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Review: ‘Escape From Tomorrow’

Disney World Is Not The Happiest Place On Earth?

Above: Katelynn Rodriguez and Roy Abramsohn star in "Escape From Tomorrow," an indie film shot at the Disney theme parks without their permission.

Aired 10/10/13 on KPBS News.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the indie film "Escape From Tomorrow."

Transcript

Filmmaker Randy Moore shot his film “Escape From Tomorrow” (opening October 11 at the Digital Gym Cinema) at the happiest place on earth but without permission from Disney World.

“Escape From Tomorrow” opens with family man Jim (Roy Abramsohn) getting fired over the phone while he’s on the last day of his vacation at Disney World. He chooses not to tell his wife and two kids, and instead tries to make the best of a bad situation. But his anxiety is only intensified by the forced happiness of the world’s most famous theme park. For Jim, the smiling faces on the rides turn to fanged snarls and the park drips with an ominous sense of foreboding. When his daughter skins her knee, the nurse at the Disney first aid station is obsessed with a flu going around and can't seem to offer enough cryptic warnings to daughter and dad.

But then Jim spies a pair of nubile French girls and starts to follow them around the park. He's so obvious that even his young son recognizes what his dad is doing. The film develops an uncomfortable sense of sexuality. The girls are obviously too young for Jim, and his gawking obsession almost crosses over into pedophilia. There's also a story he's told about the Disney princesses being high priced call girls that service Japanese businessmen. Plus Jim's son at one point locks his father out on the balcony so that he can go sleep with his mom. All these things combine to amp up the film's growing sense of discomfort.

One character, a sexy single mom who takes on a perverse Disney character persona, explains "People come here because they want to feel safe… bad things happen everywhere… especially here."

Filmmaker Randy Moore delivers the film in unadorned black and white to distance us from the sensory overload of the park and to endow the film with a David Lynchian sense of horror. It's a marvel that he was able to shoot a feature at the Disney theme parks without them noticing but that's thanks to modern technology. Actors had scripts on their phones, the director texted messages, and their camera looked like any consumer grade video camera a tourist would bring in. There are a few scenes on sets and few bad CGI shot uses a Disney backdrop but it all works in the film. The film develops a surreal visual style and one laced with dread.

Moore and his distributor, PDA, may be disappointed that Disney has not taken any legal action against the film but the Mouse's non-response has two logical explanations. One, Disney doesn’t want to give them any free press, and two, in a way the film is not critical of Disney. This is not agitprop. Moore is not promoting a political agenda with Disney as his target. Instead, this is a filmmaker exploring the discrepancy between reality and the fantasy world Disney represents. What’s nightmarish about the park could all in Jim’s feverish brain, and the ending serves up a perverse take on the magical happily-ever-after finales Disney is famous for. But since many people feel strongly about Disney -- as a brand and a corporation -- that they have read their own feelings into the film. Moore definitely makes Disney World feel like a creepy place but it's because of Jim's perspective going in. So much has been focused on how the film was made with its guerrilla tactics and lack of consent from Disney, that it feels like people are just assuming it's anti-Disney. But it seems like Moore has something a little more complex on his mind. He seems to be struggling with his own conflicting feelings about the theme park and with twisted themes about determining and defining the American Dream and the nightmare it can turn into. Disney symbolizes that dream and the ridiculous unattainability of such sugar-coated happiness. But the film's ending reveals how potent that fantasy is and how irresistible it is to Moore as a filmmaker. His choice to end the film as he does is both an ironic commentary and a desire to still buy into the magic. In some ways, Moore's themes are more complex than I think he's being given credit for.

“Escape From Tomorrow” (unrated) is a fascinating and refreshingly original film.

Companion viewing: "Eraserhead," "God Bless America," "Westworld," "Jurassic Park"

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