When people talk about Escape From Tomorrow, a movie filmed in Disney World without Disney's permission, all they ever seem to focus on is the development side of it. While it is an impressive accomplishment in guerrilla filmmaking, I feel that the film itself deserves more attention. The what, to me, is just as impressive and fascinating as the how.
This will be less of a review and more of an analysis and interpretation of Escape From Tomorrow. Of course this is only my personal interpretation and doesn't necessarily mean it's correct. It's just how I viewed it. This is intended for people who have already seen the film and assumes that you are at least somewhat familiar with the plot and production of the film. Naturally spoilers will follow.
The film's title tells us a lot. The film's main character, Jim, is a husband and father who is severely displeased with his life and wants to escape this life he's created for himself, he wants to alter his life to lead to a more agreeable future. The film's title also suggests a kind of child-like mentality: the idea of living completely in the present, embracing the moment and not worrying at all about the future or any consequences it might bring. A puer aeternus complex, or peter pan syndrome, if you will.
The films starts with a scene shot on a roller coaster. As the plot unfolds it will prove to be one big roller coaster ride, but for now it seems like a perfectly normal, happy, fun environment. That is, of course, until a passenger on the coaster is startlingly decapitated by a low-hanging archway. This opening establishes a number of things right away: (1) not everything is sunshine and roses, (2) be prepared for the worst, and (3) Disney World is a place where someone can easily lose their head, both figuratively and literally. In the case of our main character Jim, it's the former.
Jim, along with his wife, son, and daughter, is on the last day of his vacation at Disney World when he receives a phone call from his boss informing him that he's lost his job. This is important because it gives the push Jim needed to really examine, and even attempt to change, his life. Jim seemingly loves his children, but him and his wife, Emily, are constantly at odds with each other and seem to be not only always arguing and bickering, but to be severely depressed and unhappy as well. Jim, faced with an existential midlife crisis analogous to perhaps David Byrne in the song Once in a Lifetime ("You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"), comes to realize that he's not happy with his lifestyle and that his family isn't quite the dream family he may have imagined when he got married. In a fusion of sadness, confusion, helplessness, and the vibrant overwhelming happiness that is Disney World, Jim's mind starts to not just wander but delude as well. He doesn't just want to let the days go by and let things continue the same as they ever were. He wants change.
The film takes place almost completely from Jim's perspective. The world we see is the world of Jim's delusion. The first chance Jim sees for escape is in two young, beautiful French girls, who he imagines are flirting with him and leading him on. He spends much of the film following these two French girls around through the park and on rides, often imagining himself riding with them. All the meanwhile, any time spent with his wife only makes him retreat further into delusion. He can't even seem to kiss or dance with his wife. On one ride he hallucinates and imagines his wife turning to him and saying that she hates him and that their son isn't really his. This does two things: (1) it supports Jim's suspicions that his wife doesn't love him and (2) it makes it easier for him to breakaway from his family; it's a convenient excuse: he convinces himself that his wife doesn't even love him and that his child isn't even really his; so why worry about them?
Jim continues to chase these French girls around, at one point almost even confronting them in a pool, only to be stopped by his wife and left to depressingly float face down in the water ("let the water hold me down"). He also encounters a nurse, whom he goes to because his daughter scraped her knee, who he imagines is flirting with him. When he leaves the nurse's office the nurse begins to weep. Again, this is all from Jim's perspective. He imagines that the nurse was so disappointed that she couldn't have him that she began to cry. Later in the film Jim imagines that the employees dressed up as Disney Princesses are part of a prostitution ring. This all just supports his delusion that the world is his to take; that he can have any and every woman he wants if he so chooses. His delusion began because he was unhappy with his current lifestyle; to escape this lifestyle he creates a delusion that is welcoming. A fantasy that offers an ideal and convenient alternative to his unhappy marriage.
Later he meets an older woman. A succubus. She wears a gemstone amulet around her neck that entrances Jim. She tells him that the turkey leg he's eating is actually Emu meat. "Why don't they just call it that?" Jim asks, still enjoying the meat. "Would you really buy it if they did?" she replies. Here we see at work the theme of getting something you didn't ask for. Jim wanted a perfect marriage but what he got was an unhappy one. He would have never got married if he knew it'd be unhappy beforehand, just as he'd of never bought Emu meat. Next thing you know Jim blacks out and wakes up in the middle of having sex with this temptress, his hands tied to the bed posts. After she climaxes he takes his daughter and quickly leaves the temptress's hotel room, feeling slightly ashamed. It's sort of an awakening for Jim; it doesn't take him out of his delusion but it does make him slightly aware of it and its consequences.
In a confusion and semi-self-awareness, Jim starts drinking and gets more drunk than he should, as he and his wife only continue to argue. For a brief moment Emily sees into Jim's delusion. But of course she doesn't see the playful French girls that Jim sees. When she looks at one of the French girls she sees nothing but a twisted and evil face, the real evil and destruction that they really are. She begins piecing things together: him telling their son that she's beautiful in an "Emily Dickinson type of way," him staring at the French girls in the pool and nearly approaching them, him reading a book about learning French, the mysterious phone call he received at the beginning of the film. She sees that Jim is deluded.
