If you’re going to launch your film career, shooting a wild movie at Disney World without permission isn’t a bad idea.
That’s what first-time director Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow (2013) is most known for. It’s a gimmick, although it’s hard to resist. But at its best, the movie manages to parlay this setting into a commentary on the nostalgia of Disney, on the appeal of fairy tales, and on manhood.
The movie’s in black and white, and it begins rather inauspiciously. After a credit sequence that plays on nostalgia for Disney’s parks (and features a man losing his head on a ride, although it’s so quick you might miss it), we’re introduced to Jim White, on the last day of a family vacation to Disney World. He takes a phone call from his boss on his hotel room balcony, and his young son locks him out. This sets the tone for the entire film, in which the famously controlled happiness of Disney World meets adult responsibility and disappointment.
At first, Roy Abramsohn’s performance as Jim White struck me as a poor one. He hesitates oddly, and his words feel off and unconvincing. But as the movie goes on, I grew comfortable with his performance, which came to feel less like a poor acting job and more like a portrayal of a man adrift and without his own agency.
While the movie doesn’t start as strongly as it might, it begins to take off as Jim White begins to hallucinate. Cute animatronic characters distort into menacing visions. He fights with his wife Emily, and he seems far more interested in following two teenage French girls than in parenting his son Elliot and daughter Sara. After he briefly loses Sara, he finds that a boy has pushed her down, and he takes her to a nurse’s station to treat her skinned knee. The nurse is dressed provocatively, especially for a Disney park employee, and she’s flirtatious towards Jim, who seems more interested in the nurse’s breasts than his own daughter. She also mentions that there’s a “cat flu” going around, and she doesn’t seem particularly reassuring about it. Disney’s parks are famously secretive, and one gets the sense that this cat flu outbreak (which echoes the current measles outbreak, traced to Disneyland) is something a responsible doctor would inform the public about.
But then, it’s not clear that this nurse is a responsible medical professional, or how we’re supposed to interpret her. In fact, by this point, much isn’t clear. Both the French girls and the nurse have a hallucinatory quality, and one gets the sense that what we’re seeing is being filtered through Jim’s oversexed eyes. A surreal sense permeates anything, and perhaps that’s appropriate to the artificial world of a Disney park. After all, Jim is a middle-aged man who’s stalking two teenage girls throughout the park, and he’s clearly putting this quest above his own children’s well-being. But the teenage girls don’t seem to mind; they alternately seem innocently bemused and flirtatious, in response to their stalker, and they don’t seem deterred by the fact that he’s dragging his young child along. In fact, they barely seem to notice. One suspects that, at any moment, the movie could shift and reveal that these girls aren’t so happy about being stalked, and Jim’s behavior could stand revealed as monstrous.
From the first hallucination scene onward, it’s clear that the movie is depicting, to one degree or another, Jim’s point of view and that this perspective is unreliable. But we don’t know to what degree this is the case, and the answer may vary from scene to scene.
Moreover, it’s not clear why this is the case. Is Jim crazy, or perhaps temporarily insane after his morning phone call informing him that he was fired? Is Jim infected with cat flu? How much of what we’re seeing is a hallucination?
The movie doesn’t resolve any of these questions. Instead, it’s interested in using the freedom this ambiguity provides to introduce evocative and interesting scenes. Filmmakers such as David Lynch are celebrated for their ambiguity and non-linear story structures, and the same thing can be said about Escape from Tomorrow. However, Escape from Tomorrow compares favorably to most of its ambiguous peers. It only grows more fascinating as it progresses. As the movie spins out of control, new narrative possibilities are raised, which add to the resonance of what we’ve already seen. Consequently, the web of potential meanings grows, and new branches of possibility are introduced.
The ambiguous and the uncontrolled exist on a spectrum, and everyone’s got their own tolerance. I’m somewhere in the center of this spectrum. I tend to like narrative control, and a lot of what gets praised for its ambiguity and evocative nature leaves me cold — and even strikes me as a kind of faux-intellectual privileging of novelty for novelty’s sake, at the cost of other narrative concerns. But in fact, my brain loves novelty and the evocative; I simply want the webs of meaning that are generated to feel meaningful, even if they’re not entirely controlled. For me, there’s still a point at which ambiguity is merely ambiguous and feels self-indulgent in a bad way. But some have a more radical tolerance for ambiguity than I do, and others can’t stand stories in which they don’t know precisely what’s “really” happening. This latter type should stay away from Escape from Tomorrow.
It helps that the movie doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It may not feel like a comedy, but it contains more laughs than many movie comedies. But if this is a comedy, it’s one in which the laughs are as likely to be anxious ones, in response to Jim’s clueless poor parenting or the wild absurdity of a situation.
Admittedly, part of the fun of the movie is simply the combination of happy Disney elements with lust, hallucination, illness, cruelty, and the dark side of the imagination. That’s perhaps most strongly evoked by a scene in which Jim is detained in a secret facility underneath Epcot Center, which suggests that Jim has been part of an experiment since he came to the park as a child. Here, nostalgia mixes with Disney conspiracy theories, and this version of the “truth” is one in which the park features Westworld-style androids and seems interested in directly tapping — and sublimating — the imagination within the human brain. It’s a harsh parody of Disney-as-corporation, yet one that simultaneously elevates the imaginative and technological power of the company to mythic levels.
