear, on the balcony of his hotel room, which he is currently locked out of, courtesy of his mischievous young son. He's vacationing at Disney World with his wife and two children, and right from the start, they don't seem to be getting along. When they get to the park later that morning, things don't get much better. Rides close unexpectedly after interminable wait times. One of the kids gets sick. Jim and his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) keep fighting.
The only levity Jim gets is the recurring appearance of a pair of exotic teenage girls (played by Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru, the Russian double agent from The Americans) whom he fantasizes about and winds up following around the park. But sexual indiscretion isn't the only danger afoot. The resort nurse inexplicably warns him of a mysterious flu going around; someone else tells a story of a guy who got decapitated on one of the rides; and then there's the mysterious man in the riding wheelchair with whom Jim keeps crossing paths. The rides don't treat him much better - cheerful Disney figures transform into devilish visages; later Jim hallucinates about a bomb going off at Epcot Center.
There's something to be said about the way Moore crafted some eerie, surreal imagery out of existing places and objects that they couldn't control. There's an unsettling creepshow quality to the early sequences that establishes an foreboding atmosphere. However, Moore proves incapable of sustaining any kind of tone, not to mention a narrative idea. What sticks out most upon reflection is how much better Escape from Tomorrow may have been if it had been made in more traditional circumstances. But that becomes something of a catch-22. You get the the feeling that the best way to make this movie right - and to better develop the biting satire Disney has so richly earned - would be to gain permission and access; and yet, the only way this movie could have been made at all was to do it without either. Maybe Escape is a self-evident triumph simply for the fact that it exists. In any case, it remains a fascinating experiment, even if the result is often underwhelming. At the very least, the making-of documentary oughta be a winner.