If you’ve ever been to a theme park, whether it be Disneyland or World, or even Knotts Berry Farm, you’ve seen those normal, “nuclear” families that wander around the place, stopping at each attraction or gift shop as they follow an itinerary to fulfill everything they’ve meant to accomplish in the happy land before time runs out. The dad is half-present, his mind stuck between his job and his impulses; the mom steers the course of events, accommodating every little request that comes up from her children and vetoing those that don’t make economic sense. And the kids themselves…well, they’re the ones actually capable of enjoying the experience, lost in a multicolored reverie of mass marketed childhood paraphernalia.
If you yourself have ever played any of these roles while at an amusement park (and most of us have), Escape from Tomorrow is a movie experience that wants to give you a bemused glance. It’s here to hone in on all of the uncomfortable subtext that lies beneath your visits to the happiest places on earth – that kind that vague discomfort that festers between you and your loved ones as you stand in line for the next ride (whose length is exponentially less than its average wait time). This film wants to make you realize that the colorful, family friendly circus of mass marketed icons and cotton candy that surrounds you is actually an extension of your inner turmoil.
Escape from Tomorrow is clever in its premise and delivery. You could say that this is mostly a gimmick film, and you would be right. The biggest draw of the movie is, obviously, that it was shot in Disney parks, in secret, without The Mouse’s permission. This is quite the cinematic miracle – not just because it’s the boldest leap forward in guerilla filmmaking in years – but because of the flawless sequences that Moore and his crew get away with setting up on the fly.
Black and white is the only choice for this film. If it was in color, I doubt it would have been as visually intriguing. It wouldn’t have been as symbolic, for one. Disney parks have always been disorienting because of all of the candy colors that melt together in the hot sun and drip right through you at all times. Seeing it all through a black and white lens brings out a new dimension. It’s not exactly unsettling, but it is more thoughtful, more rich, and creates a distinct mindscape for the viewer that’s easy to get lost in.
The plot of the film is actually fairly straightforward. I was expecting its narrative to be a stream-of-consciousness romp through a Lynchian underworld that lies beneath Cinderella’s castle. My initial impressions of the trailer were that it would be very loose on story and very tight on fever-dream surrealism. Instead, the film is certainly a lot simpler than I had hoped.
A family is having the final day of their vacation at the Magic Kingdom. The dad, Jim, receives a phone call – his boss telling him that he lost his job. He keeps the news to himself, as he doesn’t want to disturb his wife, Emily, or both of their kids on their last big day of Florida fun. As they journey through an incredibly long day at the park, Jim begins to see “spooky” flashes of evil on the face of the animatronic characters and on other attendees themselves.
This is what I thought the film’s storyline would focus on, but it’s actually a fleeting element in the movie’s whole. We get much more screen time devoted to two young French girls that Jim spots at different sections of the park. He becomes obsessed with them, following them to different attractions whenever he can break away from Emily and her warped appearance. There are fun little artsy scenes in which we see him interact with them (in his head?) but they also don’t last very long.
As the film floats along, Jim becomes more and more dissatisfied with his experience at the park and his life in general. The two French girls become blatant symbols for the personal and sexual freedom that he feels he sacrificed to be where he is now.
The tone of the film is also something that I wasn’t prepared for. About three-quarters through its running time, the whole experience melts into a satirical soup, becoming much more of an inside joke that we as an audience weren’t let in on. In short: it gets silly. Not in an ominous way, as it very well should have, but in a “why-the-hell-not”, “we’re-making-a-youtube-movie” kind of way. All sense of drama is thrown out as our characters surrender to a cartoon world that may or may not have been a product of the father’s imagination. I’m not here to spoil anything, but let’s just say a particular death scene at the end is way more ridiculous than effective, but that’s probably what was intended. I think?
In essence, Escape from Tomorrow is about a family man having a mid-life crisis. He lost his job, he feels he has no freedom, he wants to get laid by young girls. He loses himself to his imagination and misplaces his universe in the process. Disney World serves as the theater for his breaking mind, his dissatisfaction with his present existence, and his anxieties for the future. Is the imagery we are fed in the latter half of the film in line with this narrative? I would say no.
After the plot untangles, we aren’t given the bizarre, suggestive scares that we went into the film hoping for. Instead, we’re subjected to cheap Family Guy-esque thrills that ruin any sort of suspense that was built up throughout its running time. What’s frustrating about the experience is that the movie has no idea if it wants to be a comedy or a mind-fuck movie, so it settles down in a void between the two. So we’re left feeling as dissatisfied as Jim himself, waiting for the joke to be explained so we can politely laugh at the punchline.