the florida project

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: a look at Escape From Tomorrow and the newly released The Florida Project, both of which explore the peripheries of the Disney experience.)

The Disney theme parks are built upon a foundation of agreed-upon lies. We tell ourselves that we can afford a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth even if we should spend that money on more reasonable expenses, because we value our enjoyment or the enjoyment of our family members more than the strength of our bank accounts. We tell ourselves when we walk through the gates of the Magic Kingdom that we’ve been transported into a world of fantasy and future, a land where our real-world problems don’t exist. We tell ourselves that the theme parks are a place where the Cast Members who operate the attractions, shows, and restaurants have no real-world problems — really, no outside lives — of their own. Each winding walkway, each touch of atmosphere, each architectural choice is, in its own special way, a lie. They are mostly beautiful lies, but lies nonetheless.

The beautiful lies of the Disney theme parks, and how those lies have an uglier ripple effect towards the periphery of the cities that house them, are part of the fuel behind two independent, tonally very different, films from the past few years: Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Each film deals with the specter of the Disney theme parks in its own way. Moore’s 2013 film built buzz because he and his cast had shot a majority of the Lynchian film inside the parks without Disney’s knowledge. Baker’s is focused on the fraying edges of the community that borders Walt Disney World. Despite being radically different, the directors each attempt to confront the parks and their impacts through these stories.

This article features major spoilers for Escape From Tomorrow and minor spoilers for The Florida Project.

Escape from Tomorrow

A Fantastical Escape

Walking through the Disney parks, especially over the last decade with the exceeding popularity of smartphones, it’s hard not to see people filming something. The refracted reality of the parks is refracted further so people can make vacation home-movies, or so someone can post to YouTube a walkthrough of an on-property hotel or a ride. Disney, as you can imagine, would not want its intellectual property repurposed for financial gain, but its security teams also can’t tell people to stop filming a ride with their iPhone or to stop taking long shots of the Disney castles with their Canon camera. That dilemma is one reason why Escape from Tomorrow is able to exist, as jaw-dropping as its premiere was back at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Moore’s film is decidedly family-unfriendly, depicting the final day of a family vacation that starts out shaky and ends violently. In the 90-minute film, there’s sex, drugs, a kidnapping, and an underground laboratory beneath Epcot’s Spaceship Earth, because why not. Upon its initial premiere, it was easy for journalists, critics, and industry types to move past the film’s quality and just ask the same questions: how did this movie exist? Moreover, would Disney ever let it see the light of day?

At first, there was a lot of understandable doubt regarding the latter question. The film’s music was deliberately meant to echo Disney tunes, without actually using the themes to any popular attractions to avoid any easy legal suits. (Among other attractions, the characters experience It’s A Small World or Soarin’, so the film’s composer, Abel Korzeniowski, created approximations of what might play on such rides.) In spite of whatever legitimate claims Disney could make against the film, there was also the assumption that if the corporation did push back against the shoestring-budgeted picture, it would be like Goliath trying to stomp on David. Why attack a film made with no name actors, no name director, no serious cash flow, etc.?

So, for whatever internal reasons, Disney’s response to the film was essentially nothing, which might have been the smartest choice. In the fall of 2013, Escape from Tomorrow was released into a handful of theaters as well as video on demand, to very little fanfare. (It was seen as notable that the film’s producer released VOD revenues, but those numbers were pretty minor, considering the original buzz.) The film didn’t make that much money on either platform, and it hasn’t translated to anything tangible for Moore or its lead actor, Roy Abramsohn. If anything, by ignoring the movie, Disney helped it fade from people’s memories.

A Movie That Shouldn’t Exist

I’ll be up-front with my own reaction: the first time around, I was genuinely floored at how this movie had to have been made. There are very noticeable green-screen effects at certain points, and one scene shot on a soundstage that takes place in that nefarious lab underneath Spaceship Earth. However, it’s clear that a lot of Escape from Tomorrow was very obviously filmed at the Disney theme parks. The very nature of these scenes, especially since they rely so heavily on a “normal”-looking family of four, is somewhat remarkable. Watching the film again four years later, removed from the often-ebullient festival circuit (I saw it at Fantastic Fest 2013), and removed from the initial shock of its production, I realized that I was far too kind the first time around in looking past its many other weak elements.

The premise of Escape from Tomorrow is clever enough. A suburbanite dad, on the last day of his vacation at Disney, finds out that he’s been fired and proceeds to have an increasingly insane day at the parks where he lusts after two French teenagers, runs afoul of mysterious figures, and begins hallucinating (or genuinely experiencing) sexual encounters and drug-fueled fantasias. The film, in effect, wants to warp every happy, family-friendly element of the parks in a most R-rated fashion. Disney princesses? Maybe they’re prostituted out to foreign businessmen. Exciting roller coasters? What if their dips and turns can cause someone to be decapitated? And so on.

The film, however, just has that one note to play: what if Walt Disney World wasn’t as pleasant as it seemed on the surface? Abramsohn has a decent charisma, but the script doesn’t always do him favors, even in the more “normal” scenes. To wit: at one point, his character Jim is riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (AKA the PeopleMover) with his young son Elliott, who coincidentally mentions the two French teenagers Jim desires. Elliott says the young women are pretty, then he asks Jim if his mom (Jim’s wife) is pretty. Jim says “Yes,” but rolls his eyes snidely as he answers, then compares her to Emily Dickinson. The line comes back to bite him in the ass later, and while that gag works — he pleads to his displeased wife “I like Emily Dickinson!” — the setup feels unexpectedly nasty.

This kind of Blue Velvet take on Disney isn’t out of reach or inappropriate. There’s a good story to tell about the flip side of Disney’s lighter tones. But pushing it to the opposite extreme only works in concept, not in execution. By the end, Jim succumbs to the inexplicably named “cat flu,” dying after puking up multiple hairballs in the bathroom of his hotel room at the Contemporary Resort. His wife grieves, his kids don’t seem to be that affected, and then we see a duplicate version of Jim with a different wife (one of the women he’s fantasized about) and child entering the parks. The intentional confusion and meaninglessness of this ending is arguably meant to emphasize the surrealism of Walt Disney World, where anyone can pretend to be something they’re not as long as someone else buys into the lie. That very concept is shrewd enough, but Escape from Tomorrow’s cleverness starts and finishes with its concept, struggling with the execution.

Continue Reading The Florida Project and Escape From Tomorrow >>

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