Escape From Tomorrow begins on the Disney World roller coaster “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” where a low overhang decapitates a rider with a satisfyingly juicy splat. The moment flashes by quickly, but it serves as a statement of purpose for the writer-director Randy Moore. With his first feature, Moore wants to change the way you look at Disney World—and he wants to blow some minds.
Shot at Disney parks without authorization or permission—the crew used DSLR cameras, recorded sound on handheld digital recorders, and at one point fled the parks a step ahead of security—Escape From Tomorrow serves as a sort of companion piece to Gravity. While Alfonso Cuarón’s big-budget masterpiece has little in common with this mini-budgeted head trip, both movies consistently left me asking: How’d they get that shot? Simulating zero-gravity seems several degrees less difficult than shooting an entire feature under the watchful eye of Uncle Walt—to say nothing of releasing it without Disney Legal smashing the film flat with their cartoon hammers. (Admirably, and wisely considering the possible publicity backlash, Disney hasn’t said a word about Escape From Tomorrow.)
As anyone who has taken a child to Disney World knows, the happiest place on earth can feel like a nightmare hellscape when things aren’t going well. For Jim (Roy Abramsohn) and his family, things are not going well. It’s the last day of vacation and Jim has just been laid off. The sun is hot, the lines are long, the turkey legs may be made of emu, and his kids want to go on “It’s a Small World.” Is it any wonder Jim’s driven to drink?
The fun of Escape From Tomorrow is watching Jim, and Disney World, spin out of control. The characters on “It’s a Small World” glare at Jim with their evil little faces. On Tom Sawyer Island, he loses his daughter in one of those terrifying underground tunnels. At Epcot’s World Showcase, Jim makes a number of very bad decisions: He buys a fez in Morocco, he drinks too many steins of beer in Germany, he gets on the awful Mexico Pavilion ride. As Jim becomes more obsessed with a pair of French teenagers and loses track of himself, the movie goes further and further off the rails—mostly enjoyably. There’s a robot, a real, live evil witch, and the spirit of Walt watching over it all.
The making of Escape From Tomorrow seems like it was a kind of haphazard nightmare of its own—Moore has noted that he basically had a breakdown in the process—and the seams show. Moore’s written two or three more conspiracies into his film than it probably needed, and interesting ideas get dropped almost as soon as they’re proposed. (Why is the nurse at the Magic Kingdom first-aid station weeping? What exactly does the Siemens corporation have to do with everything?) Jim’s—and the film’s—leering focus on the bodies of the princesses all around him can get tiring; the gratuitous boobs projected on the screen during a ride on “Soarin’ ” seemed beneath a movie that otherwise has so much on its mind. The film is beautifully but unevenly shot—the bright sun of central Florida can make for an intensely expressionistic image, as characters are naturally spotlit in its unforgiving glare, but some scenes are awkwardly green-screened.
But that's OK. In the end, Escape From Tomorrow is less a focused critique of the Disney aesthetic than it is an enthusiastic tweaking of Disney mystique. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve visited the Magic Kingdom yourself, and you’ll get the most out of it if you’ve brought children there and experienced the odd combination of delight and oppressiveness that Disney parks offer. Just like watching this movie, visiting Disney World can feel like being trapped inside someone else’s imagination. The people who design Disney parks are called “Imagineers.” It’s a testament to this creepy, inventive, nearly successful little movie that I’ll never think of that job title as a benign one again.