There are two things that everyone knows about the Disney corporation. One is that it is responsible for some of the most cherished characters and stories of all time, with a longstanding and well-deserved tradition of creating family entertainment and wholesome memories. The other is that the company guards its intellectual property with the fervent jealousy of Scrooge McDuck during tax season. "Come on in and have a good time!" the Disney image seems to say. "But if you cross us, WE WILL CUT YOU."
This dichotomy is at the heart of Escape from Tomorrow, not just in the plot, but in the way the film was produced. It was shot almost entirely on location inside the parks and hotels at Walt Disney World and Disneyland -- something Disney absolutely does not allow. The filmmaker, a first timer named Randy Moore, had to do it guerrilla style, using small handheld cameras and hidden microphones to capture the performances, which took place out in the open in front of oblivious bystanders.
The difficulty of doing this can hardly be overstated. You are not allowed to make a movie at Disneyland. Strictly speaking, you're not even allowed to take video with your iPhone, though Disney generally won't bother you if you're just capturing precious family vacation memories or whatever. Anything more elaborate than that would require authorization -- authorization that Disney never, ever grants. Anything you've ever seen that was professionally shot inside a Disney theme park was controlled by the company, and probably appeared in a Disney film or on a Disney-owned TV network.
The idea that you could come into a Disney park and make any film, let alone one that scathingly criticizes the Disney company, is folly. So Escape from Tomorrow, which does exactly that, is worth at least a footnote the next time the history of cinema is updated, regardless of how good the movie actually is.
Truth be told, Escape from Tomorrow is more valuable as an artifact and an experiment than it is as entertainment. Even allowing for the difficulty of getting good performances from actors who are working under unusual conditions, and only having two or three takes to get it right before Disney security notices you, the acting is mediocre at best. There's sublime lunacy in the crazier plot points, and the story goes to some dark places. (Loosely, it's about a man losing his mind while vacationing with his family.) But often, apart from the thrill that comes from knowing we're watching something that was shot surreptitiously, the story itself is not very engaging.
That meta-knowledge is key, though. Usually external factors are irrelevant (or should be) to what's on the screen, but that's not the case here. When you see the movie family on It's a Small World, Snow White's Scary Adventure and other rides, even if you don't know anything about Disney, you know instinctively that this is forbidden. We're not supposed to see any of this stuff unless it's in person, with our own two eyes (or however many eyes you have. I don't know you). Even without knowing anything ahead of time, I think the average viewer is savvy enough to recognize on-the-fly, guerrilla-style filmmaking when they see it. This awareness increases the movie's entertainment value.
Not that the average viewer will ever see it, of course. At Sundance, the biggest story about Escape from Tomorrow hasn't been its content or its audacious production tactics. It's the assumption that surely -- surely -- Disney will do everything within its not inconsiderable legal power to ensure no one ever sees this movie again. Moore filmed on Disney's property without Disney's permission; that alone seems like it would give Disney the upper hand.
Still, the measures Moore takes to avoid flagrant copyright violations are amusing, even fascinating. The songs and sounds you hear on the rides have been replaced with generic music of a similar style, resulting in an ersatz "It's a Small World" that's more disquieting than the real thing, if that's possible. We hear the word "Disney" a couple times in recorded messages that play on the park loudspeakers, but the one time that a character in the movie says it, it's bleeped.
These measures extend to the press notes given to journalists at Sundance: in 25 pages of written material, not once does the word "Disney" appear, nor is there any reference to the production being unauthorized. The notes say "due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control" to mean "because we were filming in a Disney theme park without Disney's knowledge." For example: "Due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control, shooting was extremely stressful"; and "due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control, we didn't have a location sound mixer."
Curiously, there are no such precautions where Disney's corporate partner Siemens is concerned. The German multinational engineering and electronics conglomerate (thanks, Wikipedia!) is the target of some of the film's most biting jokes, including gags based on the company's unfortunate-sounding name. Moore obviously wasn't quite as worried about provoking Siemens as he was Disney. What does THAT tell us, when a company associated with children's entertainment is more fearsome than a German conglomerate called "semens"?
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