In the shadow of Mickey Mouse

Even the director doubted the film he secretly made at Disney World would get this far

The Dream destination of children and Super Bowl winners alike, Disney World is 30,000 acres of tightly controlled nostalgia, untouched by cynicism or outsider scrutiny. Or at least it was until last year, when director Randy Moore and his small but crafty crew breached Mickey Mouse’s iron gates and filmed Escape from Tomorrow, a thriller about a family man’s psychological breakdown at Disney World after being fired from his job.

Filmed in secret at Disney’s theme parks in Orlando, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., the surreal, David Lynch-ian drama follows Jim (Roy Abramsohn) as he navigates a nightmarish Disney landscape, complete with sinister children, sickly park-goers and—over-the-top metaphor alert!—princesses who prostitute themselves to Japanese businessmen. If that wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells at the Happiest Place on Earth, the black-and-white film also features a wealth of trademarked imagery, from Goofy to Space Mountain.

After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival to both acclaim and incredulity, Moore’s film is getting a theatrical release later this month, a development that even the most optimistic of insiders didn’t expect, considering Disney’s penchant for litigation—the company has threatened legal action against everything from clothing manufacturers to daycares for unauthorized use of its characters, and in 1998 played an integral part in extending U.S. copyright limits so Mickey and Co. wouldn’t fall into the public domain.

“I never, ever thought it would get this far. I hoped it would play a few small film festivals, and that would be that,” Moore told Maclean’s, surprised that PDA Films, a small distributor known for edgier fare such as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, picked up the feature for a limited theatrical and video-on-demand release. “It was a very brave decision. I hope they don’t regret it.”

Moore shot the $650,000 film using guerrilla-style techniques with his cast and crew acting as tourists, and equipment limited to pocket-sized Olympus recorders, a compact Canon 5D DSLR camera and natural light. Weaving their way around the Orlando site for 11 days, the group was never questioned by park security. “Every other person there had a camera, so we fit right in,” says Moore.

By releasing the film, PDA is relying on fair use protection, which allows copyrighted material to be used in creative work—as long as it isn’t trying replace the original product. “It’s unlikely audiences are going to watch this instead of taking a vacation to Disney World,” says Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which specializes in issues involving free speech and copyright. “Leaving aside the trespassing issue and how the crew violated the terms of the tickets, fair use protects commentary on our culture like this.”

Disney, for its part, has yet to make a peep. Moore has heard “absolutely nothing” from the company, and Maclean’s requests for comment went unanswered. The surprising silence marks a seemingly 180-degree turn for the Mouse House, says one author who’s crossed it before. “I’m shocked they haven’t shut them down. There’s always been a well-defined line that outsiders were not to cross, as far as publishing photos or creating films and putting them out for the public to see,” says David Koenig, who raised the ire of Disney’s legal department when he published Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland and two other books about the corporation. “But it’s like Obama’s red line—if it’s out there, you assume no one is going to ever cross it. Now somebody has.”

Disney is far from getting soft, though. With its recent suit against a small theatre company in Lancaster, Penn., that dared to use content from The Lion King, to a new park policy reversing the line-jumping privileges of disabled children, Disney still relishes any chance to wield its corporate power. Its silence here may just be a brilliant move to crush dissent. “By refusing to talk about the film, there’s no free publicity,” says Nazer. “The number of people who see black-and-white, low-budget indie movies is pretty low any way. How far could it get?”