It doesn’t take long once inside the fantasy land of a Disney theme park to fall back to reality. Look beyond the make-believe magic and the happy youngsters to see the crying kids and the downright miserable parents. Let’s be honest: The happiest place on Earth isn’t always necessarily so.
It’s a polarizing reality of theme-park life that is often downplayed as vacationers later share endless photos of their family trip. That’s why the basic idea of first-time writer-director Randy Moore’s “Escape from Tomorrow,” opening Friday, is so awesome. It plays around with a beloved institution and makes it the setting for a surreal, nightmarish journey.
To top it off – and this is truly amazing – Moore secretly filmed the movie inside the tightly controlled confines of Disneyland (California) and Disney World (Florida) without permission. Scenes were reportedly rehearsed and blocked before filming. Actors had pocket recorders on them for sound; the crew entered the theme parks in small groups, using Canon digital cameras and iPhones, among other tourist-friendly technology, to shoot scenes. They looked like any visitor taking photos and home video. In fact, all of their gear was checked at entrances by Disney security.
“Escape from Tomorrow” premiered earlier this year at Sundance, where it became a breakout film. Though many at the time thought Disney would stop it from being released, that has not happened. In fact, Disney has been unusually quiet.
“Escape” opens with a disclaimer that it is a “work of fiction” and that Disney had no involvement. A shirtless man stands on a balcony outside his hotel room while his family sleeps. He’s on the phone with his boss who has just told him he’s fired. Shocked, the man turns to go into the hotel room when his son – a cute little tyke with a devilish streak – locks the door on him. The day goes downhill from there.
Afraid to tell his wife, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) acts like nothing has happened, and the family leaves for the theme park where the day becomes a nightmare. The kids are screaming to go on rides like Buzz Lightyear; the parents are yelling back and dragging them along. The lines are mercilessly long.
Jim keeps losing his kids. His wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), is a real Debbie Downer and an incessant nag. He tries to make out with her on a ride, and she pushes him away. He buys her a small gift, but it’s Dumbo, not Minnie Mouse like she wanted. She yells at him for not reapplying sunscreen to his daughter. You would feel sorry for the poor sap, if he wasn’t such a creepy guy lusting after two young French teens he follows through the park.
And he starts to hallucinate.
“Escape” is shot in black and white, allowing the park and its colorful characters to take on a nightmarish hue. His son’s eyes flash black like a demon, cute characters morph into fiends, there’s a child-snatching witch, and Disney princesses are hookers.
About two-thirds of the way through, “Escape” falters because it can’t carry the interesting premise to a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, there is a silly climax involving a robot, a secretive chamber in EPCOT and a “cat flu.” Yet “Escape from Tomorrow” is brilliant in its filmmaking and basic story idea – that all is not perfect in the happiest place on Earth.