“You remember when you were afraid of the Teacups? Same thing.”
— Jim (Roy Abramsohn)
“We need to get a picture with the castle. The whole family.” Everyone needs to get that picture when they go on vacation at a theme park with a castle. It’s a picture that documents where you’ve been, that serves as proof and memory, that freezes time and marks your place at that time. And so, when Emily (Elena Schuber) makes her announcement near the beginning of Escape from Tomorrow, then gathers her two kids and husband Jim (Roy Abramsohn) in front of the castle at the Magic Kingdom, you understand. Or at least, you think you do.
It’s not long before you discover that this is one of the few moments in Randy Moore’s first feature that is so familiar, so exactly mapped onto a collective consciousness. For all around this moment, the film arranges fantasies that challenge familiarity and convention. Shot guerilla-style at Disneyland and Disneyworld without permissions, the movie takes on the prevailing Disney fantasy, that this corporate behemoth means to do anything but make lots and lots of money. That it does so by selling dreams is not unique to Disney. That it does through a vigorous control over image by way of copyright is slightly more specific in the House of Mouse.
Escape From Tomorrow introduces itself as a “work of fiction”, then goes on — in especially creepy-seeming black and white — to declare its status as well as a kind of documentary, by ensuring that its locations inside the park are marked and named and mentioned. So, you see all kinds of familiar imagery, including rides, shops, and characters, not to mention a gathering of big white Mouse gloves, waving in slow motion. As Emily and Jim and the kids make their way through their last day of vacation, the camera follows and frames them in all sorts of familiar — that is to say, famous — locations, standing on line, rolling along Space Mountain or Buzz Lightyear.
All these real-life experiences are rejiggered here into fiction, sort of. Emily’s anxious all day long, doing her best to play mom to Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Elliot (Jack Dalton), which means, in the fantasy of the perfect nuclear unit, that everyone will be happy-happy all day long at the Happiest Place on Earth. That this day begins with Jim on the balcony outside their hotel room, learning that he’s been fired (“For no real reason”) motivates his bad behavior, which in turn triggers her cascading anxieties and irritations, and the children’s confusions. The pattern is set early on, when Elliot acts out, Jim ducks, and Emily complains: “You have to, like, not be so nice to them, it makes me look like the bad guy.” As little Sarah tilts her head in the elevator as the doors close and her parents going at it, you know no one will be happy.
While this collapsing fantasy might be said to belong to every member of the family, the film focuses the process through Jim’s decidedly disturbing view. Distracted by his bad news (which he doesn’t disclose), he finds a series of ways to dislike his wife and resent his children: as they ride into a watery cave, her face looms in shadows behind him, as icky as the masks and puppets that hang overhead, their eyes seeming to follow him, their shadows dark and odious. Offscreen but still all too close, kids’ screams and the clanking of the ride machinery fill Jim’s increasingly crowded head. When he turns to Elliot and the boy’s eyes turn shark black, Jim worries enough to consult his wife, “What’s wrong with Elliot?” her answer, “He’s not your son,” can’t be right.
What’s possible or convincing shifts from moment to moment, each occurring in this very strange and very familiar place, so unreal and so real at the same time. As Jim cowers and carps, doing his best not to listen to Emily, he turns his attention to a fantasy he can tolerate, two French girls in shorts (one wears braces) who appear again and again, no matter where Jim goes. For a time, he pursues them, dragging Elliot or Sarah along as he rides in cars behind the girls, imagining their interest in him too (“Oooh la, la,” he coos while they kiss him and squirm beside him in the little ride car). “Dad,” asks Elliot, “Why are we following those girls?” Jim’s pathetic and only possible answer (“What girls?”) leads pretty much directly to the next step in his fantasy, that they address him, smiling and bubbling, “Bonjour!” Of course!
The lack of imagination in Jim’s imagination only replicates the repetition and banality of the very notion of fantasy as delivered and packaged by corporations like Disney. Whether or not this movie invited or anticipated legal action (which Disney has declined to take), it raises two crucial sets of questions. The first is the most obvious and material: what are the costs of fantasies premised on product? Who benefits from those desires produced and reproduced by endless, circular marketing campaigns? And how do these desires shape consumers as such?
The other set of questions is more abstract but no less distressing, namely, how does the delineation of fantasy as desire obscure its realty? How to understand Emily’s determination to get a picture, to possess a moment-and-place by appearing in it forever? What sort of desire is this, to be, to remember, to identify in this way? Again, it’s hardly Disney’s invention, this cycle of packaging and pitching, even if Disney is among the best at it. And so, for all its documenting of Disney, Escape from Tomorrow also asks, beyond Disney, what?