Monday, November 4, 2013

"Escape from Tomorrow"

 2.5 / 5 

Neither as good as it aspires to be nor as awful as you might imagine, Escape from Tomorrow is already mildly notorious for being the film that got the best of lawyers at The Walt Disney Company, but it's a film that, rather surprisingly, deserves to be seen and considered on its own terms.  There are many times when it's cheap, amateurish and clumsy, but there are also times when Escape from Tomorrow is thoughtful, considered and even quite good.

The movie's director, Randy Moore, sets the entirety of his film at Walt Disney World in Florida (with Disneyland substituting in a number of shots), opening with a whopper of a premise: As he stands shirtless on the balcony of his hotel overlooking Disney's happy theme park, a family man (Roy Abrahamson) is fired from his job -- and then needs to finish up his happier-than-happy vacation without letting his family in on the secret.

What follows is a surreal, angst-ridden, increasingly nightmarish descent into mental chaos as our hero becomes unhinged during the course of the day.  Surrounded by his blond, perky family, he becomes distracted by two pre-pubescent French girls and starts to follow them through the theme parks.

Then, things go really wacko, and Escape from Tomorrow mostly squanders the goodwill it has built up when it branches off into simplistic, hokey science-fiction territory.  Moore may be trying to evoke the black-and-white, surreal worlds of David Lynch and even Alfred Hitchcock, but in that sense he overreaches.  The two halves of this film simply don't mesh, and the cardboard sets and laptop digital effects of the last 40 minutes don't work at all.

That said, there's something about Escape from Tomorrow that merits serious attention, there's an element that is undeniably effective.

Far from a "Disney-bashing" film, Escape from Tomorrow takes very seriously the idea that tens of millions of people a year consume Disney's manufactured happiness, and that real people with real problems walk through the turnstiles of these theme parks.

In its first half, Escape from Tomorrow benefits from the way it was shot: chaotically, without benefit of rehearsal and planning.  With its flat, monochrome design and its washed-out, hand-held visuals, Escape from Tomorrow invites comparisons to the ground-breaking French New Wave work of directors like Francois Truffaut and, more especially, Jean-Luc Godard, who were captivated by the idea of showing real people in real settings, forcing the idea of plot into the background.

Moore, his actors and his film technicians have done some pretty remarkable things, creating an atmosphere of unease and discomfort amid the incessant happiness.  The inappropriate sexual obsession of the father, his need to distract himself from his unpleasant reality, and his increasingly unbalanced mindset are impressively and memorably drawn.  The closed location of Disney World is certainly fair game for a psychological drama -- and while it's obvious why Disney wouldn't want to set a serious drama in its theme parks, it's rather a wonder more serious artists haven't been compelled to use a Disney theme park as a serious backdrop.

In that regard, Escape from Tomorrow works surprisingly well about half the time.  Then, like a malfunctioning roller coaster, it goes off the rails in a disastrous way.  Some intriguing plot points that are set up early in the movie are resolved in ways that are over the top, unbelievable and ultimately so disjointed with what has come before that it's hard to know if even the filmmakers took themselves seriously.  Maybe they were just so thrilled by their surreptitious accomplishment of filming their story amid the crowds that they thought no one else would notice that their script descended into foolishness.

Escape from Tomorrow ultimately feels a bit like one of the Disney theme park rides on which it's set: It begins intriguingly, sets up a clear story, then something goes terribly wrong.  On a ride, that sets the audience up for a fun thrill.  In a movie, it sets the audience up for immense disappointment.

For Disney fans and serious film buffs, Escape from Tomorrow is worth a look, and is not without its merits, though a climactic scene involving explosive diarrhea, profuse bleeding and the coughing up of unpleasant foreign objects isn't among them.

Viewed Nov. 3, 2013 -- Video on Demand

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