Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2013
Directed by: Randy Moore
Genre: Drama, Horror, Fantasy
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
Walt Disney World is the site of countless childhood memories, embodying innocence, happiness, and a sense of magic. Every tiny detail of the theme park centers on escapism, creating a retreat from the stress and anxiety of everyday life. At best, many people associate the theme park with celebration and family bonding. At worst, they consider it cheesy and overcrowded. In “Escape from Tomorrow,” (watch trailer) however, visionary director Randy Moore sees Walt Disney World through a lens totally unlike any other. In this unique and disturbing fantasy film, the theme park transforms from a sweet dream into a surreal nightmare.
Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a dutiful dad who takes his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), and their two kids to Walt Disney World. This is the kind of all-American family holiday that can be magical for the kids and a little tiring for the adults. Everything really starts falling apart when Jim receives a phone call on the final day of the vacation. It seems that Jim has lost his job, putting him in a dark and desperate mindset. With his future uncertain, Jim starts to see the entire theme park in a different light, and it’s not a very flattering one.
The kids, Elliot (Jack Dalton) and Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez), now seem whiny and demanding. As Jim trails along with his family and tries to at least give the impression of having fun, his sanity slowly crumbles. Animatronics transform from corny characters into malevolent creatures and then quickly snap back to their original forms. Jim begins to suspect that the Disney princesses who roam the park to chat with kids and offer photo opportunities are actually courtesans for wealthy and corrupt businessmen. A nurse (Amy Lucas) issues cryptic and ominous warnings. Meanwhile, a mysterious park guest (Lee Armstrong) seems to have his eye on Jim.
In the middle of this possible mental breakdown, Jim starts acting a little spooky in his own right. He trails of pair of French girls who seem far too young for his attention. Sophie (Danielle Safady) and Isabelle (Annet Mahendru) become Jim’s focal point, building the sense of surreal dread that now hangs like a fog over Walt Disney World. During the rest of the trip, Jim has to parse out reality from fantasy. This is difficult in a place where imagination rules. It seems that a strong imagination can be a double-edged sword.
“Escape from Tomorrow” comes with an impressive origin story. The movie only becomes more fascinating when audiences realize that Moore shot the film at Disney theme parks. If it seems surprising that Disney officials would allow their well-guarded image to become part of such a dark film, that’s because the officials didn’t technically allow it. Moore shot the film without permission, relying on handheld cameras. To park staff, Moore needed to appear as innocent and enthused as a tourist taking home videos. For this feat alone, the director deserves some major recognition.
The fact that it was so difficult for Moore to create the movie was a large part of his motivation to direct “Escape from Tomorrow.” Disney is untouchable, an immaculate shrine to childhood innocence and the power of fairy tales. The movie’s darkness is derived from juxtaposition. Seeing Walt Disney World in an unsettling or predatory light is likely to have a profound effect on many audience members. Like many of the best horror films, “Escape from Tomorrow” preys on viewers’ private fears. Moore’s film is the psychological equivalent of seeing a beloved childhood toy ripped apart. It might not be too disturbing in its own right, but the emotional impact is huge.
In some ways, “Escape from Tomorrow” relies a little too heavily on its shocking premise. Someone unfamiliar with the Disney empire might not respond to the film nearly as strongly. Moore’s concept is intriguing and unusual, but the movie doesn’t always exceed its premise. The acting can fall slightly flat, and some of the visuals aren’t as polished as they could be.
At the same time, Moore didn’t set out to make a crowd-pleasing film. On the contrary, his innovative film is a criticism of crowd-pleasing, sugar-coated entertainment. “Escape from Tomorrow” is shocking, smart, and even darkly funny at times. It’s not a movie that will charm everyone. Some audience members will find it confusing or overly disturbing, but those who are willing to take a chance and see the world in a different way will definitely enjoy this unusual blend of fantasy, horror, and Disney characters.