For some, that famous theme park is the epitome of leisure and amusement. Others might wonder what level of Hell Dante might've deemed it. If you've ever accompanied children through a day at "the happiest place on Earth", you can relate to some elements of the new film called ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW. Whether (probably especially) as a parent or otherwise guardian, making what is already a long, sweaty, exhausting journey through Disney World (or Land) with little ones may be the ultimate litmus test for your patience. And you damned sure require that when waiting for the Buzz Lightyear ride (and cursing yourself for not dropping the $$$ for a Fast Pass).
This film earns a spot in cinema history. Not for any inherent greatness or originality but the fact that it was shot guerrilla style within the hallowed parks (on both coasts) without permission. That is a wonder in itself (and that neither Disney or Siemens have litigated). ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is not a documentary. Rather, a surrealistic nightmare of fiction that manages to capture Disney in ways that make it look and feel almost unbearably sinister at times. The black and white photography not only helps, but is essential for this effect.
Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a put-upon dad, clearly miserable at the thought of another day trudging through someone else's fantasy. But then one morning he gets a call from his boss alerting him of termination. In an instant, Roy decides to keep the news to himself and try to make the final day of the trip as pleasant as possible for his wife Emily (Elena Schuber), son Elliot, and daughter Sara.
There are the expected difficulties of fickle child behavior. Hungry, then not hungry. Tired. Scraped knees. Playing mom against dad. Emily is bitchy. Jim's smiling façade fades quickly; when surveying the EPCOT ball he deadpans that it reminds him of a giant testicle.
Then those animatronic figures start appearing distorted. Jim's judgment fails him, from taking his too-young son on Space Mountain to lusting after and stalking a pair of French teenage girls. There is the resulting emesis of fast rides. The legend of a decapitation when standing up on Thunder Mountain Railroad. I won't even tell you what happens with that mysterious flirty woman who sits next to him while he gnoshes on one of those turkey legs (rumored to actually be emu).
ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW plays like the ultimate howl from a jaded parent, one forced to have endured hours of that damned teacup ride. But also, one who never grew up himself. How can you be a good parent when your maturity is not much above your child's? Trying to always be their friend? Could it explain the film's third act, when things turn really odd in first a sci-fi then a full on horror sort of way? Some of the climatic scenes play like something out of early Cronenberg (but without the clinical detachment or insight). Things even get a bit scatological. In a way, the last scenes of the film seem born out of a male adolescent's fantasy run amok: mad scientists, topless women, evil witches who used to be princesses, a deadly virus. Are we merely stuck in Jim's horrible daydream while he sits through The Carousel of Progress yet again?
But what of that brief moment earlier on when mom begins hallucinating as well?
The film expands what many of us suspected, that beneath the magic are armies of lemmings doing some evil bidding, providing false fulfillment for which we very willingly fork over hard earned dollar. That park employees are being exploited and forced to conform. In one of my undergrad speech courses, a classmate delivered a scathing indictment of her summertime gig in the land of fantasy, how those servants are not only co-opted and drained of humanity, but are also "laughing at you and your children."
As entertaining as the final segments are, it is really a failing of ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW's attempts to be a bitter little classic, an excoriating allegory of manufactured happiness. Early on, the movie hits a sort of nauseous vibe, always uncomfortable as it wades some pretty unpleasant waters. The psychological tension and build-up (complete with incongruous merry scoring by Abel Korzeniowski) promises far more than the drive-in movie climax delivers, though writer/director Randy Moor still hits plenty of targets. His themes are unmistakable to the very end. See how you interpret the dreaded "cat flu" and how that may thematically relate to a land lorded over by a mouse.