This review was originally published on January 21, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
I am of the school that says you should assess a work of art based solely on the text. If a painting is the result of brushes attached to the tails of very happy Shetland Ponies, that shouldn't factor into your response. There are times, however, when the conditions behind a work absolutely inform it, and in a way that is meant to be addressed.
The rarest find is something that has merit in and of itself, as well as being a remarkable feat of industry. Know this: The Walt Disney World-set "Escape From Tomorrow" is both a great gimmick-dependent story and a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It is a radical, transgressive departure that exploits new technology in heretofore unseen ways, but if it were also done "legit" (either with permission or in a nameless amusement park), it would still be good. It is a major film, one that will be celebrated by cultists, pirates and wise guys for decades.
"Escape From Tomorrow" tells the story of a middle-aged man who gets fired via a phone call during a family trip to Disney World. The result is a fever dream that riffs on unfulfilled dreams, group delusion, poisoned imagination, paranoia and ... Well, the good news is that the movie is a big enough dark ride to fit pretty much any theme you want it to hold.
Our lead character, whose wife and children are just miserable enough to seem legit, dives headfirst into a pedophiliac fantasy, rerouting his family's amusement park adventures so he can leer at two very underage French girls. These digressions lead him to uncover lascivious secrets about the welcoming Disney Princesses, the cruelty of tempting witches and the maniacal dream manipulators at the core of Epcot's iconic Spaceship Earth. It is weird and funny and says more about Big Media's appropriation of dreams than any 10 documentaries.
The style is reminiscent of "Eraserhead"-era Lynch or Richard Elfman's "Forbidden Zone," with a dash of Derek Jarman and Fellini. While much (but not all) of the movie was shot in a "stolen" manner on the ground at Disney World, "Escape From Tomorrow" is not a found-footage pastiche in the vein of "V/H/S" or "Cloverfield." It is a well-shot narrative with traditional coverage, master shots and, in some scenes, lighting. Some of it is done on soundstages or via green screen, but the bulk is one "how the hell did they do this?" after another. Bluntly, "Escape From Tomorrow" is a film that absolutely could not exist without recent technological advancements.
Disney iconography is everywhere, but there is a method to the piracy madness. When the family rides "It's A Small World," we see the ride, but the music is different. (And fantastic — the original score is big and bold in a 1950s Technicolor fashion, made all the more wonderful in this small budget black and white film.) The Princess/Witches characters that have actual lines are vague enough to be generic yet are still archetypes born from the giant turkey leg-vending Disney corporation, and there are also still shots of Mickey, Goofy and Buzz Lightyear. "Escape From Tomorrow"'s legal team will no doubt argue that with shared dreams this powerful, the IPs of Disney have become, by their very nature, the public's domain.
Some are saying "Escape From Tomorrow" will never be released. I don't buy it. The Mouse House will certainly want to crush it — while no one actually says "Disney sucks!" the film does not portray the organization in a good light — but I don't think they can. Even back in the 1990s, it wasn't too hard to get a copy of Todd Haynes's Karen Carpenter/Barbie film "Superstar." In an era of YouTube and movie cameras that look like still cameras, big corporations have to accept that artists have new arrows in their quivers. They won't keep their hands inside the ride anymore.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10
"Escape From Tomorrow" hits theaters and VOD on Friday, October 11th.