Jim once again retreats into his delusions, riding on the Epcot ride called Soarin', his head high in the clouds, he imagines a beautiful woman before him. "Soon you'll be mine, Jim." She is the antithesis to Emily. She's beautiful and embracing. She is his dream wife.
The first act of the film was Jim's journey into temptation and delusion. The second act was Jim drinking himself away in confusion and denial. The third act, as we'll see, is Jim's struggle to save his reality.
Right before the third act begins Jim imagines one of the two French girls walking up to him and kissing his daughter on the cheek, and then the three of them joining hands and cheerfully walking off onto a spaceship (the spaceship represented by the ride Spaceship Earth). This is a very revealing scene. It isn't merely sexual desire Jim wants. It isn't just polygamy or lashing out at his wife that drives him. It's the desire for the perfect family. But something brings him back down to reality for a moment: the spaceship doesn't launch him into his dreams, it explodes with him and his daughter inside it. This is Jim's revelation. He finally realizes his naivete and that his desires are unrealistic and can only lead to his and his family's destruction.
Back in reality, which Jim finally inhabits, one of the French girls walks up to him and asks him to come with her. "You speak English?" Jim says, surprised. We're back down on Earth now. Jim always imagined that the girls spoke only French because he saw them as being something exotic and new. A foreign, escapist desire. The reality is that they're just two French girls, very possibly even from America, who of course speak English. "I can't," Jim says, no longer delusional, "I'm afraid that if I come with you something bad is going to happen." He confronts his inner demons and resists them. But messing with the devil has its consequences. "But if you don't, something will," she responds, and spits in his face, giving Jim a "cat flu" (a clever antipode to Mickey Mouse) that was reportedly going around the park.
Perhaps Jim is still partly delusional, or perhaps he's experiencing immediate symptoms of cat flu, or perhaps reality is revealing its own surreal nature, but either way Jim soon finds himself captured by what seems to be a German robot scientist who has a secret base under Spaceship Earth. The scientist delves into Jim's imagination and we see all of his previous delusions flash before us. "You've got quite an imagination," the scientist remarks, "just like old W[alt Disney]. He died, while all this [Disney World] was still in its early stages." The comparison between Jim and Walt Disney is an odd one but perhaps a relevant one. Just like Walt Disney had never lived long enough to see Disney World completed, Jim will not live long enough to see his own kingdom, his family fully built. But Jim doesn't want that. If he is still in his delusion he's aware of it and is fighting to escape it. He breaks free and goes to find his daughter, who he's lost in the confusion. He somehow finds himself pulled towards the temptress's room from earlier, which he enters using the key card he accidentally took from her. Inside he finds his daughter dressed as Snow White lying in a bed of flowers. He runs to her and awakens her with a loving kiss. He tries to take his daughter and leave but the temptress's amulet is preventing him and threatening to bring him back into delusion. He is tempted by this witch but at the same time she is taking his family (directly represented here by his daughter) away from him. It is only once his own daughter grabs the amulet and shatters it that the spell is broken.
Jim gets back to his hotel room, where his wife and son are already sleeping, and puts his daughter to bed, singing her "There's a Long Trail A-Winding" ("There's a long, long trail a-winding/Into the land of my dreams/Where the nightingales are singing/And the white moon beams/There's a long, long night of waiting/Until my dreams all come true/Till the day when I'll be going down/That long, long trail with you). He himself goes into the bathroom and suffers his cat flu full on. It ends up killing him. His wife finds him dead in the morning with cat eyes, a big smile on his face, and a bloodied bathroom. Hilarious looking nazi-like Disney employees arrive and clean up the bathroom and haul away Jim's corpse in a body bag. Now, whether or not Jim really had cat flu is arguable. It could have been just a delusion of its own. We could still be seeing the world from Jim's perspective even after he's dead; or seeing it from how Jim imagined it would happen. As if he sort of constructed his own death. There's a few things to support this: all the things that happen when he dies had been planted in the film beforehand: (1) it was the nurse who told Jim about cat flu, (2) Jim mentioned to the nurse that he takes Vitamin C pills, which is what he tried to remedy his cat flu with while he was dying, (3) earlier in the film, from his balcony, he saw a van arrive and a Disney employee get out of it; the same type of employee that would later carry his body away and the same type of van that his corpse would be loaded into. His subconscious could have fabricated his death based on various memories from the last day. Cat flu could very easily be part of his delusion. He could have died any number of ways, perhaps he killed himself, overdosing on his own pills. Either way isn't really important, but I found it worth noting.
