I have been to Disneyland and Walt Disney World maybe 20 times. Next month, I will return to the Happiest Place on Earth, visiting for the first time in my 30s and with my wife. After seeing Escape from Tomorrow, I can only hope that I'll be able to see Disney in the same way as the previous visits.
I'm a big believer in the power of Disney. How else to explain its continued intoxicating effect over me even in my 20s? You hand over a fortune just to get in to their theme parks and walk through those gates, and somehow you feel a non-chemically aided joy that is totally devoid of cynicism.
Written and directed by Randy Moore, Escape from Tomorrow seeks to shatter every bit of the Disney spell and for the better part of 90 minutes it succeeds. Shot in black and white and without permission at both of Disney's American-based theme parks, it follows Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) on the last day of his family's vacation in Orlando. Jim is fired via telephone as the film opens, but he keeps that information from his family, resolving to make the best of things before reality sets in.
That's a tall order given the nagging of his frigid wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and the demands of his two small children Elliott (Jack Dalton) and Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez). But it gets even more difficult when Jim becomes fixated with a pair of French teens he keeps running in to in the park.
Then, the hallucinations begin.
Fittingly they start on the It's a Small World ride, which anyone who has visited Disneyland or Walt Disney World knows is the creepiest in the whole park. Jim tries his best to keep things together, but Moore's point seems to be that the Happiest Place on Earth -- obsessed with an antiseptic Platonic ideal of joy -- can be the exact opposite if you aren't in the right frame of mind.
And, oh, is there ever something wrong with Jim's mind -- his graphic sexual fantasies and a gruesome injury completely perverting a place that is supposed to be all about good, clean family fun.
You could probably write a book just about the production of this film, of the tactics employed to shoot it without Disney's knowledge. Would I have ever been interested in it were I not curious about how something shot guerilla-style on digital single-lens reflex cameras with its actors using their iPhones to remember their lines would turn out? No.
But Moore's film isn't merely a gimmick or a technical marvel. It's a darkly funny portrait of a man's swirling descent to madness and a delightfully demented send-up of one of the most beloved brands in the world.
I have little doubt that my upcoming visit to Orlando will go just like all the others, that I'll smile and laugh as I have in the past. But I'm also certain that I'll stop and think of Jim at least for a moment or two when I glance up at Cinderella's Castle.
Disney is a wonderful place, but, as Escape from Tomorrow highlights, it's also awfully strange.