Revisiting ‘TRON: Legacy’…

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The other day, Disney shocked me… They announced something TRON-related. A franchise I thought they turned their collective backs on.

TRON has had it rather rough in this day and age, though I suppose I should shut up because a sci-fi cult classic that bombed back when it came out getting a sequel was more than enough.

TRON was one of Walt Disney Productions’ big experiments of the early 1980s. By the late 1970s, the studio was mostly making tossaway comedies and a few gems sprinkled in-between. Their management were staunch and chose to keep the company within the happy, no-risk realm of wholesome family entertainment without any bite. None of the edge and bravery of its founder’s works was present in many of the films being released, animated or live-action.

Along came a little movie called Star Wars, a picture for the family that redefined the escapist adventure that Disney once specialized in, and came with some roughness that may have been too much for some young children out there. No different from a great, darker Walt-era Disney film. It swept the world, and captured the imagination of the young and old, it became the highest grossing film of all-time. Disney finally budged. They took the in-development The Black Hole and readied it for a 1979 release, while considering big fantasy stories like Spacecraft One and The Hero from Otherwhere for the animation studio, and also keeping a firm grip on the Chronicles of Prydain project.

Disney was initially timid when it came to the world outside of the G rating, which by the mid-1970s garnered a stigma. The first Disney feature film to get a PG rating by the MPAA was the 1950 live-action feature Treasure Island, when it was being prepared for a re-release in 1975. Disney edited the film down and released it, it got the desired G. (This truncated version of the film is on all the home video editions released before the early 90s Walt Disney Studio Film Collection edition release.) The Black Hole would be the first new feature to get the PG rating. It sadly flopped at the box office, and wasn’t very well-received.

That same year, Disney acquired a small, independent Utah picture called Take Down. They released that with little fanfare, and the Disney name wasn’t anywhere to be seen in the film. (As far as I know.) It was simply a Buena Vista release, because back then young’uns, Disney’s self-distribution arm was called Buena Vista. In 2007, they retired the name and re-christened it Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Take Down disappeared swiftly, and was released on home video only once in the 1980s by another company.

In 1980, a young and ambitious Tom Wilhite was named Vice President of the feature division, and would be the creative head of projects. Wanting to shake up the snowglobe, he sought to bring Disney’s filmed entertainment into the modern day. One of his immediate pick-ups was animator Steven Lisberger’s TRON, and production was fast-tracked. He had also greenlit PG-rated films like teen drama Tex, spooky Ray Bradbury adaptation Something Wicked this Way Comes, and a few others.

All of his pictures failed at the box office, Disney had a hard time presenting these PG-rated works to the public. It seemed like anybody over the age of ten didn’t want to be seen anywhere near a Disney-labeled movie. Keep in mind, this was the early 1980s, before the PG-13 rating was created. Back then, a Disney movie being PG was a big deal. Ron Miller, who became CEO of the company in 1983, solved the problem by creating Touchstone Pictures in early 1984, mere months before his ouster.

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TRON, like all of those films, failed to recoup its costs at the box office. Disney positioned it as a summer blockbuster, giving it a mid-July release in 1982. Costing $17 million to make, and probably a good amount to market, it didn’t meet the company’s expectations. Its tie-ins fared better, one of which being Midway’s arcade game adaptation. The film lived on, thanks to the home video releases over the years. Those who understood the film’s ideas and knew a thing or two about computers were with it from the start, as more computers made it into American homes, the cult following for the picture grew and grew…

At the end of the 1990s, perhaps spurred by the success of The Matrix, Disney considered making a sequel to TRON. The project finally entered active development in 2005, by 2007 they were courting video game commercial director Joseph Kosinski to helm it. At the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, Disney shocked a whole crowd by unleashing an unexpected teaser for a TRON sequel.

