'Escape From Tomorrow': A Feature Film Shot In Disney Theme Parks Without Disney's Permission [Sundance 2013 Review]

Independent film is filled with dreamers who are too naive to believe in the impossible — filmmakers who don't concern themselves with the millions of reasons not to make a movie. Some of the best works of art are created from this naivety.

Escape From Tomorrow is a movie that takes place during a family vacation to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Not only do the filmmakers make no attempt to hide or obscure the location, but the Disney theme park and costumed characters play a huge part in the story. Most of the movie was shot in Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disneyland without the knowledge or permission of Disney. This is a film that, from a conventional perspective, should never have been created, never mind screened at the top independent film festival in the United States. But it was, and after the break we'll tell you how it was done.

Director Randy Moore went into the park with his actors and a tiny crew and shot the film entirely on the Cannon 5D DSLR camera. The cinematographer and AD conducted intensive location scouting, with every shot exhaustively planned and blocked in advance. They even charted the position of the sun weeks in advance for each shot of the movie to make up for the lack of lighting equipment. Sound was recorded without an on-set sound mixer, sometimes using smart phones, and sometimes using digital recorders taped to each actor, which would record an entire day's worth of audio, which editors had to sort through afterward.

While the film was shot guerrilla-style, it doesn't feel like found footage or home video. They chose to shoot the entire movie in black & white, a practical decision which helped them have a better feel for composition and lighting in the camera as they shot in the parks. The result is a film with a certain classic feel, which adds to the cinematic aesthetic. The director argues that most people haven't seen the Disey theme parks (especially the Disney World parks) in black and white, and that the style brings out details that normally go unnoticed. Disney fans will probably relate the footage with Walt Disney's early telecasts from Disneyland.

The movie takes place over the course of one day, following a family vacationing at Walt Disney World. The father receives a phone call early in the morning informing him that he no longer has a job. He tells no one — all he wants to do is have one last day of vacation in the park. His relationship with his wife strained, and the day isn't the pleasurable escape from reality that he had hoped. He begins to start fantasizing and following a couple French-speaking teenage girls, experiencing delusions around the park that may hint to a more sinister underbelly of Disney World.

The cast and crew bought season passes to enter the parks as "normal visitors", filming ten days in the Orlando parks and two weeks in Disneyland in Anaheim. Most viewers would never notice, but the Disney World presented in the film is actually a amalgamation of Disney parks on both US coasts. You'll see the family walking through Cinderella's castle in Magic Kingdom, and minutes later be in line for Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters in Disneyland's Tomorrowland (Star Tours can be seen in the background, a ride that doesn't even exist in MK).

I live in Los Angeles and have the top level annual pass to the Disneyland parks; I'm a Disneyland fanatic that goes to Disneyland a dozen times each year. I've been on every ride, watched every show, and I've probably seen anything there is to see in the public areas of the parks. My family vacationed to Walt Disney World a couple times growing up, and more recently, I visited Orlando on an anniversary trip a year ago.

This is a long way of saying that I know the experiences of the park more than most. The film is partly a story of one family's day adventure through the parks, and I'm not sure how to experience this adventure through new eyes. But maybe that's the point. Almost everyone has visited a Disney theme park and the experiences are universal. So when things begin to go haywire, it feels all that more surreal.

Near the end of the shoot they were almost caught by Disney while filming the family entering the Disneyland gates. The Disney castmembers thought that the camera crew were a bunch of paparazzi trying to get a shot of a famous family. (Remember, they were shooting with a DSLR camera.) The cast and crew were taken aside and the family insisted they were not famous. A castmemeber kept asking "Why did you enter the park two times in seven minutes?" Luckily the young girl in the cast began screaming that she needed to go to the bathroom. The cast and crew escaped after a crowded parade began on Main Street, the wireless sound mics shoved into their socks in case they were stopped. But they weren't.

When I first heard about this film I thought that it was a total no-budget guerrilla production, but that is far from that case. The actors are professional, but still leave a lot to be desired compared to the other films at Sundance. Golden Globe nominated composer Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man) recorded music for the film on the Eastwood stage of the Warner Bros lot. Visual effects were completed by the same company in South Korea that worked on The Host. Green screen and set production took place at the same movie stages used by Cecil B de Mille and DW Griffith.

Escape From Tomorrow is not a great film. The story has some good ideas, but the execution is uneven. And yet, it is unlike anything you've seen before and will probably be unlike anything you see again. For at reason alone, I would recommend you see this film if you have the chance.

The film shines in the more trippy moments, when it becomes about something more than a family vacationing at DisneyWorld. Spoilers for a movie that might never be released coming up: Jim discovers that the Disney princesses are high priced undercover hookers that service Asian businessmen. During one sequence, the animatronic kid figures in It's a Small World start making weird faces and doing strange thing as Jim and his family ride through. Jim sees a vision of the huge Spaceship Earth building (the big ball at EPCOT) destroyed using explosives. Seeing imagery of a terrorist-like attack in the Disney parks is unnerving. And near the end, Jim is captured and taken into a building below Spaceship Earth by the evil siemens corporation (which sponsor the ride). There is more I'm leaving out, but those are the major crazy beats. (end of invisotext – highlight to see)

"If you have the chance" are the key words, as I don't expect you ever will. Disney is very protective of their image and events happen in this movie that they would no way want to be connected with. For instance, a bunch of Disney princesses are revealed to really be undercover hookers for Asian businessmen.  The film also features some sex and nudity, though those scenes were not shot inside the park.

Disney characters and intellectual property appear in almost every shot, with no attempt to cover or cut them out of the frame. In fact, some of the classic Mickey characters appear on props and set decoration used in the sequences they shot outside of the park in fully crafted sets on a studio lot. The only thing the filmmaker chose to censor is one mention of "Disney" by one of the main characters. The move in itself is confusing as the word Disney appears in text many times in shots from around the park.

Intellectual property and copyrights aside, many people appear in this film who have never signed a release. Real families and children are seen in the background of almost every shot. None of them gave permission or knew they were being filmed for a feature film. This also includes castmembers in the parks, not just in costume form. In one scene early on the family get a photo in front of Cinderella's Castle taken ones Disney castmember with a camera. Close-ups of real Castmembers waving with Mickey hands are featured alas the family exit the park in another sequence. So there are many legal reasons why this film will probably never be publicly available outside of the few screenings at Sundance.

While Moore embraces the DisneyWorld location to a possibly extreme legal fault, paradoxically he did decide to replace the iconic (copy-written) music in It's A Small World and the Enchanted Tiki Room, and replaced the film projected in Soarin' with generic stock footage of flyover shots. How strange is it that the filmmakers thought it would be okay to have actresses playing hookers dressed up as Disney Princesses in the park, to feature actual Disney art prominently on screen, but drew the line at Sherman Brothers-composed theme park music?

Escape From Tomorrow isn't the first movie to be shot in Disneyland without permission of the Mouse. Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop features a very memorable sequence where Banksy plays a prank inside the park and Mr. Brainwash (who shot footage of the prank) was questioned Disney's backstage jail. He escaped with the footage, and they appeared in the film without any fallout that we're aware of. Of course, Exit is a documentary and so that footage probably falls under fair use. They also avoid showing any Disney intellectual property in close-up.

And last year a viral short was made titled Missing In The Mansion, which was shot inside Disneyland and inside the famous Haunted Mansion attraction. The found footage horror film was posted online for free, and Disney has made no apparent attempts to get it taken down. But Escape is the first fictional feature film production that I know of to shoot a significant portion of the film in the Disney Parks without an "OK" from the mouse.