We had to always know there was something evil lurking behind those big, iconic mouse ears. Randy Moore is just the first guy to openly acknowledge it. The upstart writer-director’s first feature, Escape from Tomorrow, is one of the most far-out fantasies of all-time… and I’m not even talking about the film itself. Shot on location at the Disney theme parks, completely surreptitiously, the film is as great a subversion of the Mouse House in construction as it is in content. As for that content, the screenplay is a surrealistic lark with some goofy tangents amid the deconstructed iconography. It’s more of an experiment than a cohesive movie, but the fact that this film was made at all is a small miracle.
Pre-production was extensive, consisting of prolonged visits to the Disney parks for scouting the perfect locations and gauging the path of the sun. The entire film was rehearsed several times off-site to reduce the need for multiple takes when shooting. Each member of the cast and crew purchased season passes to the parks and disguised themselves as tourists at various points during filming. Two digital SLR cameras in video mode are responsible for that filming, which take full advantage of the monochrome setting and its paper-thin depth of field to deliver the most beautiful guerrilla film ever shot. It’s truly astonishing that some of these images were captured on the QT, by dudes pretending to take family photos. Take that, Mickey.
So absorbing is the making-of story behind Escape from Tomorrow that the film itself can get lost in the discussion, and that kind of makes sense, since the story is thin, the pacing lacks momentum, and when the characters pivot away from the Disney iconography, they instantly become less interesting. Still, there’s a morbid entertainment factor to watching the all-consuming world of Disney become consumed itself in a haze of Lynchian surrealism, which is what happens on the final day of vacation for poor Jim (Roy Abramsohn) and his family. We first meet Jim on the phone with his boss, who is delivering the bad news: Jim has been fired. It’s a horrible way to start the last day of a Disney vacay, but it only goes downhill from here.
Two nubile underaged girls cross paths with Jim and seem to hold him under some sort of creepy spell that guides him through a day in which the veil seems to be lifted on the Disney mystique. The little cherub faces of “It’s a Small World” morph into all manner of demonic contortions (always knew those things were evil). There are suggestions, and later visual evidence, that the Disney princesses are hookers catering to Asian businessmen. The Buzz Lightyear ride seems rigged to keep Jim’s family away. And apparently, those expensive turkey legs sold at the fast food kiosks aren’t actually made of turkey.
What is at the source of this distorted Disney delusion? Perhaps the news of his firing heightens Jim’s senses. Or maybe he’s hallucinating. Or maybe there is a sinister underground element at work that turns the gears of the Disney machine. All fascinating thoughts, though none pay off in any particularly satisfying way. As ever, the problem with diving so deep down the rabbit hole is you have to find your way out. It’s clear Moore doesn’t have a clear exit strategy, but he admirably throws a bunch of gonzo ideas at the wall, and what sticks is entertaining, even when it doesn’t make sense in the context of the film.
Moore has spoken of Disney’s role in his upbringing, having been a regular visitor to the parks throughout his youth, up until his parents divorced. Upon returning to the parks as an adult, Moore said thoughts of his father hovered over the experience “like a ghost.” And so we see the buried inspiration. Viewing Disney as a source of displacement and dread is fascinating given its influential role in shaping our youth. The fact that Moore shot the film at both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, presenting both resorts as a twisted amalgam, only reinforces the disorientation. And even if his story isn’t entirely successful as screw-loose surrealism, Moore’s demons were most likely exorcised by getting this film made — in that painstaking, intrepid, underground manner. For his efforts, Escape from Tomorrow will be revered as a trailblazing legend for quite some time, even if that legend has nothing to do with the content of the film.