Escape From Tomorrow, from the getgo, sounded like one of the coolest, ballsiest movies ever. A horror movie of sorts shot guerilla-style inside Disney World with the almost certain knowledge that the wrath of the Mouse would be swift and righteous as a result, this was the kind of thing people go to festivals to see. Besides which, the “happiest place on earth” is just the sort of place that’s long overdue for a dark, revisionist look behind the friendly facade of a corporate money machine. There’s little more terrifying than taking that which is supposed to be comforting and twisting it slightly – franchises like Child’s Play have made a fortune on that notion.
There is a good movie to be made about the way some people see Disney theme parks as predatory nightmares rather than magic kingdoms. This, unfortunately, is not that movie.
Roy Abramsohn does his noble best as Jim White, all-American husband and father, who gets a phone call while on vacation that he’s been laid off, with no explanation. It’s the last day of the trip, and he doesn’t want to ruin it for his wife and two kids, so he keeps it to himself and drinks a beer. His son Elliott (Jack Dalton) promptly locks him out on the hotel-room balcony and thinks that’s hilarious – frankly, his boy-child is something of an annoying prick, and his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) is a bitchy pill. Only daughter Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez) is a little princess who buys the Disney line completely.
It’s a tinderbox of frustration, and when Jim starts to hallucinate on some of the rides – a decapitation on Big Thunder Mountain here, a handful of demonic toys on It’s a Small World there – it ought to be the perfect cinematic journey into insanity. And it might be, if director Randy Moore had (a) more experience, or (b) a consistent vision.
Perhaps using American Beauty for inspiration, as Moore seems to have, was not the right call. Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winner is overrated to begin with, but it knows what it wants to do. Kevin Spacey’s dissatisfied dad gave us a guy whose problems we could relate to if even if we’re not him – the frustration of routine is a common experience, and we’re glad when he talks back. We may even get when he lusts after younger girls, who are nonetheless portrayed by fully legal actresses. Jim, however, starts lusting after a couple of 12 year-old-looking French tourist girls, and there’s nothing sympathetic about it in the least – it’s as if getting fired turned him into a pedophile, which makes him creepy. That might be fine if there were somebody else in the movie we could relate to, but his family, as mentioned earlier, are mostly jerks, save for his generically sweet daughter.
Then there’s the issue of fantasy versus reality – it’s difficult to tell which is which. Now, you can make that case for a typical David Lynch movie, too, but a Lynch universe does at least have its own rules, and we’re set adrift without the ground variety in Escape From Tomorrow. When Jim encounters a horny older woman (Alison Lees-Taylor), has sex with her in her hotel room, and later fears she has kidnapped his daughter…is he imagining her, or is she real? Well, our best evidence suggests that the daughter really does disappear, and he finds her in the woman’s room – but everything there is so strange that it seems unreal. Was she ever there? And if she was not, how can we have any idea what parts of the day were? And if we don’t, how can we have a stake in it?
Things get even more outlandish later, with Jim encountering a mad scientist underneath EPCOT, and a pandemic called the cat flu, which apparently makes people cough up hairballs. It’s key to the climax and very, very stupid, which is unfortunate. Drunk, pervy dad at a Disney park is strong enough as a hook, but the preposterous dive into the unreal at the end jettisons all of it for pointless gross-outs.
If you want a critique of theme parks and how they can make you freak out…to borrow a cliche, “Simpsons did it!” The “Duff beer for me, Duff beer for you” bit alone sums up everything that’s good in Escape From Tomorrow in a minute or so, while leaving out the crap (and I mean literal crap – there is a long bathroom scene). Good for Randy Moore for defying authority to make this film; next time, I hope he focuses on story first. Disney’s right to just ignore it; I wish I could advise you not to do the same.
Escape from Tomorrow opens in limited theatrical release today.