Escape From Tomorrow
Written and directed by Randy Moore
Imagine the pressure that comes with being the Happiest Place on Earth, for fifty thousand people every day, from 1971 until a time unforeseeable. If you work there, you have to be happy. If you visit there, you’ll be treated like there’s something wrong with you if you’re not happy. And if you take your kids there, you may well be defining the standard by which they will measure happiness and nostalgia for the remainder of their lives. It’s too much pressure for any human to handle. Inevitably, the facade will crack, and out of one of those cracks has oozed the unforgettably bizarre film Escape From Tomorrow.
Writer/director Randy Moore has said in interviews that the idea for the film came from visiting his divorced father as a boy in Orlando. Distanced from his children as a result of the divorce, he entertained them the only way he knew how: he took them to Disney World. Take any kid to a Disney park enough times, and they’ll start to see the artificiality of it all, start to see the actors behind the costumes and the frowning eyes inside the smiling faces. Apparently, Moore went to Disney World a lot.
The family at the center of the film is still together, but dad Jim (Roy Abramsohn) has plenty to worry about nonetheless. He loses his job in the opening scene of the film, but he still has to take wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their two children through the final day of their Disney World vacation.
This film benefits from one of the best slow-burn openings this side of Aliens. For the first half, it’s not entirely clear what Jim is dealing with; maybe it’s just a rough day at the park, maybe his imagination is getting the better of him a bit, but the park seems just a little bit … off. The smiles are too big, almost like a death rictus. The strange patrons seem stranger than usual. Worst-case, he might be having a nervous breakdown or headed towards divorce.
And then, as day turns to night, reality hops clean out of the window. Suddenly the dark side of every Disney fantasy is in play, as the futuristic Epcot implies unethical scientists and every princess cowers in fear of an evil witch. The first half of the movie treats its title as sarcastic fantasy, as Jim longs to be away from long lines and cheery music. It’s only in the second half that his desire to escape becomes maniacally, delightfully literal.
Moore has gained much notoriety for shooting the lion’s share of the film at Disney World without permission, but he has little to fear from mouse-ear-wearing lawyers. Escape From Tomorrow actually strengthens the Disney fantasy: most of Jim’s nightmares are of his own making, and the only way to keep them at bay is to embrace the child-like Disney fantasy, not deny it. Aside from the ending – never visit theme parks without hand sanitizer, kids – there’s nothing in Escape From Tomorrow which suggests that Disney is in the nightmare-making business. The nightmares are all ours, the price that we pay for being in the Happiest Place on Earth.