Gorilla Filmmaking

On Escape from Tomorrow, how Disney works, and why more people seriously need to read David Foster Wallace already.

Junglecruise gorillas wdw2007ah(Image of the Jungle Cruise from Werner Weiss’s excellent Yesterland.com site)

There’s a movie called Escape from Tomorrow that’s coming out soon, and holy crap is it edgy and in your face. Apparently it’s about a man having an American Beauty-style mid-life crisis freak-out at Walt Disney World-but-also-Disneyland-somehow. It’s notable because it was made using “guerrilla filmmaking” techniques, i.e. using digital SLRs inside the parks without permission. The marketing page has a Mickey hand dripping with blood and animated GIFs of a woman saying “I HATE YOU” with a version of the Walt Disney’s signature font, and a man totally doing it with the words “HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH” super-imposed, so as you can tell they are seriously sticking it to The Mouse.

Plus there’s this puff piece preview of the movie on The Daily Beast that describes it as “Disney’s Worst Nightmare” and “the film that Disney doesn’t want you to see.”

Now, I understand, more or less, how movie promotion works. And I know that drumming up controversy is one of the best ways to sell something, short of actually making it good. But let’s all be clear on one thing: the only film that Disney doesn’t want you to see is whatever film is playing against Frozen on opening weekend.

A movie like this is only going to increase the aura and allure around Disney parks; the only way a project like this would’ve been any kind of a threat to Disney is if it’d been set at Universal Studios, and it implied that those parks have the same cultural cachet as Disney World. But then, it never would’ve been set at Universal, because making fun of Universal isn’t A Thing. The people involved in the promotion of this movie don’t seem to realize that Disney had already “won” before the movie was even made. Having a brand that’s iconic enough to make people want to tear it down means that the brand is working as intended.

That Daily Beast article describes a little bit of the process of making the movie.

Season passes for Disney World and Disneyland were purchased for the cast and crew, and filming commenced in September 2010. Worried that someone would leave a script in the bathroom and they’d be discovered, the cast and crew stored scripts and shot lists for the film on their iPhones. To create the illusion that they were tourists, two cameramen filmed using the video mode of digital single-lens reflex cameras. […] On a given day, the covert crew would range from eight to 15 people, including Moore, two cameramen, the assistant director, the actors, the child actors—each accompanied by a real-life parent—and a PA carrying water, “because water is a thousand dollars a bottle there,” jokes Moore.

The message that’s supposed to stand out to readers is, “Those filmmakers risked a lot to really put one over on the greedy Disney fat cats.” The message that stands out to Disney is, “Those filmmakers bought annual passes for both resorts for the entire cast and crew.”

It’s far more likely that Disney security was concerned about the crew filming because of its potential to create a dangerous situation for guests, resulting in a lawsuit; or that the crew was taking video of backstage areas or ride operation, which could be used in corporate espionage. The threat that their brand would be tarnished, that this crew would expose the dark secrets behind the magic, was I’m sure the farthest thing from their minds.

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, David Foster Wallace’s astoundingly prescient essay, he writes about how the medium of television has become impervious to criticism because it is incapable of looking inward. It exists solely to be watched, so ascribing any other kind of agenda or motivation to it betrays a failure to understand how it works.

Of course, Disney’s a corporation and not an entire medium (although I’m sure they’re working on that), so the comparison isn’t perfect. But the basic idea is the same: Disney is so large and so well known that it’s not threatened by cultural criticism or parody. In fact, it feeds off of it.

It’s not even that subtle a concept. In MuppetVision 3D, which is now over 20 years old, Rizzo the Rat comes out during the pre-show dressed as Mickey Mouse and humming the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The climax of the movie — “A Salute to All Nations But Mostly America” — has characters from “it’s a small world” firing guns and cannons at each other and the audience while a version of the small world ride’s theme plays. Statler and Waldorf make jokes about being animatronics. On the Jungle Cruise, one of the standard Disney-approved gags is about how children left behind on the boats are captured and made to work in the “it’s a small world” ride.

In other words, Disney has been making fun of itself and its wholesome image for a long time. And even if there was a period where the company was ultra-uptight about anything that could threaten the brand, now in 2013 they’re more open to mash-ups and re-imaginings and re-interpretations than ever before. The company still caters to the people who are as reverent to the parks as to any religion, and to the people whose eyes glaze over when they talk about “The Magic,” but it’s astoundingly naive to believe that a company could grow that large targeting such a relatively small audience of obsessives.

Even the people who do unabashedly love Disney still make fun of the enforced whimsy and the preoccupation with the magic of dreams and imagination. Actually, we probably make fun of it more often, since we’re more often seeing children having complete meltdowns when surrounded by characters with smiling, wide-eyed faces.

To be clear, I’m probably going to check out Escape from Tomorrow at some point. If only to see CGI used around so many Disney landmarks, and because the guy with the Spaceship Earth head is kind of a neat image. I’m not protesting the movie; I’m protesting the idea that it’s in any way controversial or threatening or even novel. “Counter-culture” has spent decades going after Disney as a representation of everything Mainstream Capitalist America, by making fun of the rides or drawing the characters screwing or Mickey Mouse giving the finger. It just seems facile, and even more juvenile and infantilizing than “it’s a small world.”

I expect to do a lot of eye-rolling when I actually see the movie, though. Unless the marketing team is completely independent of the filmmaking team, which seems unlikely based on the quotes about “a team of Disney lawyers descending on your home” in that Daily Beast article. The tone behind it, and that whole website, seem like a much more blatantly dishonest attempt to manipulate the audience than anything I’ve ever seen in a Disney parade or fireworks show.

P.S. The title of this post made a lot more sense when I was thinking of describing Disney as a 900-pound gorilla, but then I forgot to make the metaphor. Whoops.