The most provocative film from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, 'Escape From Tomorrow' should not exist, and yet it does. Like nothing you've ever seen, Randy Moore's directorial debut is a bold and ingenious trip into the happiest place on earth. An epic battle begins when a middle-aged American husband and father of two learns that he has lost his job. Keeping the news from his nagging wife and wound-up children, he packs up the family and embarks on a full day of park hopping amid enchanted castles and fairytale princesses. Soon, the manufactured mirth of the fantasy land around him begins to haunt his subconscious. An idyllic family vacation quickly unravels into a surrealist nightmare of paranoid visions, bizarre encounters, and an obsessive pursuit of a pair of sexy teenage Parisians. Chillingly shot in black and white, Escape From Tomorrow dissects the mythology of artificial perfection while subversively attacking our culture's obsession with mass entertainment.
"Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas"
While I'm usually the first to get behind any kind of scathing indictment of soulless mass consumerism and empty, artificially manufactured happiness, I must confess… I'm actually a really big fan of Disney World. Seriously. Despite the endless lines, overwhelming crowds, screaming families, rampant germs, infinite advertising, irritating tunes, and subliminal brainwashing, I still can't help but smile whenever I think about crossing those theme park gates. With that said, I'm fully aware of all of the terrors that lurk behind its pearly white veneer, and a part of me was really looking forward to seeing the nightmarish truth beneath all the mouse-eared "magic." Sadly, for the most part, that part of me is still left waiting. Though it garnered quite a lot of controversy and publicity when it premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Randy Moore's 'Escape from Tomorrow' never really goes far enough to earn all that hoopla. Don't get me wrong, the sheer logistics of its existence and guerilla style production are undeniably impressive, but the resulting film lacks some of the bite that one might expect -- so much so, that even Disney's lawyers don't seem to care.
The loose plot follows a father, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), on vacation with his wife (Elena Schuber) and two kids (Katelynn Rodriguez & Jack Dalton) at Walt Disney World. After Jim learns that he's been fired from his job, the family hits the park and then things get a little… weird. As the overwhelming experience takes its toll, Jim periodically loses his sanity and becomes obsessed with a pair of young French tourists. "The Happiest Place on Earth" gradually turns into a surreal nightmare, and a potential conspiracy is revealed. Will Jim survive his family vacation, or will the "House of Mouse" claim yet another victim?
First things first, it's impossible to talk about 'Escape from Tomorrow' without addressing its incredible production history. Simply put, this is a film that should not exist. Shot largely on location at Disney World and Disney Land without the knowledge of either theme park, director Randy Moore basically conducts a guerilla filmmaking heist. Sure, people shoot family videos in Disney parks all the time and a good deal of the movie's footage is taken from studio sets, but the idea of recording an actual narrative feature without permission really is rather insane, and to their credit, the filmmakers mostly pull it off. Faced with the constant threat of getting caught, the intrepid crew grabs the shots that they need, essentially stealing a feature length film right from under Mickey's big, round nose.
Of course, an impressive behind-the-scenes story can only take a flick so far, and the end result still needs to be worthwhile on its own. So, how does the final product fare in that regard? Well, that depends. The film's initial sequences are quite effective, perfectly setting up a typical family vacation. Moore hits all the right beats, highlighting many of the annoyances that come with visiting Disney World. From long lines to nagging spouses and lost kids, these bits all ring true and lead to some solid comedy fueled by a jaded and occasionally crass sense of humor. Likewise, the movie's early excursions into the surreal offer a wonderfully twisted spin on Disney iconography, perverting various, seemingly innocent rides into demonic fever dreams. Moore and company have a lot of fun with these sequences, playing up the inherent trippiness of Disney's attractions through distorted angles, uncomfortable editing, and solid effects (though some greenscreen shots are painfully obvious), giving life to Jim's unsettling hallucinations.