A leaked video made it onto YouTube shortly after, back in the day when YouTube wasn’t a corporate imitation of itself, and back when these things were usually not released officially by companies. It blew my mind, the crowd reaction in the video was through the roof, I remember getting a real jolt of excitement after watching it…

After years of waiting, fans of the 1982 classic finally got what they craved…

Billed TR2N at the time, it seemed like it was going to be released some time around the spring of 2011. Things sped up by early 2009, and by then the picture was circling a Christmas 2010 opening. That same Comic-Con teaser was slightly altered and released as the official theatrical teaser in the summer of 2009… The film was now called TRON: Legacy.

TRON: Legacy was in post-production when a change in management had happened in the film division. Longtime Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Richard Cook, was inexplicably shown the door in late 2009. His replacement was a young exec from the Disney Channel board named Rich Ross, who was terribly unprepared for what he had been handed. Ross’ inexperience often got him into trouble with head honchos like Steven Spielberg, John Lasseter, and Jerry Bruckheimer. He greenlit few pictures, and left Cook leftovers for dead. He also barked death to traditional animation features and fairy tales after the modest success of The Princess and the Frog, though fairy tales survived because he couldn’t pull the plug on Tangled, which was waist-deep in production by the time he got to the top.

In with Ross came a new marketing group, and they botched a few of the pictures that Cook fostered before his exit. While putting their all into Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3, both of which went on to make $1 billion respectively, they royally screwed up with Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Then they made the dire mistake of putting all the chips down for TRON: Legacy. Still high off of the 3D boom which was quickly fading in the summer of 2010, Disney’s brass viewed TRON: Legacy as the “next Avatar.” Foolishly thinking that a brainy sci-fi sequel to a relatively obscure film that some of the public would only know of via a reference on Family Guy, Disney botched it. While $400 million worldwide is nothing to sneer at, TRON: Legacy was deemed a disappointment… But people did see it!

Disney slowly distanced themselves from the grid, and by early 2012, Ross was out the door. He had the shortest tenure of any Disney studio chairman, and that’s quite telling. His replacement, Alan Horn, is still running the joint like a well-oiled machine. The animated prequel series TRON: Uprising debuted with strong ratings in 2012, but Disney actively murdered the show by moving it to a timeslot where almost nobody could watch it, especially the young boy audience that it was mostly catering to. TRON 3’s resurrection in early 2015 turned out to be nothing more than a false start, Disney pulled the plug on the movie after their big budget live-action sci-fi flick Tomorrowland bombed at the box office in the spring of 2015.

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And yet, TRON somehow still lives. The new plan is to not follow up on the events of TRON: Legacy, Disney instead wants to “reboot” the whole series with a new character (set to be played by Jared Leto, a disgustingly bad choice) taking the lead. Ignoring everything established in the original classic and the sequel, Disney apparently wants to make TRON bankable by mutating it into something it is not. If this reboot ever gets off the ground, I will be on the fence till the day it hits theaters…

After that bummer news, I decided to re-spin my Blu-ray copy of TRON: Legacy. I was in the mood for it.

I saw TRON: Legacy on opening weekend in IMAX 3D, perhaps the ideal way to see it. I remember loving the living daylights out of it, and giving it a near-perfect score. It was everything 18-year-old me ever wanted out of a new TRON movie, and I was carried away by the visuals, the vibe, and Daft Punk’s mesmerizing soundtrack. The reviews of Rotten Tomatoes puzzled me, as did the talk of it being nothing more than a light show. As the years went on, I kind of caved into it and said “Yeah, it’s not that good… But I personally love it!”

Re-spinning it… I felt that something was still there.

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TRON: Legacy is really, at its core, a father-son story about the dangers of chasing perfection, which I think is kind of relevant in some ways in the digital age we are living in. Kevin Flynn, years after the events of the first film, seeks to create the perfect world with his colleague Alan Bradley (whose program is TRON), the new frontier inside the computer. He does this to compensate for his life after the death of his wife. His race to do so ended up creating a monster, a digital look-alike of himself named CLU. Tasking CLU with creating the “perfect system”, the program ended up developing a genocidal view towards beings he believed were imperfect, the ISOs. The ISOs evolved within the grid, CLU sought to kill them all. Only one had survived the purge, an optimistic and curious Quorra.