In the last moments of the film we see the van holding Jim's corpse drive away from Disney World, back to reality, and at the same time we see an SUV pull up and Jim gets out, dressed in fancier clothes (the same clothes he wore in his imagination when the German scientist looked into his mind), with his dream wife (the same one from the Soarin' ride) and two different children, and checks into Disney World. He failed to make his dream a reality and he died in his fantasy. He died in Disney World. His fantasy can never exist in reality, but Disney World is separated from reality. It is the land of fake smiles and impossible happiness. ("Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us.") Eventually the cat catches up with the mouse.
Disney World/Disneyland really was the perfect setting for a film of this kind. Having a family crumble and seeing a man who never got the perfect family he wanted break down in the Magic Kingdom, "The Happiest Place on Earth," seems only suiting. "You can't be happy all the time," the temptress remarked at one point in the film. But yet Disney World sort of has that perfect family aesthetic. That Sears catalog neatness. Even to this day Disney gives off that 1950s American nuclear family ideal (Disneyland was built in the 1950s, Disney World in the 60s). But this film takes us on a black-and-white journey to the most colorful place on Earth. Happiness like that, perfection like that, just isn't realistic. Jim found that out.
Escape From Tomorrow is almost like a dysfunctional 1950s film. It's shot in black-and-white like many films of the 50s, but it lacks the precise and calculated lighting that so defined those Hollywood movies. It deals with a nuclear family but it lacks the perfection and happy ending. It has a score reminiscent of 50s Hollywood movies, almost of Disney movies, yet the score isn't orchestrating melodrama, it's orchestrating the surreal destruction of a man. It's based around fantasies but it's no fairy tale. It can somewhat be seen as a comment on 1950s ideals, and of the non-stop-happiness that Disney tries to maintain.
The title of the film really is perfect. The film is about a man not liking where his life is headed but who also hasn't really grown up yet. He wants to live in his fantasy forever. But, unlike Peter Pan, and unlike the temptress witch that threatens him, he must grow up and face the harsh reality in order to save his daughter and family. Because of Jim's delusions of a perfect life, represented by Disney World, his family is constantly punished with the consequences. Only he can stop their suffering.
One element I failed to talk about, mostly because I couldn't really figure out how to fit it in, was Jim's son, Elliot. If Jim is puer aeternus then Elliot is certainly Oedipus. Throughout the film it constantly seems as if Elliot is slowly taking Jim's place; is this one of Jim's fears that lead to his delusion or is it a part of his delusion? Towards the beginning of the film Elliot intentionally locks his father out of the hotel room, and then cuddles up in the same bed with his mother/Jim's wife. In fact, it seems Elliot is always sleeping in the same bed as his mother, and indeed the mother seems to more enjoy spending time with her son than with her husband. She also treats Jim like a child and Elliot like an adult. And to be fair, Elliot is more mature than Jim is. At one point, when Jim is throwing up on a ride, Elliot laughs at him. At another point, when we first see the French girls on the train, Jim seems to imagine them being flirty toward shim, but from the viewer's perspective it looks like they're looking at Elliot. Again, at the end of the film, we see Jim in the bathroom dying and he pleads for help from his son but what does Elliot do? He shuts the bathroom door on him and goes back to sleep, leaving him to die. Another interesting part is when after Jim has died and the Disney employees are cleaning up, one of the employees puts his hand on Elliot's head in a sort of Vulcan mind-meld fashion and gives Elliot the memories of riding the Buzz Lightyear ride and then gives him a Buzz Lightyear pin (because no one can be sad in Disney World, even if their dad dies!). Elliot had been begging his father to take him on the Buzz Lightyear ride all day but his father never did. Jim had rather of been in the spinning tea pots with the Frecnh girls than waiting in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride with his son and when the ride was shut down it was, as we find out later from the German robot, indirectly Jim's fault. Elliot couldn't get what he wanted until his father died. Quite sinister. But, if you subscribe to the idea that I offered before, that even after Jim's death we are seeing things from his perspective, that he imagined what his death and post-death would be like, then it could be viewed that Jim finally did end up giving his son what he wanted, at least in his mind.
The Oedipal nature of Elliot could also bring up another alternative interpretation: that we aren't seeing the world from Jim's perspective, but rather from Elliot's. Elliot holds a sort of resentment for his father and he imagines his father to be the despicable and adulterous man we see him as. Could Elliot be the delusional one? Creating fantasies to support his own hatred of his father? Not only that, but Elliot also seems to set his father up to make him look bad in the eyes of his mother. After all, he did tell her that he said she looked like Emily Dickinson. Maybe Elliot even told his father that it was the Dumbo necklace she wanted instead of the Minnie Mouse one. Or maybe he told her about the French girls he was following. Innocent child or evil mastermind? Curious. I still subscribe to the idea that the film is through Jim's eyes, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless.
Escape From Tomorrow can be viewed many ways. In fact, that's what I like about it. It never felt incoherent or convoluted, it just felt challenging. It leaves the figuring out up to you and it's designed in such a way that can support varying interpretations. It's an interesting film that, I feel, goes further than a simple Disney satire. It's a film that I'd imagine will leave me with different interpretations as time goes on.