With its imagery, venerated figures, scores of devoted followers, and huge financial resources, you could probably make a case for The Walt Disney Company being a sort of secular religious organisation. Perhaps therefore it is not that surprising that there are those who would like to blaspheme against it and what they feel it stands for, and Escape from Tomorrow is just such a piece of work. As claustrophobic, hallucinatory and unnerving as some of Polanksi’s earlier efforts, it also completely a film of its time, as the technology involved in the covert filming, complex editing, and word-of-mouth marketing and distribution, did not exist ten years ago, never mind twenty or thirty.
Jim White (played by Roy Abramsohn) is at the end of a family holiday at Disney World when he gets a phone call from his boss telling him he is being laid off (we don't know what his job is, which perhaps makes him more identifiable for the audience, more of an everyman). Keeping the information from his wife (Elena Schuber) and two children, Jim sets off for a final day of fun. However, the shock of unemployment, the pressures of family life and the enforced jollity of the theme park all start to get to him, and as his paranoia spirals out of control, the line between reality and fantasy start to blur horribly. Is Jim heading for a breakdown or has he really uncovered a horrible secret at the heart of the happiest place on earth?
Escape from Tomorrow is a film where what happened off screen is just as fascinating as what happened on, and directly fed into the look and feel of the film. Director Randy Moore and his cast went undercover over a four week period, split between Disney World and Disney Land, reading their lines from their mobiles, speaking these lines into hidden cameras, while incognito crew members videoed the whole thing on the same sorts of digital SLR cameras that actual tourists were using. The end result is a thrilling and wonderful cognitive dissonance which tells you that are watching a film definitely shot on Disney property, even though there is no way that should have happened.
Equally as disconcerting as the crowd scenes are those that give us a glimpse of life back stage at the park, such as the eerie shots of the deserted park early in the morning, and the signs showing areas reserved “For Performers Only”. This brings to mind the JG Ballard quote about seeing reality itself as 'a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”
The film is further enhanced by sparing but clever use of digital special effects. I am not personally a fan of CGI, although that is mostly down to how it is used to overkill in big budget spectacles, to make slick but empty worlds. However, these technological advances have also given low budget film makers opportunities to produce spectacular and creative visuals, such as here where it distorts and manipulates the onscreen world, rather than creating it.
The score by Abel Korzeniowski is a pastiche of the upbeat old fashioned music you might associate not just with Disney, but plenty of films from the Golden Age of Cinema. It acts as a counterpoint to the darker moments on screen, but with its warmth and analogue old fashioned feel, also provides a contrast to the sanitised, slick corporate vision of joy that Disney World represents.
The throwback subtly continues in the rather obviously superimposed backgrounds in some scenes, which are, presumably, a necessity, either through budgetary limitations or through not being able to shoot a particular scene in a particular place. Nevertheless, they are also reminiscent of the crude and obvious backdrops of films of the 1940s and 50s, as well as adding to the uncertain hallucinatory feel, and Jim’s instability seems to spill over into the real world.
None of the clever filmmaking or special effects would be enough without the excellent performances from all the main cast members, who give us the complicated and believable love/hate chemistry and dynamics of a real family, especially the classic Freudian tensions between father and son.
The deep dark secret is a little confusing, involving Asian businessmen, two teenage French girls, princess hookers, an outbreak of cat flu and mysterious labs underneath the Epcot centre, but the narrative confusion mirrors Jim’s mental collapse.
Many of the most shocking moments in the film come from iconoclastically tearing into the Disney symbols and imagery held so dear by so many. This is not the first example of blasphemy against Disney, as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were amongst those who appeared in pornographic underground comics known as Tijuana Bibles, in the 1920s and 30s. The 60s and 70s counterculture gave us The Disneyland Memorial Orgy, as well as the notorious Mickey meets The Air Pirates strip described by Disney in a long running law suit as befouling an "image of innocent delight".
The sight of Mickey Mouse having sex in a comic strip is shocking, but aside from the medium, the main difference between that Escape from Tomorrow is that Moore does not just appropriate and distort the imagery and corporate ideals, he has the chutzpah to do all of this in their own back yard.
Desecrating images of religious and political figures no longer seems to hold quite the same shock value, in the west at least, and outside of a hardcore of followers, so perhaps Disney and other media and entertainment giants to some extent have replaced these as untouchable icons, with threats of crippling legal action replacing threats of eternal damnation. Escape from Tomorrow seems to have somehow dodged all of this, perhaps due to the Disney lawyers realising that dragging the film into court will only ever end in bad publicity for them and free publicity for the filmmakers.
Escape from Tomorrow manages to avoid any heavy handed moralising or lecturing both in the script and imagery, (although the sight of the family in a car that follows strict predetermined tracks felt like a perfect metaphor for the Disney idea of carefully controlled fun). Maybe the real message of rebellion comes from the simple fact of the films existence, and by not only giving Disney a sly and symbolic two fingers, but also getting away with it, they show that there is hope for those who wish to live outside of a mainstream culture that they find cloying.