Escape from Tomorrow -- in which a seemingly ordinary man loses his mind at the Happiest Place on EarthTM Disney World -- was one of the buzziest titles from this year's Sundance Film Festival (and a movie that many thought would never be released). It's now available for general audiences in limited theatrical release and on VOD. If you opt to journey to this particular Magic Kingdom, here are five things you should know.
Yes, that Really is Disney World (and Disneyland)
The reason most Sundance audiences assumed that Escape would never… well, escape from festival purgatory is due to the fact that writer/director Randy Moore smuggled his digital vidaeo camera into both of Walt Disney's parks without the express permission of the Corporate Empire that Mickey Built. Filming his characters -- a nuclear family of four that consists of a daddy (Roy Abramsohn), a mommy (Elena Schuber) and two adorable tykes (Jack Dalton and Katelynn Rodriguez) -- on the sly against such recognizable landmarks as Space Mountain, the Whirling Teacups, It's a Small World and Tom Saywer Island, Moore makes the audience a willing accomplice in his brazen prank and the black-and-white cinematography really does transform this wonderland into a dark, seedy place. (It's worth noting that several longer sequences take place against green screened backdrops and that switch from actual locations to the studio is often jarring). Though one would think the Mouse House legal team would leap into action to suppress the film, Disney has taken a hands-off approach due to an uncertainty over what exactly they would sue for as well as out of a general hope that the movie quietly vanishes into obscurity after the initial hype dies down. And that wish could very well come true, since the fact that it was shot on location is the most interesting thing about this curiosity, which otherwise isn't inventive or innovative enough to enter the canon of the truly great cult classics, like…
It's an Unofficial (and Uncredited) Remake of Carnival of Souls
Moore himself hasn't said much about the connection between his movie and Herk Harvey's 1962 surreal chiller -- which, along with George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, is one of the most influential no-budget horror movies ever made -- but the similarities are hard to ignore. Both are low-budget, black-and-white films that revolve around a central character venturing into a carnival-like atmosphere (an abandoned amusement park in Souls and Disney World here) and promptly losing their shit, seeing things that aren't there (or are they?) and literally becoming different people. (In addition to Moore, Harvey's film has clearly influenced such directors as David Lynch and Sam Raimi). Where Escape's imagery is mildly unsettling, Carnival's is genuinely terrifying and it transitions between fantasy and "reality" far more effectively than its contemporary update. After decades in obscurity, Carnival of Souls is readily available on Blu-ray and can also be found streaming in its entirety on Hulu. Do yourselves a favor and watch it after (or instead of) Escape from Tomorrow.
The "Hero" Is a Giant A-hole
In the first scene of Escape, we learn that our central character, Jim, the daddy of the aforementioned nuclear family, has been fired from his job and understandably wants to keep this a secret from the rest of the clan so as not to spoil their Disney vacation. That's designed to (and does) win our sympathy, but that goodwill promptly goes out the window as soon as Jim enters Disney World and starts trying to out-overact Jack Nicholson from The Shining. Suddenly, this vaguely normal guy morphs into a raging beast, ignoring his kids, snapping at his wife and panting after two teenage Euro-temptresses (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru, the latter of whom will be recognizable to fans of FX's The Americans) as well as almost any other woman that crosses into his field of vision. I believe that what Moore and his leading man are trying to do here is uncork the id of the average American dad and let it run wild and free, but the dark side act is strained and unconvincing. Furthermore, the Overlook transformed Jack Torrance into a monster; Disney World just turns Jim into a loud, obnoxious frat boy with a thing for jail bait. You're not supposed to like the guy, but you do have to be willing to spend 90 minutes in his company.
Try and Make It to the 60-Minute Mark
Once the novelty of the Disney locations wears off, the first hour of Escape from Tomorrow suffers the cardinal sin of being boring, as Jim wanders around the park, chasing those living, breathing Lolitas and treating his family like dirt. The surrealism stays at a minor register, too, manifesting itself only in twisted (and clearly digitally tweaked) faces appearing in park monuments and slightly odd encounters with other visitors, including a screechy, wheelchair-bound old-timer and a single mother with an evil witch vibe going on. But then Jim goes and gets himself captured by a mysterious man known only as The Scientist (Stass Klassen) and the film finally jumps the tracks… in a good way. The last half-hour of Escape from Tomorrow still rarely rises above Lynch-lite in its whacked-out imagery, but it's far more delightfully daffy than the tedious hour that precedes it. Future midnight movie festivals should just program those 30 minutes into their line-up rather than the whole film.
You'll Be Glad to See the Credits Roll
Both because that means the film is blessedly over and also due to the fact that the last scene is pretty great, a full-bore leap into science fiction, followed by an "All this has happened before and will happen again" eternal loop button straight out of 12 Monkeys… or Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The ending is good enough to almost make you forgive and forget all the wrong steps Moore took to reach that point. Almost.
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