Those of us who rate the appeal of a visit to Disneyland somewhere around the level of invasive surgery or a day out in TK Maxx will find much to enjoy – and to cement our prejudices – in Escape from Tomorrow, the ultra low–budget movie set, and apparently “guerrilla” filmed, in Florida’s Walt Disney World. A faintly unhappy family – mom, dad, son and daughter – find their visit coinciding with an outbreak of a mysterious illness. The rides suddenly seem a little creepier, the characters a little too real. Ruptures open up in the family: just the pressures of enforced fun at the world’s biggest, most vapid theme park – or intimations of something more sinister?
Whether or not Disney truly didn’t know this film was being made on their premises (lest we forget that Disney ruthlessly enforce copyright on the representation of everything they create), there’s still very much an air of “we might never get to do this again – so let’s cram everything in”. The tone, then, is a bit uneven: variously, it’s a horror film, a satire, a sci-fi-flick and a disaster movie, never quite cleaving to any one thing. This jars, and it’s not necessarily deliberate, with the theme park setting – where, in theory, branding lends everything under the park’s virtual roof a consistency of tone.
The cast is too small to suggest a world of grotesques (and, in fact, the grotesques aren’t quite grotesque enough). A final-reel twist that refigures the whole foregoing movie – and justifies, at the eleventh hour, the film’s title – relies on our finding central character Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) more sympathetic than the film otherwise presents him: a rather negligent husband and father, recently made redundant, he spends much of his time pursuing teenaged French girls around the park.
The most arresting image from the trailer – a man with the Epcot Center for a head, a Disneyfied hybrid of Lynch and Magritte – turns out to be from a bizarre (not in a good way) “Intermission” tinged with 1960s sci-fi, and which features prominently the logo of another corporation without whose consent the movie is alleged to be made, Siemens, depicted here as a mind control agency equal parts sinister and inept. It’s hard to decide which adjective would have caught their laywers’ attention quicker. Another powerful image – row upon row of teen onlookers watching the fireworks display at the heart of the theme park in the manner of witnesses to a sacrificial burning – is stronger for its lack of explanation, letting the viewer make his own comparisons of corporations and cults, and icons of all varieties.
Escape from Tomorrow is most engaging when its (ahem) fantasia tackles Disney iconography head-on. Two surreal set-pieces featuring a living embodiment of Snow White’s Wicked Queen (Alison Lees-Taylor) blur the lines of fact and fantasy deliciously (this Wicked Queen is a fallen former Disney World Princess), aided no end by Lees-Taylor’s perfectly judged OTT scenery-chewing in which she seems, marvellously, to be channelling Siobhan Fahey of Shakespears Sister. I wanted the film to do more of this – a real sacking of the Fairytale Castle. Towards the end, as Jim succumbs to the “cat flu” epidemic sweeping Disney World, he coughs two furballs into the toilet. Already this is agreeably bizarre, but the film shies away from having him blurt a further wad of hair into the water, forming the three-circle symbol that universally connotes Mickey Mouse. C