For me, one of the strongest themes was that of manhood. Jim visited the park as a boy (as did writer-director Randy Moore), and he’s returning as an adult who’s married with children. Much of the joy of the park has been replaced by the adult chores of keeping track of children, feeding them, going on the rides they want to ride, and buying them trinkets. In addition, Jim seems to be at a point in his marriage in which the initial love and excitement have faded into the practical responsibilities of parenting.
Early in the film, Jim attempts to kiss Emily, while on a ride, and she pushes him away. Jim persists, and she protests to such a degree that it’s hard not to read her character as a two-dimensional parody of male complaints about their wives. Her reason for refusing his kiss is that her children are present, which isn’t entirely logical but makes the point clear enough: the problem may not be the kids, but it’s the responsibilities of parenting, whether real or perceived, that have killed the romance. Jim soon hallucinates her saying that she hates him. What we’re getting here is certainly a conventional sexist view of wives, but the movie at least acknowledges that this is Jim’s perspective, not objective reality.
Later, there’s a fascinating scene at the hotel pool, in which Jim approaches the two girls. They seem receptive, and the music communicates that we’re in some kind of fairy-tale dream-come-true — a perception accentuated by the bright lights reflecting on the water’s surface. But Emily calls him, and suddenly the spell is broken. The music stops, the girls retreat, and they quickly depart with two teenage boys. Emily chastises Jim for not watching their son as he swims, but she’s probably intervening because she sees him ogling and approaching two teenage girls.
In that same pool scene, the reason Emily is outside of the pool herself is because she’s putting sunscreen on their daughter. In fact, she chastised Jim about failing to do so. Here, Emily is positioned as a stereotypical nagging wife, with Jim playing the role of the put-upon husband.
But most of Emily’s complaints are far more serious than sunscreen. Jim’s acting like a terrible father, and he’s far more interested in his own sexual desires than what’s good for his kids. In fact, just before this pool scene, he seems to have gone to a woman’s hotel room and had sex with her, while his daughter and her son wait in the other room. It’s not clear whether this liaison actually happened or not, nor whether this matters, and this mysterious woman seems to have hypnotized him. He seems to have experienced missing time between talking with her and having sex with her. The possibility of hypnosis might suggest Jim’s not responsible for his actions, much like we might guess that the movie uses his hallucinations and possible illness as a way of exonerating him at least partially for stalking two teenage girls. But the movie’s very clear that Jim’s not behaving responsibly. He’s very much a man-child.
Late in the movie, after Jim irresponsibly gets drunk, over Emily’s protests, and vomits, Emily chastises him again, speaking far more strongly this time. She explicitly notes that she’s noticed his lust for the two teenagers. It’s a great moment, because she’s mostly been cast in the role of the nag. And because we’ve been trapped in Jim’s perspective, it’s not clear how obvious he’s been in his stalking. Suddenly, Emily becomes a confident and observant woman. She might not be the sexual adventure Jim’s lusting after, but she’s entirely in the right. Jim’s behaved abysmally, and his immaturity is shockingly evident.
During the pool scene, I got the sense that Jim had imagined that fatherhood was part of his life — a new branch to it, a new role of which he was proud but that didn’t define him. There could be no pretending this new role didn’t come with new responsibilities, and Jim goes through the motions to taking his kids through the park and monitoring them. But Jim didn’t see fatherhood as the goal, to which lust or even marriage was leading. Children were not supposed to come at the price of so utterly denying his sexuality — or more generally his drinking, self-indulgent, younger sex. Jim can’t look at Emily and not feel that she seems to see parenthood as the goal, the apex that childhood and their own lust were leading towards. She seems content in the role of mother in a way Jim cannot as father.
Of course, this isn’t fair; a different movie might show that Emily has much of the same sense of sadness at the parts of herself she’s denied or sacrificed, but that she puts the responsibilities of being a parent first. I wish she said so in the movie, since it would make her character less of a stereotype. But even if she’s not always or entirely right, she’s certainly right overall. Jim might focus on how she speaks a little harshly, for example, but that’s irrelevant compared to his own vast immaturity, which endangers his children.
In this dynamic, the movie — despite its surrealism — isn’t so dissimilar from other explorations (such as Fight Club or American Beauty) of what’s sometimes called a crisis in masculinity. From one perspective, these protagonists are immature boy-men, who can’t adjust to adulthood and throw their lives away in order to pursue the youthful selves they feel they’ve lost. It’s a dynamic that’s present in a huge percentage of our current stories, especially in cinema. What is The Wolf of Wall Street but an exploration of a culture that’s committed to combining young male aggression, hedonism, and sexuality with the workplace? But while it’s easy and often entirely correct to criticize these tales of male regression into adolescence as exactly that, this same regression may be seen in the phenomenon of the male mid-life crisis, which has led to fewer purchases of sports cars than to broken marriages. The phenomenon — and the pain associated with it — is real, even if it comes from a privileged place.
Taken this way, Escape from Tomorrow represents a return to Disney World, wherein nostalgic childhood gives way to adult responsibilities and sexual longing. But really, it’s the surreal, overlapping narratives that stand out most — and that help the film compare favorably to most surreal films.