The first and last time I went to Disney World was when I was six years old. While I probably enjoyed it, the connection I had with the park was more out of curiosity and fascination than anything more personal than that. I did not, unlike a majority of my peers and, I suppose, a majority of children in general, grow up on Disney films. I was not as exposed to the ubiquity of its ephemera until my mid teenaged years. By that time, I was able to understand what Disney was: not only iconoclastic in his determination to make dreams come true, but perhaps the biggest corporation one could ever imagine. That isn’t to say I don’t have any connection with Disney ilk at all: I am prone to nostalgia watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. But what I understand about that film, and the other properties that the Walt Disney Corporation has either created, readapted, or bought, is that it’s as much of a powerful pop culture machine as one can fathom, the kind of machine that eat you up, chew you to pieces, and then spit you out. Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow explores how that industry, and the culture itself, affects our perceptions of the real world, in a debut feature film that’s ballsy, filled with morbid imagery, and an incredibly competent, nightmarish take on “Happiest Place on Earth”.
Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) has just been fired from his job without much explanation beyond a “transitioning period”. Abruptly told via a phone message, he decides to keep this information from his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber) and his two children, Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Elliott (Jack Dalton). How else to cover the blues? Traipse around Disney, the Happiest Place on Earth. Trail young French girls, stand in line for rides that will ultimately be shut down, and eat Emu! As Jim descends further into madness, the wonderful world of Walt Disney, in its most tangible form, reveals how sinister it really is.
The film has garnered an abundance of attention for how it was shot: guerilla style, without permits, around Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California. In reality though, it is probably best to compartmentalize this information. It isn’t that it’s not important, but that it is in a way you would not expect. One of the things that Randy Moore, the writer and director of the film, nails firmly is the confidence to oscillate between the tones of surrealist documentary, with a fly on the wall(t) feeling of deadly verisimilitude, and nightmarish dreamscapes. As the camera tracks Jim and Emily as they argue, it becomes utterly disconcerting how realistic it feels. Two adults, parents, standing in the middle of an amusement park, arguing about children, amongst other things. Who hasn’t seen that before? The shots of the family going around the park, seeing other people in the park; to me, those rang the strangest and most disturbing. It felt like knowing that people really do change when they are in an amusement park, for better and worse. That ability to channel the familiar isn’t limited to those kinds of interactions, as Moore is able to do the same, but with the audience’s presumed nostalgia for the property he intentionally subverts. He makes what many audiences have come to find safe and comforting sinister, evil, and perverse. From the decapitation of someone on a roller-coaster (all too real for me) to the transfigured faces of the animatronic figures in various rides, nothing is sacred. It’s a trip into the imagination of someone who becomes sicker and sicker as the film goes on. But Moore almost never overplays his hand in how he sucks the audience into Jim’s hallucinatory horrors: perhaps the most frightening and unsettling about it is not the subversion of the familiar, or the ludicrously lobbed commentary on consumerism (I say that as a good thing), but how subtle it seems. Yes, if you look at the film as a whole, Escape from Tomorrow seems positively bombastic, a film where you seriously question the mind of its creator. But it is a mounting feeling, a gradual evolution of discomfort level. Like a real nightmare (or mine, at least), the majority of the beginning seems fairly normalized, but as the eerie visions begin, the stack up on one another one by one so that the most “”overwhelming” part is that it wasn’t overwhelming at all: that because you didn’t leave or you couldn’t wake up, you drown in the illusions that torment your sleep.
One, perhaps, should not overstate the film’s Lynchian qualities, but they are most definitely there. Not exactly in the form of the visions themselves, but in how those visions are utilized: amongst the normal, within the every day. There are theories surrounding Lynch’s films, particularly Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, that the most nightmarish thing one can imagine the nightmare of daily life. With this in mind, Moore succeeds in spades. The aesthetic though, of both the film overall and its many phantasms, is closer to Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic Repulsions. In it, Catherine Deneuve is trapped where she is most familiar: the apartment she shares with her sister. In the same way, Jim (and the audience) is trapped by visions of the familiar subverted. For such an expansive landscape as the Disney theme parks, it is a place you can get lost in, and not for the better. Escape From Tomorrow, like Repulsion, is shot in black and white (though the former was shot on pro-grade DSLRs), and the contrast between light and dark does not only remind one of the iconic mouse, but also the imagined battle of good and evil within the culture.
Moore, though, wanted to explore the fanaticism that surrounds Disney culture, that sheer ubiquity that transforms into ideology. Moore zeroes in on the consumerism aspect, though, offering a world for the audience to view just how popular the culture is and how controlling. (If you have ever had a friend that worked at either Disney World or Disneyland, or heard tales, you know that they have very “unique” working conditions.) Even though it’s supposed to be a bad dream for Jim, like any nightmare, it is one that lures you in and casts you under its spell. That is, essentially, how marketing and capitalism works, and the Walt Disney Company is a master at it. The parks are, of course, filled to the brim with souvenirs that cost you an arm and a leg, but elsewhere, you cannot go anywhere without seeing a Disney property. Oh, you’re excited for the new Thor film? Disney property. Getting prepped for the upcoming JJ Abrams Star Wars venture? Disney property. It’s Halloween, so I imagine some of you, like myself, will be watching Hocus Pocus and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: both of them, Disney properties.
