I have never been to Disneyland, or World for that matter. Shocking, I know.
My parents are forced to shoulder the bulk of the blame for depriving me and my siblings of that time-honored childhood right. So when either one of the beloved theme park locales pop up in a film or TV show, I find myself experiencing a mixture of wonderment and obliviousness – with a tinge of jealousy.
With that, I did not really know what to expect (and for other reasons) going into Escape from Tomorrow, a new indie film set (and illegally filmed) at Disney World. The film has buzzed high since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, mainly due to the film’s secretive, guerilla-like production and its bold attack against the notoriously scrupulous House of Mouse. But is there more to the film than just the hype?
The ultra low-budget, black-and-white film follows an archetypal family of four on vacation at the so-called “greatest place on earth.” Jim, the browbeaten father, is fired over the phone on their final morning at the park, which is only the beginning of a simultaneously miserable and weird day.
Jim uses every opportunity to get away from his (somewhat justifiably) nagging wife, obsessively ogles a Lolita-like pair of Parisian teens, and defiantly over-indulges in food and alcohol. As the family wanders through the park, hitting up all the famous sites (Space Mountain, the Teacups, Epcot, etc), strange things begin to happen – blink-and-you’ll-miss them tricks/hallucinations and mysterious characters keep reappearing. The audience follows him down the rabbit-hole into a far more peculiar world than Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland.
After a brief, inexplicable, and misplaced “intermission,” the film delves deeper into the bizarre. Plucked straight out of a discarded David Lynch movie, the final act is full of peculiar sexual imagery and populated with numerous nefarious characters – a large, oddly-accented man on a scooter, a spacey and seductive former Disney princess, a brief and mostly unexplained scientist, and finally, an eerie team of Mickey Mouse-gloved agents.
The film’s dalliances into the surreal are its high points – a combination of the previously mentioned Lynch, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and 1950s Sci-Fi B-movies. It goes weird, but to be honest, does not go weird enough in some cases. And that is kind of the problem.
Escape from Tomorrow is an intriguing idea and the production daring is admirable, but ultimately the film falls flat as its gets uneven and slightly repetitive, and unfortunately, never really follows through on that alluring premise. The film certainly touches on grander themes (parenting, marriage, etc.), but in the end, is too scattered, full of half-realized ideas that never gel into much more than just novel oddity.
What is perhaps most fascinating about Escape from Tomorrow is its bold-faced deconstruction of the Disney allure. We (even those of us who have never been) all have a rose-colored vision of what Disney theme parks are and what they look like. Escape from Tomorrow does everything it can to pervert that vision and reveal the plastic, corporate atmosphere underneath.
The film does have a more refined look to it than you would expect from something shot mostly undercover. A documentary or found footage-style might have been easier, but would have ultimately hindered the film’s aesthetic. I mentioned old sci-fi B-movies before and Escape from Tomorrow looks it at times, both in good ways and bad. Shooting the film in black-and-white was a great decision, as it really added to creepy ambiance, but it also has some suspect green screen work and the occasional earnest, but lo-fi effects.
Escape from Tomorrow is not a bad film, just a bit narrow and flawed. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com said it best, “Escape from Tomorrow" is an act of cultural vandalism, the feature film equivalent of drawing genitals on cute storybook animals.”
As I said before, I have never been to either Disney park, and after seeing this film, I may not want to.
* * * stars out of 5
Escape from Tomorrow opens Friday, November 1 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. nightly (except Sunday & Monday at 9:00 p.m.).
Also playing this weekend at Zeitgeist: One of my favorite films of the year so far, Short Term 12 (read my review here) – and – the Green Day stage musical documentary Broadway Idiot (read my review here).
So come out to the Zeitgeist (1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. New Orleans) this weekend and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South.
You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.
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