When Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the story wasn’t the “what;” it was the “how.” Sure, there were some critics who admired the movie — the tale of a laid-off father (Roy Abramsohn) spiraling into madness during a family vacation — on its own surreal merits. But far more seemed intrigued by the audacity of Moore’s methods: shooting footage on the sly at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, without the express written consent of The Mouse. As Ethan Anderton from First Showing wrote, “The fact that this film was even made is more impressive than the result.”What a poke in the eye of a corporate giant, what with the princesses as cosplay prostitutes and EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth as the centerpiece of a sinister conspiracy! Surely Disney would never allow it to see commercial release! Moore hadn’t just made a movie; he’d hurled a stone at Goliath, and maybe even would get away with it.
He’d also hurled that stone at the idealized notion of Disney Magic — and as such, you might think he’d raised the hackles not just of Disney as a corporate entity, but of Disney park-lovers like me. Yes, I’m one of those life-long Disneyland junkies, a California native who, from childhood visits in the early ’70s to this very moment, has maintained an unabashed affection for the place. As I recently wrote:
The places in modern life where one’s mind can find sanctuary and joy are rare, and utterly unique to every person — from isolated wilderness areas to experiences with the arts to religious services or meditation. They’re too rare not to embrace, wherever you find them. Even on Space Mountain.
While Moore shot primarily and set the story at Walt Disney World in Orlando (sharp-eyed Disney-philes will recognize specific locations like the Buzz Lightyear queue from California’s Disneyland), it’s not as though he’s limiting his target to a place it just so happens I’ve never been. He’s identifying something creepy beneath the facade of ever-smiling “cast members” and litter-free thoroughfares. Surely he knows this means war.
Except that it doesn’t. In interviews, Moore has described himself as someone who visited Orlando’s Disney World multiple times as a child, only spotting “cracks in the veneer” once he visited as an adult with his own wife and kids. So he wrote a movie about the disconnect between a man whose sense of his masculinity is crumbling — his job lost, his wife barely seeming to tolerate him — stuck in a place where visitors are expected to be having the most joyous time of their lives. It’s a skewering of the Disney brand in a way, sure, but it’s more a skewering of a not-quite-realized American Dream rotting the foundations of an idealized Everyfamily, USA — Blue Velvet with mouse ears.
That’s actually a nifty idea, one that’s much more efficiently conveyed in a theatrical cut that shaved off 15 or so minutes from the Sundance-screened version. That idea, however, has virtually nothing to do with why I love Disneyland. Of course the immersive sense of wonder is a show; the drama comes from those who expect the external perfection of the parks to translate into a perfect experience, free from over-tired kids, crushing crowds and long lines. Intentionally or not, Moore turns Escape from Tomorrow into something relatively profound about the way people do Disneyland wrong, as a metaphor for the way they do life wrong — incapable of managing the frustration of expectations that don’t match reality.
So Moore is welcome to his demented, unsettling version of the Disney park experience, because it isn’t — and never has been — my experience. Coincidentally, I’ll be making my next visit to Disneyland just a few days from now. I won’t be expecting the characters on “It’s a Small World” to turn into demons. But if they do, I’ll deal with it then. Even the Magic Kingdom, like life, can throw you a few curveballs.
Scott Renshaw is Arts & Entertainment Editor and film critic for Salt Lake City Weekly.