In fact, this initial detour into the surreal becomes the highlight of the movie, and I was left wishing that the filmmakers would have elaborated more on this more visceral style of creepiness. Unfortunately, the runtime instead takes a few slightly unexpected turns, placing an odd amount of emphasis on a muddled subplot featuring a "witch" and a disappointingly half-baked conspiracy dealing with the nefarious Siemens Corporation (I always knew that they were up to no good!). There are still some decent surreal flourishes here and there, but these attempts to develop an actual story beyond the opening "Dad goes crazy on vacation at Disney World" premise prove to be ill-advised. Likewise, despite some superficial satire about consumerism, pillaged dreams, family dynamics, and illusory happiness, the movie never really says anything interesting, and its attempts at an ambiguous conclusion make the whole thing feel like a vague film school project that desperately needs another draft to flesh out its potentially cool ideas.
Though many thought that Disney would threaten legal action against its release, the company has essentially just ignored the film entirely, and based on comments made in the special features, it's actually surprisingly unlikely that they could have made much of a case against it. Despite the flick's rebellious production, it seems that Moore and his team really didn't do anything illegal here. The logistics of their shoot are still very impressive, but much of the controversy surrounding the film really isn't warranted. While not as subversive or clever as it should be, when focused on viscerally surreal images and family satire, the movie works quite well, offering a periodically twisted and gleefully cynical take on the Disney experience. As a whole, 'Escape from Tomorrow' never lives up to the promise of its initial premise, but the film's dark and warped revelations are still guaranteed to make you think twice about booking that flight to Orlando. If nothing else, I sure as hell am never eating those Disney "turkey" legs again!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Cinedigm brings 'Escape from Tomorrow' to Blu-ray on a single BD-25 disc that comes housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. After some skippable trailers, the screen transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A coded. The release is a Best Buy Exclusive from 4/29/14 - 7/28/14.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Shot on Canon DSLR cameras, the movie has a decidedly low budget, faintly amateur look, but the image is still rather respectable.
The digital source is relatively clean, but there are periodic artifacts, including banding, shimmering, aliasing, noise, and minor signs of compression throughout. Likewise, the picture has a comparatively low grade digital look to it with a flat sense of depth and a few wobbly shots. With that said, detail is still solid in many scenes, offering an occasionally sharp image. The black and white picture features a high contrast look with nearly blinding whites and deep blacks. Though this style isn't always very appealing, its suits the material well.
'Escape from Tomorrow' isn't an impressive looking film from a traditional standpoint and there are noticeable artifacts, but the visual style is very effective (especially considering the guerilla style shoot) and the resulting transfer is suitable.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix along with English SDH subtitles. Fueled by a great score and decent effects work, the mix complements the movie well.
Despite the shooting conditions, dialogue is clear and easy to understand throughout. The track also has a nice sense of atmosphere, evoking the theme park setting with appropriate crowd ambiance and ride sound effects (the gears of rollercoasters, etc.). Some of the film's more surreal scenes are especially fun, layering the mix with creepy laughter and distorted tunes that offer solid directionality, and though the mix is a little front-loaded, surround activity is decent. Special note must really go to Abel Korzeniowski's fantastic score as well. The soaring, majestic music perfectly approximates a grand, Disney style that wonderfully juxtaposes against the surreal, twisted plot, and it all comes through with great range, separation, and fidelity.
Surprisingly well produced (considering the movie's low budget), the track provides an enveloping and stylistic audio experience that should put audiences right at home in the Disney mindset.
Cinedigm has provided a solid assortment of supplements, including two commentaries and a behind-the-scenes featurette. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with DTS HD-MA 2.0 audio and no subtitle options (unless noted otherwise).
'Escape from Tomorrow' offers a twisted spin on the Disney World experience, but it fails to be subversive or clever enough in its execution. Still, the film's behind-the-scenes production is impressive, and its periodic surreal flourishes do provide some creepy amusement. Though held back by its low budget, the video transfer is decent, and the audio mix is surprisingly engaging. Supplements are also solid, including an entertaining commentary and an informative featurette. Most of the controversy surrounding its release is unwarranted, but despite its unfulfilled potential, 'Escape from Tomorrow' remains a worthwhile example of independent moviemaking.