The movies of Disney speak to a special place in our hearts. They are our fables, the stories that show us that good can defeat evil and love can conquer all. Though perhaps unrealistic in this depiction, nobody can deny that, at one point or another, you’ve found yourself rooting for Belle to fix Beast, for Mulan to prove her honor to her family, or for Simba to learn how to hope again. Especially as children, Disney movies have always had that power to teach us how to dream, to show how far imagination can take us. The influence of the company, Walt Disney, and his movies have been a staple of Western culture for close to a century and, whether you like their more recent films or not, it is hard to argue that Disney movies will ever stop inspiring every generation to come.
With an intro like that, you might be a bit surprised that I was very enthusiastic to see Escape from Tomorrow. This is a movie that created huge controversy when people heard about it. The reason is that it is a suspense/horror movie filmed in Disneyland… without Disneyland’s permission. What’s more, it casts Disneyland in a twisted light. We watch a family as they spend a day in the famous park. Slowly, disturbing things start to happen. Cartoon faces warp into demonic visages. The laughter of children begins to sound maniacal. Something is deeply unsettling about the park as the family go on one ride after another.
Escape from Tomorrow promises to subvert our expectations and understanding of Disney in every possible way. Instead of the celebration of Disneyland’s optimistic, colorful, and child-friendly presentation that we are used to, the viewer is presented with a black-and-white movie that seeks to expose a (fictional) seedy and evil underbelly that has been there all along. The premise is completely out of field and, for that reason I will fully admit that, after seeing the totally bizarre trailer, I gleefully looked forward to watching this. So how did it go?
Well, I won’t beat around the bush. This film is perhaps the most titanic failure I’ve ever seen. Seriously; this is BAD.
Now, I could leave it at that, end this here, and tell you not to touch this movie with a ten-foot pole. But I can’t help myself. I want to explore what they could have done better. After some thought, I narrowed it down to two things. Two terrible sins that this movie committed that utterly prevented it from being so much more.
The first sin is the movie’s failure to execute the premise. This encompasses many problems that Escape from Tomorrow has. The highest among them is the film’s inability to make Disneyland frightening. This can partly be blamed on the absurdly awful blue screen effects. Using CGI to twist a cartoon character’s face into evil eyes and pointy teeth is just silly. There are a number of moments where the main character sees this sort of thing, the visual change of something stereotypically Disney into an unintentionally goofy terror. This problem is compounded by the many scenes where they superimpose the actors over a blue screen. In the background is footage of crowds in Disneyland, but it’s glaringly obvious that they aren’t actually there. Perhaps I should be forgiving of this, given that they were trying to film the movie without Disney’s permission, but it just disconnects the viewer from the premise in a way that eventually becomes irredeemable.
The second sin is misdirection. I came into this movie expecting my heart to go out to the family as they slowly reveal some horrible secret concealed by the seemingly whimsical theme park. Instead, I kid you not, we follow the main character, the father of the family, as he proceeds to prey on young girls, get wasted, vomit on one of the rides, cheat on his wife, be a whiny man-child, and unintentionally abandon his kids multiple times. This movie should have been named How Not to be a Good Father, Husband, or Human Being. Holy @#$%. And this is the character that we are supposed to like and connect with? That’s what main characters are supposed to do, right? Well, apparently the creators of Escape from Tomorrow were working from a different playbook, because the first half of this movie is Fat Depressed Dad Drags Kid Behind Him As He Stalks Two French Teenagers With Braces. I can’t emphasize enough that this is NOT what I signed up for when I wanted to watch this movie. There’s also this disgustingly weird repressed sexual undertone to the whole thing that, I kid you not, culminates in a scene near the end of the movie where the dad frees himself from handcuffs with lube that squirts on his shirt, on the walls, on posters of scantily clad women (which are on said walls for some unknown reason), all in slow motion. WHY?! Was that really necessary? What possible relevance does that have to the premise I outlined above? It’s an utter mystery, and one which I hope cinematic obsessives do NOT ponder over for the next century.
So is there anything about this movie that was good? I have to ask myself that as I wrap up. Well, there are a few solid scenes at night time where the crowds are petering out and Disneyland begins to feel genuinely ominous. Really, this is an example of the tone this movie should have been going for. The trick to a great horror movie is not to show the audience what they should be afraid of, but to tap into your fear of the unknown. The reason the scenes at night worked was because I didn’t know what was out there. The power of our imagination to haunt us in moments like these is what makes for the most wonderfully scary movies. And what a magic trick it would have been if Escape from Tomorrow had managed to subvert the imaginative land of Disney into something far darker. Instead we get a puzzling potpourri of failed writing, confused directing, and annihilated premise. Please avoid this, for my sake if not your own.