[16 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s founder was a hateful anti-Semite who treated his employees badly and had his head/body frozen for posterity (or until they can find a cure for purposed decapitation…or cancer). The cover art for its comeback film, The Little Mermaid, had penises purposely placed in the palace backdrop while there’s a moment of tacky toplessness during a scene in The Rescuers. These are just some of the myths and legends surrounding the House of Mouse, that bastion of good clean wholesome family fun known as The Walt Disney Company. Ever since its beginnings in animated short subject to its self-created dawn of feature length cartooning, this generator of G-rated fare has had to deal with some decidedly R-rated blowback. Everyone wants to think that the goody two shoes image the corporation so carefully cultivates actually hides a deeper, darker side. Thus, the basis for many of the aforementioned rumors. Thus, the basis for Randy Moore surrealist act of subversion known as Escape from Tomorrow.
Notorious for how it was made (Moore shot the film surreptitiously at both Disneyland and Disney World without the parks’, or their parent company’s, permission) and for critics contemplating how Mickey’s minions would react to the final product (so far, no lawsuit), the movie itself is a black and white waking nightmare for a father of two taking his family on a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. While standing on his balcony outside the Contemporary Resort Hotel, he is fired from his job. Without much of a pink slip explanation, he heads off to the park with his disgruntled kids and harpy wife in tow. Coming across as couple of flirtatious French girls, Dad allows lust to take over and soon he is stalking them all around the park. In the meantime, while riding on such attractions as Snow White’s Scary Adventure and It’s a Small World, our lead begins to see dark visions and evil entities. Before long, he is captured by corporate thugs, learns the secrets of what’s really inside EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth, and more or less gets to live our HIS dream…for a price.
Using the concept of wish fulfillment against a backdrop of pre-programmed fun, Escape from Tomorrow wants to suggest that anything is possible in the Disney Universe, both good and bad. Fathers can find “release” in the sweat slicked bodies of vivacious young girls while their own kids head off to less carnal concerns like princesses and amusement park pandering. It’s wallows in the hidden wickedness of such a suggestion, manipulating the House of Mouse’s copyrighted imagery to turn tiny animatronic figures into briefly glimpsed demons and the great unwashed into hyper-entitled trolls. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (an auteur who Moore apes with limited success), we are supposed to see the ugly underneath, the corruption that is covered up by fairytale recreations and outrageously priced adventures. Again, this is typical of most people’s approach to Disney. The company is such a pervasive part of our popular culture that you can’t help but feel trapped by its menacing rhinestone media tentacles.
Unfortunately, this is about all Escape from Tomorrow has to say. The characters are generic - harried dad, shrewish mom, delightful daughter, defiant son - and the story set-up simple. We are basically watching a man fall apart during a family trip, his hallucinations and visions varying from the corporeal to the creepy, all in an attempt to understand his sorry lot in life. The French girls are forbidden fruit, the witch-like woman he meets (and apparently sleeps with) a forewarning about straying too far away from hearth and home. The neck-brace wearing load on its Lark is the constant confrontation with the outside world while the hidden dimensions of Disney’s domain create a protracted sense of unease. It’s a midlife crisis in the middle of a youth-oriented paradise, a suggestion that, sometimes, you have to destroy your current situation to find solace in something new.
Yet it’s an uneven journey at best, the beginning far better than the malaise that sets in during Act Two. Once our lead lumbers into the woman with the magic amulet, the film goes off the rails a bit, bogged down by indecipherable connections and lingering loose ends. Sure, the symbolism is set for the final denouement, but Moore clearly wants his visuals to mean more. He doesn’t waste time on dialogue or clarifying conversations. We are seeing the Father flounder under the weight of what’s happening to him and the results remind us that adults don’t always have the answers. Once we meander over to EPCOT and Dad is introduced to the Scientist who supportsa the corporate forced dream factory, things come back together. The ending may make little sense, but we do get a sense of circularity and closure.
Most of this is Moore’s fault. Because he decided to film in such a gonzo, guerilla fashion, there is no time to languish over Disney’s obvious distortions. Nothing that company offers is “real” - the theme parks are based on fictions while EPCOT, which at one time stood for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” is a futurist vision that never came to be. From the hermitically sealed sense of security to the earworm jingles filling the air (Moore wisely removes these, less a major league legal action visit his person), Disney’s worlds are like The Matrix, made up to keep visitors sheepish and complacent while the company compiles data to drive its ever-growing bottom line. Peeking behind the facade would unleash the bean counters, the marketing experts, the decades of Imagineering, the suits, and the reality that nothing about the House of Mouse is truly authentic, just a re-purposing of product to provide a family of four with a debt-inducing good time.
If only Escape from Tomorrow could live up to its intended analysis. It’s still a fine film with many moments of jaw-dropping mischievousness, but it also struggles to live outside its anti-Disney designs. Perhaps with a stronger lead (Roy Abramsohn is merely OK) or a better grasp of how to slice and dice his many motion picture puzzles pieces together, Moore could deliver the definitive goods. Instead, we end up with something scandalous in design only. What’s inside is intriguing, if incomplete.