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Happiest place on Earth

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-07-03


Although a lot of independent film directors go to Sundance every year with hopes of getting a distribution deal for their current project, it's a safe bet that the director of this year's most provocative film knew there was no chance of that ever happening.

The film, Escape from Tomorrow, is a surreal, neo-noir horror film that portrays the DisneyWorld theme park as a twisted and creepy dystopia intent on sucking the intelligence and individuality out of the people who vacation there. The director, Randy Moore, realized pretty quickly that there was no way that the image-crazy Disney would ever give him permission to film such a perverse, sick-joke movie on their premises, and so he didn't ask: Escape from Tomorrow was filmed entirely guerrilla-style on the grounds at DisneyWorld (and DisneyLand), with the director and crew using cameras that looked like typical tourist gear. Amazingly, the security staff at DisneyWorld never caught on to Moore's ruse, and the director was able to complete the filming with relatively few setbacks.

Moore then took the film to South Korea for final editing, fearful that if he did it in L.A. the word would leak out and Disney's lawyers would descend on him like a ton of cinderblocks. Moore then sent the completed film to Sundance, with little hope that it would actually get screened, but the director of programming liked it and decided to place it in the festival's non-competitive "Next" category. With little publicity, the movie became a huge word-of-mouth sensation at Sundance in January, though the festival's officials had to sweat out each viewing, fearful that the entertainment behemoth would protect its "intellectual property" with team of litigants and cease-and-desist letters. But Disney never responded; they left Escape from Tomorrow alone, figuring that the movie would probably cause a minor, festival stir and then fade into oblivion. They probably thought "Escape from Tomorrow" would damage them as much as a spitball hitting an elephant's hide.

Though Escape from Tomorrow did get another showing at the late Roger Ebert's film festival in April, it's pretty clear that Disney's assessment of the movie's fate was probably accurate. It's highly unlikely that the film will ever get any kind of national distribution in the U.S., and the odds that it will get released on video are miniscule. Nobody wants to tangle with Disney, after all, and thus Escape from Tomorrow seems destined for cinematic obscurity. And that's a real shame, for if there was ever a time when the movie marketplace needed something subversive and disturbing, it's Summer, 2013, and if there was ever a company that needed to be taken down a few pegs, it's Disney.

I know a lot of parents view going to DisneyWorld as simply a rite of passage for their kids, that it's a magical, wonderful place, and I know that lots of adults return to the amusement park repeatedly, even without their kids, but even these most fanatical vacation-goers have got to realize at some level that there's something a little weird about the whole enterprise. I wonder if Escape from Tomorrow might get under their skin, just a little. For there's something vaguely disturbing about any place that seems to always know what it is that you want at any given moment; it's like there's a team of marketers and psychologists at DisneyWorld that have been targeting you, studying you, analyzing your tendencies. It's a little creepy how smoothly the place runs. And I'm inherently distrustful when anybody is overly committed to bringing out "the kid" in you. I think there's a little too much infantilizing going on in the world as is, and I'm quite content to remain an adult at all times, even on vacation.

And frankly, it's exhausting to be entertained so completely, so ubiquitously, so constantly. There's a subtle pressure to be happy there and sometimes that's a lot of work. And the workers are just a little too adept, a little too helpful; Disney trains their people to be "assertively friendly" and after a few hours of smiling, helpful instruction you start to miss the old pricks and sour-faced misanthropes from your pre-Disney life. I know the workers are just trying to provide the best customer service imaginable, but after a while I just wanted them all to back off a bit. I've never really enjoyed being marched around by anyone or anything and my lone DisneyWorld venture seemed like an endless day of queueing up and walking in place with scores of helpful people grinning at me. The word "vacation" had always connoted a sense of peace and escape for me, and I never felt that at DisneyWorld; it felt too much like punching a clock.

But that's me: paranoid, distrustful of crowds, always looking to the sinister side of things. Escape from Tomorrow is right up my alley. But I'm hardly the rule when it comes to theme parks. Most DisneyWorld clients love the experience and return; customer approval rates usually lead the industry and Orlando has become the number one vacation destination in the United States. Families build their summer calendar around their DisneyWorld trip, and since July traditionally is the busiest month for vacationers, millions of Americans will be making the trek to the Orlando International Airport in the next few weeks.

My personal favorite vacation, the one that I look back on as fondly as DisneyWorld devotees look back on the Magic Kingdom, happened when I had no destination. It was in July, a few years back, and I was going through one of those what-does-it-all-mean phases, and instead of visiting some friends in California or going to NYC I decided to just get in the car and go. I made no plans, and I really had no notion where I was headed until I got behind the wheel. For 10 days I just let the road dictate where I was headed, and it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I realized that what I needed a break from most during that vacation wasn't my job, or my dramas, or my family. It was something more elemental than that. As Robert Penn Warren put it, in All the King's Men:

"There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren't you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you."

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