The Happiest Place on Earth, by Tyler Smith
If you’re reading this, it’s likely because you saw the trailer for Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow and you were intrigued. So was I. It was hard not to be. Not only was it a film shot almost entirely on location at Disneyworld (without Disney’s permission), but it was a dark, surreal film about the insanity induced by being at such a place. As somebody that enjoys surrealism and loves Disneyland, I couldn’t wait to see it.
As the film began, however, I found that I was a little wary. We had all heard the story about how this film was made, and that’s what hooked us. But, would the film amount to an interesting gimmick and little else? Would there be anything more? And, as far as using an apparently wholesome place to reveal dark truths, hadn’t that been done many times before?
The story unfolded and my heart began to sink. While I felt that the film didn’t overuse its ill-gotten location- much to my relief- it seemed to hit the whole “dark underpinnings” thing a little too hard. In the film, we have a husband and father slowly losing his mind at Disneyworld. He finds out while on vacation that he has lost his job, but hides it from his unsympathetic wife and bratty kids. While he lugs his burdensome family through the humid heat of Florida, the one solace he finds is in following a couple of attractive French girls around the park, leering at their scantily clad bodies.
Very quickly, the film becomes tedious. I felt like the director was hitting me over the head again and again with the same message. Turns out that the things that we believe will bring us happiness- wife, kids, job, Disneyland- aren’t really all that great and will actually become the instruments of our misery.
So, in short, we’re all idiots for wanting a certain kind of happiness. Got it.
I was just about to write the film off when, mercifully, things take a sharp turn about a half hour in and the filmmakers no longer seem interested in creating a “hard-hitting exposé” about the American family and instead decide to just go absolutely insane. Suddenly, we’re dealing with demented former Disney princesses that have become witches, sinister scientists running experiments out of Epcot, and the dreaded Cat Flu virus that’s been going around.
Sound crazy? Believe me, it is. Wonderfully so. And, by keeping a fairly straight face throughout the surreal happenings, Escape from Tomorrow manages to be remarkably funny and deeply disturbing at the same time. The film is clearly influenced by the works of David Lynch and Roman Polanski and at times feels a bit too derivative of those directors, but still seems to genuinely understand what is so appealing about their films.
And, in the end, the film circles back on itself to examine not merely the lives that we’ve chosen to live, but the way we see those lives. Are our spouses really so monstrous to us, or our kids so disinterested? Or do we cause our own misery by perpetually trying to see ourselves in different, more alluring circumstances, never quite realizing what we have right now?
This, too, is a theme that we’ve seen in countless movies before, but this film comes by it honestly. Where the first section of the film felt like forced cynicism, the end embraces a natural contentment, earned through experimentation and horror. By the end of the film, our protagonist has had a total breakdown, but not before having a breakthrough, and the film’s commitment to depicting both is what makes Escape from Tomorrow much more than a simple gimmick.