Escape From Tomorrow
Director: Randy Moore
Stars: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez
In a world of fake castles and anthropomorphic rodents, an epic battle begins when an unemployed father’s sanity is challenged by a chance encounter with two underage girls on holiday.
At the end of 2013 I saw this independent film with a very limited release, Escape From Tomorrow, showing up on many critics’ year-end lists. Not many gave details about the movie aside from saying “it’s good,” and remaking that it had been shot guerrilla style at Disneyland and Disney World without Disney’s permission. As I never recall hearing a news item about Disney suing or blocking the release of a movie shot on their property. I figured it couldn’t be too objectionable. All I knew going into this film was that Escape From Tomorrow was a unique and visually outstanding film taking place at Disneyland. What I watched, however, was one of the most entertaining films following in the footsteps of subversive filmmakers like Kubrick or Jodorowsky.
The imdb synopsis of the film (posted above) is a bit too detailed for my liking. Knowing as little as possible about Escape From Tomorrow before watching it was perhaps one of the reasons I ended up enjoying it so much. Prior to encountering the film all I knew was that it took place at Disneyland. As I settled in to watch the movie on Netflix, the synopsis only further clarified the film to be about “On his family’s last day on vacation at Disney World, Jim looses his job and then his mind,” Just vague enough to give me an idea without giving anything away – the way a story pitch should be. I don’t really want to cover the story itself a whole lot because there is the ever present risk of spoilers as well as the fact that not knowing a thing about the plot is one of the things I loved so much about this movie on my first viewing and i would hate to rob someone else of that experience. However, in order to discuss the other aspects of the film I would like to go over, I will have to go through some of the story elements.
The film’s protagonist is Jim. He’s got his wife Emily as well as their two kids Elliot and Sara (whom I’m guessing to be about 7 or 8 years old). What Jim does for a living doesn’t really matter because the narrative’s first scene is him getting fired (and really, what kind of dickish employer calls someone up while their on a family vacation to say: “Hey, don’t bother coming in to work again and by the way make sure to take your kids on that one ride, they’ll love it.”) Aside from the sudden unemployment situation, Jim and his family are absolutely normal – just average middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans. Their interpersonal relationships are no different from millions of other families. Jim is about to go into some dark places but from no outside influences that every other person doesn’t already experience.
From the description of “guerrilla style filmmaking,” I expected a found-footage film or perhaps something utilizing a single shaky cam. It’s not though. the cinematography in Escape From Tomorrow is beautiful. Many different wide shots capture the beauty of the theme park as well as the scope of the crowd. Dialogue scenes utilize different angles other than just reaction shots. Footage of people on rides or viewing attractions capture point0of-view, reactions of characters as well as shots to establish the scene and pull the audience in much more than a single camera angle wood. This is usually accomplished on a set with multiple cameras, lighting arranged to force a mood or time of day as multiple different cameras capturing the scene at the same time. Watching even one scene of this – be it characters on a ride or just walking through the park talking to each other – and you get an idea of how difficult it was to film. How many times did the characters have to rehearse a scene? How many times did the cast and crew go on the same ride over and over in order to capture the same scene multiple times from different angles or with different interpretations of the dialogue or, heaven forbid, someone blew a line which is an oh-so-common occurrence. According to imdb, the cast and crew had to go on “It’s a Small World” 12 times in order to make sure everything was perfect, but given how this film was made that sounds like a pretty good production day with lots accomplished. I want to firmly establish how much respect I have for what I know had to be a difficult shoot. Given the lighting issues and the fact that most of this movie was done without artifical light, time would have been of the essence. If a shot didn’t go exactly as planned then I guess the only option would be to have all involved pay an entrance fee to get into the park the next day and try again. Could you imagine the difficulty of a full day’s shoot at Disney World on rides, with kids, only to, at the end of the day discover an actor’s mic malfunctioned and you have to pay admission and do it all again? The amount of planning needed in order to ensure a shoot like that would go off with minimal setback is admirable. Added to that was the challenge of making a movie without Disney Park Staff knowing that you’re making a movie on their property without permission. For this many people to work so far outside their comfort zone like this is truly admirable and I have noting but the deepest admiration for the talent and commitment to their craft everyone involved with Escape From Tomorrow displays.
Does this pay off artistically? God Yes! The movie is gorgeous and I don’t think the essence of Disney could have been recreated artificially. The choice to shoot in black and white is fitting as Disney World looses a lot of its magic without color. Seeing Disney in stark colors like that helps to service the film’s theme. For such a dark story to take place in the colorful world of magic that is Disney World would have looked ridiculous – the color would have contradicted the theme so much it would have felt like a parody instead of the subversive drama that it is. It’s a story that needs to take place at Disney World in order to work but that magic of Disney needs to be subdued in order to function visually. This is the same Disney World you see advertised, but the lack of color provides a very necessary filter in order to see it differently.