Part of what Moore intends to say is how this culture ultimately transforms us, and eat us up and spit us out. The metamorphosis that Jim undergoes is scary, and though it is deliberately surrealistic, the ideas behind it seem all too real. Popular culture in general is just that: popular to the point of insanity. Its effects are evident in Jim’s children: Elliott demands he go on a Buzz Lightyear ride and Sarah continually asks for various toys.
There’s a knowing tone to this, though, for as dark as the film is, Escape From Tomorrow is littered with dark humor. Neosporin, for obvious reasons, couldn’t be shown in the film: instead, Moore pauses oh so briefly on the image of Jim holding the little packet and lays a black rectangle over the logo, adding a little ding sound effect to it, like a wink to the audience. The word/name “Disney” is bleeped out, again, almost comically. Even the headlong tone and intent of the film is occasionally mocked in a meta-reflexive way, making the most ridiculous scenes seem at once very funny and very disturbing. Moore seems to be able to prove, in this film, his ability to juggle tone and ideas expertly.
In a fascinating article by The Daily Beast on the film’s making, Moore notes that his wife, who comes from the former Soviet Union, was horrified when he brought her to the Disney theme parks. “All she saw was kids screaming and demanding really overpriced souvenirs […] There’s something about the environment that heightens the senses and makes people very sensitive to everything,” Moore says in the interview. And in the film, Jim’s kids are hyper sensitive to the environment, but he and his wife are as sensitive, if not more so. They become bitter with one another, and, in its hypersensitivity, the film becomes hyper aware visually through Jim’s perspective. Whether the decision was based on the depression he feels after losing the job or the strange, newfound sense of virility that the park infuses him with, he trails two young French girls the entire day. He is sensitive to their every movement, like a stalker. His wife is sensitive to every word, depicted as a hard to please wife. The girls are sensitive to the wandering eyes of the father.
Much of the subversion of familiar imagery is reliant on one of two things: those weird robots in the tunnel rides and Jim’s perception of female characters and females in general. The perverse tone of a middle aged man going after barely pubescent girls is supposed to feel creepy, for sure. But what of the humanized Maleficent who rides him as her hypnosis inducing necklace bangs against his face? And of the girls that The Scientist uploads to the internal system of the Epcot Globe? Or of the Disney Princesses that also moonlight as elite courtesans for Japanese businessmen? Are those images inherently sexist? Does that make the film inherently sexist? This is an answer I am not sure of. I am not sure whether the film, which is told from the perspective of the ever insane Jim, is depicting misogyny in a “satirical” manner (some of the lingering, Male Gaze shots are very exaggerated and obvious) or if the film actually has a sexist subtext. It is unquestionably odd that a plot thread in a film would involve said middle aged man following young girls. But is this perhaps a reflection of what society teaches us now? No, I am not suggesting something to that extent, but the proliferation of images of young women barely clothed is certainly an issue in contemporary culture. It is so common no one even notices it anymore. But, while the aforementioned examples, within the Disney Kingdom, can be, to an extent, justified within the film’s context, the portrayal of Emily, the wife, who is described as “Emily Dickinson” and “bookish”, seems mildly problematic. She seems to be the de facto antagonist in the film, serving as the always there obstacle to Jim’s desires. I think the audience knows she is trying to be a good mother as her marriage basically falls apart at Disney, but she’s given very little depth and almost no redeeming elements. You hypothetically argue that, this again, is how Jim views his wife, but because she’s outside of the world of nightmares (in terms of being a part of that world), it’d be a weak argument.
Although Escape from Tomorrow is an imperfect film, it is nonetheless one of the most fascinating films you will see this year. Despite the mildly aberrant use of Disney iconography in the film, the actual company has, so far, decided not to take action, fearing that doing so would result in wider cover and a bigger audience: the last thing they would want. Writer/director Randy Moore, though, seems totally on board with light provocations: the film’s one sheet is a Mickey Mouse hand whose gloves drip with animated blood and the film’s official website features a count up clock that reads “Hours Since Release That Disney Has Not Sued”. It’s cheeky, like the film itself. The film remains one of the most audacious I’ve ever seen, beautifully shot, filled with the right amount of surrealism. It’s weird, perverse, subversive, and it will undoubtedly change, even a little, the way you see Disney in the future. For a film so packed with ideas, the big takeaway for me was about disillusionment: will you let the “Real World” color how you see life? Is that what is supposed to happen? Or do you keep on wishing upon a star, will popular culture make a difference in who you are? Can we escape from tomorrow?