Flynn was trapped in his own world, a world that started out as ideal but became a totalitarian nightmare not dissimilar from the one he was trapped in during the events of the first TRON. CLU locks programs into deadly gladiatorial matches, and also corrupted TRON, turning him into the vicious, shadowy Rinzler. Everything he promised to give his son, Sam, was gone. Sam grew up troubled, and spends his adult life getting in fixes and pulling pranks on the remains of his father’s company. In a boardroom meeting sequence early on in the film, Bradley argues that the integrity and the soul of ENCOM is dying, while the son TRON‘s villain Mr. Dillinger is trying to foster in a more money-hungry, soulless ENCOM.

In a way, it mirrors where Disney is at right now!

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Finally getting word from his father, Sam enters the Grid, is rescued from the games by Quorra, and reunites with his old man. Sam, Kevin, and Quorra later team up to stop CLU from bringing an army – repurposed programs – into the real world. CLU is after Kevin’s data disc, which can get him through a portal that will lead them to Earth. Plot-wise, it doesn’t quite deviate from its predecessor, but not to its detriment.

On this viewing, the exploration of the wrongs of chasing perfection really resonated. I felt that there was a real beating heart to this supposedly shallow picture, and I quite dug the father-son story because of all this. I always liked Quorra as a character as well, someone untainted by real-world cynicism who was very curious about our world. One of my favorite lines in the picture is when she asks Sam if he knows Jules Verne, Sam gives her a sorta “yeah, sure”, she excitedly responds “What’s he like?” while holding one of his books.

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The film is also pretty dark, which is welcome, because it’s good to see some bite in a more recent Disney feature. CLU’s genocide of an entire digital race is horrifying, and the film ends on a very bittersweet note. If the violence we see happening towards the characters was happening towards real-world, flesh-and-blood people and not digital life-forms, this would not be a PG-rated movie. I think it’s actually one of the hardest modern PG films I’ve seen!

For all the complaints I hear about the film being full of nothing, I couldn’t disagree more. Again, the idea of how wanting perfection without realizing the beauty of what’s already there leading to consequences is handled well, and it’s interesting how they play with that idea in a climate where we’re all digitally linked in some way or another. More so than in 1982, for sure.

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Joseph Kosinski’s direction is very passionate, nearly every frame is a loving tribute to the original while also drawing subtly from other classic sci-fi films. Daft Punk’s soundtrack is near-perfection, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of this neon world. Some of the supporting cast is a lot of fun, too, from the showy nightclub owner Zuse to CLU’s minion Jarvis.

That being said, it is far from being an all-around great film. The screenplay kind of loses its stability after Sam reunites with his father. We get some exposition-heavy stretches, and Sam quite frankly isn’t the most interesting lead out there, though I do sympathize with the character. It isn’t enough to completely derail the proceedings, but its story is pretty consistent for the most part. In a way, the film is a lot like Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim didn’t get the critical drubbing TRON: Legacy got hammered with, but some critics and reviewers found fault with the film’s lack of good characters and its cheesy, by-the-numbers script.

Pacific Rim, however, is a movie that is saved by the passion of its director. In this case it’s visionary Guillermo del Toro, who crafted all the kaiju battles with such verve and gusto, and handles the more emotional moments with care, actually bringing some weight to these rather serviceable ciphers. Is it big, dumb, and predictable? Yes it is, but is it so enjoyable that you just don’t care? YES!

TRON: Legacy is just this to me. The lead is rather run of the mill, the story is standard, but the sequel explores an interesting idea that I think bolsters it, while also being a genuinely heartfelt father-son story with touches of darkness. If not for the jibber-jabber and wonkiness of the second half, TRON: Legacy could’ve sat alongside the great works of science fiction cinema. Or maybe not. Beneath the light show is something with a bit to say, it is far from being a hollow Michael Bay-esque blockbuster. Its predecessor was given similar marks back when it first came out. Perhaps time will be more kind to TRON: Legacy

Spinning it again brought a big smile to my face. The movie lost none of its coolness, and maybe it’s because I’m a lot older now, but… It resonated with me more this time. It’s a solid sci-fi action spectacle, and a big entertaining film. Give the Grid another go, I say.

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