It had to begin somewhere, and right or wrong, Disney's Tron has gone down as the historical beginning of computerized animation in feature films. That it's not a particularly good movie has mostly to do with the general state of Disney in the early 80's, after their prize dog The Black Hole. The whole show naturally looks primitive now, but the main problem is its story, which is a complicated excuse to 'put us into' a video game. Remember, in 1980, even the fanciest arcade games were only a couple of levels above Pong.
Disney's packaging calls Tron "A Milestone in the History of Computer Animation", and rightfully so. This was the first time that computer visuals were showcased in a major feature, and although MAGI-Synthavision gets the credit in the extensive extras on this disc, several other number-crunching animation outfits were involved too, including Robert Abel and Associates. 1 The result started out as a must-see movie (the promos looked incredible) but once it opened the furor died down to a mumble.
Tron suffered from severe Disney-itis, which was a different disease back then. Even though it introduced a lot of computer concepts to the public, the story burdens itself with leaden exposition aimed at too young a level; I think it was a confusing mess to all but college computer science buffs, the kind who at the time were inventing personal computers.
Other Disney 'touches', such as the Tinkerbell-like blip of light called 'Bit' that shows up now and then, also reminded one that the whole effort came from the predigested backfile of dull entertainment ideas that was the 1980 Disney. There is an attempt to flesh out life in the computer world by having the existence of "users" (us humans) regarded as propaganda spread by religious fanatics, but it all remains on the concept level - the evil Master Control Program spends its time torturing lowly individual programs Tron and Clu as if it were the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Despite writer Steven Lisberger's attempts at weightier things, Disney must have seen Tron as a rerun of the successful Fantastic Voyage, with humans basically shrunken and transformed into anthropomorphic 'programs' for the purpose of a novel adventure.
Clipped from the film were a couple of moments suggesting slightly more mature behavior, where the digital Tron and Yori spend the night together in a virtual boudoir. These wouldn't have worked anyway in a story that shoehorns the talents of Jeff Bridges into a combination hacker/freedom fighter/Rick Blaine club owner. Then again, the idea of hacker as hero in 1982 shows how there was still some slack left in the corporate neck-lock on content. I can't imagine Disney celebrating the heroism of info-terrorists who hack into a giant (Disney-like) mainframe, now.
The performances are just what you'd expect. Bridges is amiable as ever in what must have been a profitable lark after his artistic but mostly unseen Cutter's Way. Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan are carefully chosen safe 'n vapid Disney figures (sense any bitterness in this?). And David Warner is consistent but unexciting as the corporate climber villain. It's hard to respect a bad guy whose antidote to an outsider seeking corporate secrets, is to put him right in the computer where he can succeed.
Visually, Tron hasn't dated well. The well-known Jean Giraud and Syd Mead are listed as production designers. Judging by the concept drawings and testimony in the docus, many of their designs made it to the screen without change at all. Individual scenes, such as the light cycles that zip atop a Renwal-like grid of lines, indeed capture the feeling of being inside a computer game, but the design of much of the rest of the 'computer world' pretends that the wireframe basics of the newish animation techniques are some kind of aesthetic plus. It doesn't help that the rest of the world has sort of a blah Logan's Run - disco - Xanadu 'futuristic' look. The computer characters are purplish-hazy optical concoctions, filmed in contrasty suits that could be later manipulated to produce an unusual (for the time) effect.
Too much of what's on display as futuristic effects, look like traditional mattes and optical work, and not all that creatively employed. The ambitious idea was to create a previously unseen cinematic world, and perhaps it can be claimed that this was successful ... but Savant thought the result unimaginative then and difficult to watch now. Contrast this with the production design of the first Star Wars movies, that still looks wholly fresh. 2
Disney's special DVD makes Tron look every bit as snappy as it did in its original 70mm (I'm pretty sure) engagements. The five hours of extras boasted on the box combine scores of original promotional material from both Disney and director/animator Steven Lisberger's company, along with new docus where Lisberger and others look back at the production. It's all very straightforward and levelheaded, with nobody claiming Tron to be a classic, and instead telling us about the state of affairs in the industry back then, and the forays into new technology that made Tron such a daunting effort. On the other hand, the extras don't include any core revelations of the kind that sometimes turn Savant's opinions around 180o. Navigating among them is a chore because the any push of the remote requires one to sit through repetitious Tron-inspired computer animation bumpers. This helps account for the five hours, easily. Bruce Boxleitner introduces the deleted scenes, and there's a thorough selection of photo galleries and storyboards. A storyboard-to film comparison is the kind of feature that I suspect gets little play, no matter how it's presented.
The audio commentary is presented with a page-long disclaimer distancing Disney from the 'entertainment opinions' being offered, as if the comments of the original producer and director were only grudgingly allowed voice in the modern Disney empire. The sample I heard had the director saying that Tron came out before the studio renaissance that began with Splash. He had problems casting the show because at the time, name talent wanted little to do with Disney live-action movies. Talk about heresy against The Mouse. Tron's evil Master Control Program is an excellent cypher for our modern entertainment corporations, of which Disney is a prime example. They want to own everything, while spoonfeeding us sanitized rewrites of their own history.
The IMDB lists a new Disney production called Tron 2.0 that I didn't catch being plugged on the disc. Maybe I didn't look hard enough - the timewasting extras navigation doesn't encourage exploration.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In 1986, during a chronic bout of unemployment, Savant applied for a
job at a Culver City digital effects house called Digital Productions. A friend, Alan Peach, worked there
and had high hopes that it would become the biggest thing since sprocket holes. A pair of famous
Canadian experimental filmmakers who had turned to digital work were involved. On one side of a rather
large building was a giant array of Cray (Kray?) computer towers that did indeed work inside tanks of
cooling water (I'm told that today's home G4 Macs are now just as powerful). Anyway, the company was
turning out work like an animated Mick Jagger music video, and they were
very proud of their computer-generated planet Jupiter for 2010. A few months after my interview
(human resources, bah!) the company collapsed, but not because of its work. A Canadian
conglomerate that purchased it promptly crashed due to mismanagement and overextension. The
conglomerate took down with it all the companies it had bought, including Robert Abel and Associates,
a contributor to Tron.
2. Here's an opportunity to go on a wild tangent and gripe about the
newest generation of
Star Wars films, from a production design angle: When we saw the original, we 20-something
film buffs were floored by its successful futuristic world, where an older level of technology was being
supplanted by a newer one. The Rebellion had X-Wing fighters with a certain hardware-like look, powered
by familiar rocket-jet engines. Like Spitfires, they were the best the rebels could field, while their
backup Y-wing fighters and other ships looked plainly obsolete. The newest-generation technology was
clearly held by the Empire, which flew in Century ships powered by magnetism or something. To
top it all off, a renegade nobody like Han Solo practically built his ship from scratch, hiding
some new propulsion system in 'an old crate.' In the first film, all this was simply seen and left
to be intuited, instead of explained
verbally as was done in The Phantom Empire. Inexplicably, even though that show takes
place in the generation before the story of Luke Skywalker, the technology looks more
advanced, as seen by Amidala's silver ship. The robotic killing automatons of Phantom Empire
totally outclass the original Storm Troopers, and are employed mainly to skirt censorship: "It's
not like they're shooting people."