Since it first premiered at Sundance in February, Randy Moore’s subversive stab at Disney has been in the spotlight for its secretive, guerilla filmmaking style. Moore and his crew shot the film at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in California, posing as tourists, using Park Hopper passes as their only credentials. Though the early speculation was that Disney would throw a fit and have the film shelved, they’ve remained quiet on the subject. Shooting inside the theme parks was a clever way to build hype around the film, but now that the film hits VOD this weekend, can it live up to that hype?
It’s the classic American family vacation that brings us here. Emily and Jim (Elena Schuber and Roy Abramsohn) and their two young children, Elliot and Sara (Jack Dalton and Katelynn Rodriguez), are on the last day of their trip to Disney World when everything begins to go wrong. Informed over the phone that he doesn’t have a job to come home to, the Happiest Place on Earth becomes Jim’s personal hell through the course of the day as they hop between the MagicKingdom, Epcot and the Contemporary Resort. As they queue for rides, Jim is able to sweet talk the sensitive Sara out of being scared of the Evil Witch and the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, but he himself begins hallucinating the fears she held in his own head. People are beheaded on rides, characters come alive as evil puppets that only he can see, and even Emily and the kids seem out to get him at certain points, their eyes rolling over black, taunting him.
As his family starts to pull apart under the weight of the Epcot ball, the only salvation from the misery that the pasty, pudgy, mid-40s Jim can find is leering at, and eventually following, a pair of young, pretty — possibly underage? — French girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) who don’t seem to mind his attention. If the hallucinations weren’t enough to tell you we’re in Jim’s head the whole time, that should certainly do it.
While the pre-release buzz seemed to point towards a camp-horror descent into madness that any midnight movie palace would be proud to run, I found most of the film plays more as an well measured take on a bored father’s fever dreams rather than a trip down the psycho rabbit hole. The film tends to spend most of its time painting the entire Disney entity itself as the real psychosis, preying on the American mind, leading us around on a leash of desire pointed at unattainable fairy tale icons to get us to buy turkey legs and Mickey Mouse hats.
Though the film does finally run off of the rails in a third act where Moore seemed to run out of ideas — rolling out the kind of Mad Scientist/Evil Witch yarn that even Scooby Doo would have blushed over — the deconstruction of the family unit in its most awkward, isolated state, where there is an immediate juxtaposition of the other awkward, isolated family surrounding them, helps Escape from Tomorrow succeed by presenting a surprisingly interesting, occasionally funny take on the usually blunt idea that Disney is everything that ails us.
The hype around the film seems to be a furious reply to that idea more than anything the film does or doesn’t accomplish. The hype was about the victory of getting one over on the ubiquitous Disney Machine, shooting an entire film under their nose and getting away with it — and now, in the most Disney way possible, exploiting that hype to extract every dollar from the marketplace that they can.