Pointless Commentary vs. Pointed Commentary; Escape From Tomorrow and The Florida Project

I have never seen Escape from Tomorrow, but it is the topic of one of my favorite video essays on YouTube. Theme park enthusiast and film critic Jenny Nicholson says in the opening to her scathing 47-minute takedown of Escape from Tomorrow, calling it “the most dumb, stupid, horrible, inane, awful, ugly movie I’ve ever seen,” and calling it “the worst film-vieweing experience [she’s] ever had,” before moving onto more specific criticism. 

At length, Jenny explains how the movie lacks any kind of internal logic or consistency, the film’s perspective hinges on some uncomfortable perversions, the plot meanders, the flat characters are poorly-written and poorly-performed, the female characters in particular are misogynistically constructed, the editing treats the viewers like infants,  and the overall thesis of the movie is muddled at best.

Jenny’s video shows Escape from Tomorrow for what it really is, a poorly-made movie which relies on the gimmick of being filmed in Disney World and Disneyland; any praise it gets comes from that aspect of it. The film’s writer and director Randy Moore seems to tout the movie as some great commentary on an evil mega-corporation but his messages become so muddled that they carry no apparent meaning. We live in a time when online film criticism is dominated by extremely scathing takedowns of media both good and bad, but Jenny Nicholson’s objections to Escape from Tomorrow are pointed and valid.

I’ve watched Jenny’s video a handful of times since it was first uploaded a few years ago, so I’d say that I’m decently familiar with the movie, or at least as familiar as someone who has never seen it can be. But in trying to reflect on the events of the movie and structure them into a “plot” I find that I just can’t do it in a way that easily encompasses just what the movie is. I don’t know, man, there’s an evil witch who used to be a princess in the Disney parks and there’s some kind of cat flu, and then there’s some kind of shadowy corporation within the Disney parks that wants to… harvest people’s imagination? It’s all very silly, and to be fair, not everything has to be taken seriously. But Jenny’s video goes through so many interviews and comments from director Randy Moore and it’s clear that he thinks he’s made some kind of masterpiece of genre and social commentary. And it’s not.

A refreshing contrast can be found in The Florida Project, a 2017 independent film about low-income families living in a housing project in the Orlando area. It’s a delightful film that depicts their everyday life, primarily through the eyes of Moonee, a young child, and Halley, her mother. The two live in the shadow of the major Orlando theme parks, not the least of which is Disney World.

Imagery of Disney’s central Florida empire proliferates the film, whether it’s Disney merchandise being sold in stores, a guest who winds up in the project looking for lodging trying to see if they can get a last-minute reservation at one of the resorts, or Halley stealing and selling Magic Bands to get by. The two hotels – or projects – are vaguely themed to look like a castle and space station, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s run-down and not an ideal place to live. It’s depicted as a hard life for impoverished central Florida residents, and despite the image of a magical life that the theme parks wish to project, it doesn’t change the fact that Halley will likely have her daughter taken away from her, or that she will be evicted.

Just about any discussion about the movie will remind you that the title, The Florida Project, was also Walt’s name for the property he was buying up in the Orlando area – not just referring to the east-coast Disneyland, but also the city of the future he wished to build. The “Florida Project” refers to the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (which would later inspire the EPCOT theme park), which envisioned futuristic technology in everyone’s homes, and revolutionary public transportation (like monorails or people-movers) ferrying them to work. Perhaps Walt’s Progress City would have been built where the rundown motel/housing project in the film stands, on Route 192 in Kissimme, FL or at least it’s influence would have reached them in some way – but you wouldn’t know it, given by the lives of the characters depicted. If the viewers go in with no context, they can appreciate the clear class divide between the tenant characters and the tourist characters. But even just a little bit of context can help bolster this movie’s depiction of class divide.

That’s what ultimately makes the final moments of the movie so cathartic. The dream (?) sequence in which Moonee and her friend arrive in the Magic Kingdom. While bootleg ambient footage of the Disney parks make up most of the runtime in Escape From Tomorrow, it is used sparingly and to powerful effect in The Florida Project. One must appreciate the contrast between the pointed commentary on American income inequality The Florida Project makes, juxtaposed to Escape From Tomorrow‘s half-baked concepts and commentary

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