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An 'Escape' Into Something Decidedly Un-Disneyfied

After losing his job suddenly, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) takes his family, including his daughter Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez), on a surreal trip to Walt Disney World in <em>Escape From Tomorrow.</em>
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After losing his job suddenly, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) takes his family, including his daughter Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez), on a surreal trip to Walt Disney World in Escape From Tomorrow.

Escape From Tomorrow, a dystopian fantasy about a laid-off worker on the lam at Disney World, comes bloated with marketing bluster: The movie, as its PR people have been trumpeting for months, was shot guerrilla-style at Disney parks in Anaheim and Orlando.

Chunks of the movie were indeed shot in both those palaces of pleasure, and without permission. But honestly, how hard can it be to shoot a low-budget black-and-white indie under the noses of security when every Joe Blow in the theme park is busy taking selfies with the nanocameras of today? And let's be frank: Ticking off the legal eagles at The Walt Disney Co. is not in itself proof of cinematic daring, let alone quality.

True, Escape From Tomorrow, a handsomely mounted gallery of Mouse House cuteness inverted into grotesquerie, looks a sight more artful than do most home movies. But as an expose of Disney's manufactured happiness, and by extension the sins of corporate capitalism, it's pretty stale news. Clearly, first-time director Randy Moore hasn't been hanging with the pop culture critics. And anyway, if you asked a random sample of Disney World visitors if they understood they were being taken for more than one kind of ride, they'd say: Duh, we're having a blast anyway.

A blast is the goal of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a middle-aged Florida husband and father of two who finds himself fired from his job over the phone. Afraid to tell his wife and two kids, Jim takes the family on a day trip to the happiest place on Earth. The trip quickly turns into a fun-house mirror of his paranoid fears and desires, though, and the nightmare doubles as a critique of Walt-made cuteness.

A fanboy's homage to surrealist cinema, Escape From Tomorrow misses no opportunity to make phallic symbols soar. Animals become grinning gargoyles, princesses morph into witches, and on-site nurses into full-on Ratcheds. Nubile teenagers become leering, teasing sirens; scientists are exposed as raving madmen.

Moore sets the Felliniesque tone quite cleverly, and what happens to Jim is, here and there, ghoulishly funny, albeit in a smugly ill-natured way. But if Disney is fascism incarnate — a lazy conflation of evils that does Moore no credit — Jim and his family are still unpleasant rubes.

He's a loutish ball of lust who's willing to abandon his high-strung kids to chase after two French teenagers in crotch-high shorts. Meanwhile his pretty wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), is a textbook nag, clobbering him for everything from poor parenting to general ineptitude.

Pressing hard and often on the button of its concept, Escape From Tomorrow soon turns into an endless loop of expressionist symbolism, scoring its blunt points over and over until at last it limps off the screen, trailing suggestions of a reboot with altered players.

Whatever distinction this self-important trifle achieves comes by way of the aggressive Internet promotion that took off after the film scored with stoked young audiences at Sundance. Apparently unwilling to play Goliath to the filmmakers' David, The Walt Disney Co. has so far kept mum about Escape From Tomorrow, whose opening credits come with a disclaimer insisting that the company had no hand in the movie.

Their silence may turn out to be golden. If Escape From Tomorrow makes cinema history, it's more likely to be as a minor test case in viral-marketing strategies and online exhibition than as a brave little indie that could.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.