Indie Memphis Review: 'Escape From Tomorrow'

Audacious Indie Memphis opener explores underbelly of fairy tales

Jack Dalton is a young boy named Elliot on a weird theme-park vacation in Randy Moore’s “Escape from Tomorrow.”

Courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency

Jack Dalton is a young boy named Elliot on a weird theme-park vacation in Randy Moore’s “Escape from Tomorrow.”

Giant rodents that walk upright, half-human dogs and living puppets — these are creatures to inspire terror. Unless of course you’re at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, in which case these are creatures named Mickey, Goofy and Pinocchio.

An audacious movie-industry calling-card for its ingenious and resourceful novice writer-director, Randy Moore, “Escape from Tomorrow” — largely shot on the sly at Disneyland and Disney World — scratches the clean plastic surface of the Disney dream to reveal something dark and disturbing.

The movie adds digital fangs to some otherwise huggable theme-park icons, but it’s not so much disrespectful to “Uncle Walt” and his beloved creations as it is honest about the primal urges and shameful desires that motivated the myths and fairy tales that inspired many of Disney’s more famous projects in the first place.

An epic battle begins when a middle-aged American husband and father of two learns that he has lost his job. Keeping the news from his ...

Rating: No Rating

Length: 103 minutes

Released: October 11, 2013 Limited

Cast: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady

Director: Randy Moore

Writer: Randy Moore

More info and showtimes »

“You’ve got quite an imagination, just like old W,” one character says to the movie’s unfortunate, feverish protagonist. He might as well be talking to Moore — or to any of us who, as viewers or “consumers,” collaborate in the perpetuation of these stories of enchanted princesses and talking animals.

Screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at Playhouse on the Square, “Escape from Tomorrow” is the opening-night “Gala” selection of the 16th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, which continues through Nov. 3 at various Midtown venues.

Actors Roy Abramsohn, the movie’s star who appears in almost every scene, and Alison Lees-Taylor, who might be described as a sort of sexually proactive wicked witch, will attend and answer questions after the film.

“Escape from Tomorrow” might be the most intriguing opening-night selection in Indie Memphis history, thanks to the movie’s back story, which is arguably as interesting as its on-screen narrative, and which is nothing less than inspirational for no-budget filmmakers.

The movie was shot at the Disney parks without permission, with small digital cameras that resemble traditional still-picture cameras and that are ideal for “guerrilla” filmmaking. Disney is notoriously protective of its copyrights, yet the edited movie contains many shots with recognizable Disney characters and attractions. This boldness ensured that the film would become a cinema cause célèbre and the beneficiary of reams of free publicity.

(Although the hype has emphasized the movie’s outlaw aspect, much of the action occurs in private rooms or on sets, and in several scenes actors are composited digitally into location shots, so that some conversations and events that appear to take place at Disney actually don’t.)

After the film’s premiere this year at Sundance, where it became “the underground hit of the festival” (according to The Hollywood Reporter), movie critics and trade publication reporters speculated Disney would work to suppress the release of “Escape from Tomorrow.”

Instead, the company opted to ignore the movie and let it fare in the marketplace without the indie badge of honor that would have accompanied a David-and-Goliath legal battle with what may be the world’s most famous entertainment company.

Not quite as potent as its festival-circuit acclaim promised but nevertheless a must-see for moviegoers with a taste for the unusual, “Escape from Tomorrow” depicts an increasingly surreal day in the life of a father on vacation with his family at Disney World.

Shot in attractive black-and-white that mutes the theme park’s candy allure, the movie has been described as a “horror” story, but as such it’s as close in uneasy spirit to Philip Roth or John Updike as to David Cronenberg. Cases of “cat flu” are on the rise in the park, tourists are warned, but the most dangerous illness at work in the world of “Escape from Tomorrow” might be described as middle-age male restlessness.

The title is a reference to the Disney attraction Tomorrowland, but it also suggests that the story’s beleaguered hero (or antihero), a doughy Everyman named Jim (Abramsohn), is losing himself in a different fantasy of escape than those that attract his wife (Elena Schuber), son (Jack Dalton) and daughter (Katelynn Rod-riguez) to Disney. Jim, apparently, seeks release — in his head, at least — from “tomorrow”: the years and years of predictable domesticity forecast for him in his role as father to two demanding children and husband to a naggy and sexually frustrating woman.

He’s already been released from one of his dull life’s anchors: Jim’s day begins on a bad note with a phone call from his boss, who tells him he’s been laid off due to the company’s need to reduce its workforce, not to Jim’s inadequacy. “Don’t let your imagination run wild,” the voice on the other end of the phone counsels Jim, prophetically.

Jim ignores the advice. While his kids ogle the rides and costumed mascots, Jim becomes obsessed with a pair of lithe and apparently underage French girls (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady); creepily if coincidentally (or so he tells his young son), he follows them through the park.

Is “cat flu” a variation of what Ted Nugent called “cat scratch fever”? Or is it only natural that the headquarters of Mickey Mouse would be besieged by a disease named for a mouse’s natural enemy? The “escape” that is Jim’s fate would be inappropriate for an authorized Disney film; whether it represents a happy ending is debatable.

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