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Horror in Fantasy Land: A Film Disturbs Disney’s Image

Published onMar 22, 2013
Horror in Fantasy Land: A Film Disturbs Disney’s Image

In January, one of the most buzzed about movies at Sundance Film Festival was Escape from Tomorrow, a Disney-themed cinematic thrill ride. The debut film of writer-director Randy Moore, Escape from Tomorrow is a fantasy-horror film that follows a family on vacation at Walt Disney World. But the park is no magical kingdom for the family. Instead, its influence encourages the father’s collapse into insanity. Jim White, the father played by Roy Abramsohn, starts his wild ride after receiving a phone call from his boss announcing that Jim has been laid-off. The call sends him on a downward spiral complete with Jim longing for underage girls, hallucinations involving Disney characters and props, and a feigned suicide attempt at a Disney attraction. The movie culminates with a brainwashing scene underneath Epcot’s Spaceship Earth and Jim’s death at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, a Disney hotel. The movie leaves viewers with the message that perpetual happiness is unattainable, even at Disney World.

To say the least, the picture is critical of Disney’s style of entertainment and an unflattering portrayal of the brand synonymous with family fun. What remains to be seen, over a month since the film’s unveiling, is how, if at all, litigation-loving Disney will react in defense of the “happiest place on earth.”

Though Disney has been quite lenient with admirers who film videos within its parks’ borders, those videos when shared are usually highly favorable portrayals of the park. Unlike such mementos of happy families, a feature-length film of Escape from Tomorrow’s nature is likely to rub the entertainment mogul the wrong way, especially since it was filmed without permission inside Disney’s parks and hotels. But, fear of giving free publicity to the unflattering but not yet widely disseminated film may be holding the mouse back from litigation.

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia School of Law who specializes in copyright and telecommunication policy, thinks that Disney holds back because it lacks a case. Wu argues that Disney is restrained by fair use since Moore’s film is a social commentary on commercialism and the American family. Wu characterizes Moore’s treatment of Disney World as transformative: “something gruesome and disturbing—a place where, for example, guests are sometimes tasered and have their imaginations purged.”

Who knows what lawsuits the future may bring for the indie filmmaker. For now, it seems that the mouse is ignoring the trap.

* Claire Little is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Virginia Tech. Upon graduation, Ms. Little plans to pursue intellectual property law.

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