Sundance Review: 'Escape from Tomorrow'
Wish upon a star all you want -- you'll probably never see this strange, shot-at-Disney guerrilla indie.
"Escape from Tomorrow" -- here at Sundance as part of the "Next" section, and the debut of director-writer Randy Moore -- is already gaining and getting the kind of buzz most moviemakers here would kill for. Unfortunately, that buzz is all about how Moore's film -- a surreal, 105-minute black-and-white fantasy shot almost entirely in Disney World and Disney Land without permits, approvals or even the knowledge of the Walt Disney Corporation -- may never be seen. Disney once threatened three day care centers with litigation for unapproved murals of its characters; they also lobbied extensively and expensively under Clinton to have the legal rules for the end of copyright extended so as to keep Mickey Mouse and other characters from entering the public domain; I mention these facts not as endorsement or complaint against Disney, but, rather, to note that Moore is probably going to be sued with a force and fervor that will reduce him to his constituent atoms.
So, Moore's movie can be seen as a kind of meta-project, or a one-week-only objet d'art, or a deliberate challenge to corporate hegemony -- all of which is fascinating, but also obscures the more important question of if the film is any good. And quibbling about the editing and plot of a movie with more bravado and brass-blunt bravery than you can imagine may sound like complaining that the unicorn you saw was the wrong color, "Escape from Tomorrow"'s surrealist mix of hallucination and conspiracy, family drama and cultural critique could do with a good firm-handed time-reducing edit and a little more clarity and completion in its loopy, lunatic plot.
With its pop-culture setting and paranoid extremes, family dynamics and anti-corporate concerns, "Escape from Tomorrow" plays like the Don DeLillo novel Don DeLillo never wrote. It begins on a bright morning in Florida, the last day at the park for Jim White (Roy Abrahmson, with a comedic cadence of desperation and delusion resembling that of "Party Down"'s Ken Marino) and his family, wife Emily (Elena Schuber), daughter Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and son Elliot (Jack Dalton). The day starts with Jim being fired ... and goes downhill from there in a strange slope that goes all the way to madness and sex and money and merchandise. Jim has real problems, but he also has a problem with reality -- the faces of both the "It's a Small World" animatronics and his family morph into black-eyed, sharp-fanged demons. Jim also catches sight of two French teens (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) -- one in braces --and follows them to watch and fantasize and contemplate something, anything other than his life.
It has to be noted here that despite any concerns or thoughts about how well "Escape From Tomorrow" tells a story, the story of how it was made is amazing. Moore and his crew shot in both Disney parks with DSLR cameras, recording the actor's dialogue with mics under their clothes and individual, un-synched recorders in their pocket, and other inventions driven by necessity. If the focus occasionally dips or the edits come a little clumsily, you can overlook that in the appreciation of the miracle of guts and gall and guerilla craft Moore and his team provide. There are some green-screen shots to fake the actors being in other parts of the plot, but the black-and-white palate gives those moments the clear-but-confusing feel of a dream in a dream in a dream, with all the potential terror and wonder that implies.
So between the ordinary concerns of any family's trip to Disneyland -- sunscreen anxiety and sensory over-stimulus, long lines and short tempers, chirpy songs and constant sales pressure -- and Jim's trip down a rabbit hole of secret sex and sexy secrets, with the bizarre-but-grim threat of "Cat Flu" in the background with every cough, there's a lot going on in "Escape from Tomorrow," all of it possibly too much. The score appropriates from other films -- "Red," "White" and "Blue," as well as "Youth Without Youth," -- and an ex-"Princess" (Alison Lees-Taylor) runs riffs on everything from "Sleeping Beauty" to "L.A. Confidential." It's a movie mad for movies, but it's also a massive folly; at a Prospector Q&A, I asked Moore why he would invest so much energy and effort in a film he had to know could never be released, and he noted how once he started, he just ... couldn't ... stop.
Like any day at any theme park, "Escape from Tomorrow" starts to sag and grind its feet, your giddy rush towards its diversions and games turning into the trudging, sugar-crash "Can we go home yet?" feeling by the end. "You can't be happy all the time," one character notes to Jim; "It's just not possible." Moore's work of mad obsession turns Disney's small world into a strange one, and while you have to laud his passion, you have to question his practicality; for every short, sharp shock of strangeness there's a dreary, dull drift of dawdling. "Escape from Tomorrow"'s probable status as an unseen legend and not as a released film will probably serve it well, and the warning its characters wind up living (and dying) could serve as the caution for its filmmakers, too: When you wish upon a star, be careful what you ask for.