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Nestled in the NEXT category of the Sundance catalog was information about one particular movie, one that sounded interesting, if nothing special. The synopsis described the film only as taking place in an amusement park, following a father’s mental breakdown. The film’s premiere at the festival was not terribly well-attended. But as the movie played, that first audience slowly realized that Escape from Tomorrow didn’t take place at just any amusement park – it had been secretly filmed at Disney World. Without permission.

Very quickly, Escape from Tomorrow became one of the most talked-about movies at the fest. Every subsequent screening was sold out. Debates continue to buzz over what action, if any, the Walt Disney Company, which is notoriously litigious about its image and intellectual property, will take against the film. Some believe that there are too many legal barriers for this movie to ever get any kind of legitimate release. If that turned out to be the case, and Escape from Tomorrow became a new underground sensation, seen only by cult audiences, it might actually be the most appropriate fate for the film. It is the definition of a midnight movie.

Roy Abramsohn plays Jim White, a married man and father of two, who gets fired from his job over the phone on his family’s last day of vacation at Disney World. He subsequently descends into madness over the rest of the day. He becomes obsessed with following two pretty French girls around, and sees the bright and colorful Disney milieu morph into something nightmarish. Or maybe Jim’s not going crazy, and instead he’s suddenly been made aware of a dark underbelly that exists within the resort. It’s a parallel world where the Disney Princesses moonlight as escorts for Asian businessmen, security is deeply concerned with a spreading “cat flu,” and a secret facility housed in Spaceship Earth probes the imaginations of imprisoned guests.

Writer/director Randy Moore is satirizing Disney’s carefully-fabricated image of perfect family-friendliness. But really, Disney is only the stand-in for the entire entertainment complex, which sells us fantasies in exchange for our sanity and our awareness of the wider world. The suggestion is that it’s all whimsical wallpaper pasted over filthy black mold. The movie hits some great highs of both comedy and horror, twisting famous attractions like It’s a Small World or Flight! into more sinister versions. Shot in a hazy black and white, others have compared it to the work of David Lynch, and that’s an apt analogue.

But the movie also hits some pretty stodgy lows. There are some go-nowhere scenes strewn throughout, and even a few go-nowhere plot threads, like that of an obese scooter-driver who continually bumps into Jim. There’s not much of a story at all, as Jim and his family just keep getting bounced from one situation to another, some of which leave the viewer wondering what the point was. There are times when the film becomes an outright slog to sit through. But then someone starts coughing up hair balls and all is well.

Moore and his crew shot the movie covertly, using the same handheld cameras as any average parkgoer, except they were capturing a surreal tale of emotional turmoil instead of happy family memories. It’s not really a horribly difficult thing to do – a decade or so ago, making a movie like this would have been inconceivable, but modern technology gives you all the tools you need to make a professional film in an extremely compact package. This isn’t even the first time something like this has been done – Exit Through the Gift Shop included a segment shot in Disneyland.

What’s impressive, though, is the forward thinking demonstrated in how the movie is put together. Moore and company had to know exactly what to shoot, so that when time came to edit, they’d have all the shots needed for a coherent final picture. There are some sloppy moments and obvious cheats, like extended dialogue scenes that were clearly done with green screen, but the overall piece is quite technically  impressive.

Escape from Tomorrow is heavily flawed. It seems to go strange for the sake of being strange just as often as it goes strange to make an artistic point. But it’s an interesting and unique piece of work, and it would be great if more people get to experience it. Time will tell as to whether Disney will let them.