As most people know, the 1980s were not a successful time for Walt Disney animation. Audiences were quickly losing interest in the films that were being released and the solution to this did not come till the very end of the decade, beginning with The Little Mermaid. What people don’t always talk about, however, was that the 80s were a unique and often strange time for live-action films as well. Before the Touchstone division came to be under the leadership of CEO Ron Miller, Disney was unsure of how to proceed and win back the audiences that they had lost to other film labels. Labels such as Lucasfilm which quickly had two wildly successful franchises, namely Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Disney needed to do something and fast because their tried formula of the slapstick comedies of the 1960s and 70s were no longer going to cut it if Disney wanted to stay on the map and continue to draw in the young adult crowd. Risks would need to be taken and so Tom Wilhite convinced Ron Miller that it was in their benefit to take a risk with young up and coming filmmaker Steven Lisburger and his film, Tron.
Tron is a film that takes place inside a computer program. Using the latest special effects paired with older methods of filmmaking, Tron is, in many ways, an animated film. The movie was photographed in black and white and each frame that took place in the digital world was hand-colored. This was also one of the first movies to showcase a substantial amount of computer animation.
Upon its release in 1982, Tron was not the success that Disney had hoped it would be. Though it achieved acclaim by several critics, including Roger Ebert, the film lost a substantial amount of money. At the time, the film came and went like many others. It was in the years that followed that made Tron a noteworthy film in Disney history. The design and look of the film inspired many young filmmakers including John Lasseter, who started Pixar. Tron paved the way and gave audiences and fellow filmmakers the opportunity to see what computer animation could do for the film industry. Until that point, special effects were not made by computers the way they are today. They were made practically and some even considered using computers as cheating. Because Tron takes place in a computer, however, using computers to design effects only helped the film. Not only was Tron ahead of its time in 1982, it is wholly original, even by today’s standards. What it lacks in storytelling and pacing (it is often difficult to understand and arguably hard to sit through), it makes up for with its breathtaking visuals and one of a kind design. These are the elements that make it a cult classic; it is wonderful to look at and incredibly creative. It is best viewed at as a period piece from the 80s, something that, though perhaps not originally intended, was reinforced 30 years later with its sequel, Tron: Legacy. Despite many of the characters being quite forgettable, there are two standout performances: those of Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, the protagonist, and the wonderful David Warner as the main villain. These two actors hold their own and make the strange environments and worlds of the film completely believable.
The cult following of Tron inspired the sequel which also stars Jeff Bridges and follows his son Sam as he attempts to rescue his father from the world of the computer and bring him back to the real world. Tron: Legacy suffers from some of the same problems as the original, but to a lesser extent. Despite it being visually stunning, the characters are still somewhat hollow, though Bridges is once again at the top of his game and franchise newcomers Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde do an admirable job. This installment is also considerably easier to follow than the original. Alongside the sequel, an animated series titled Tron: Uprising premiered on Disney XD in 2012 and ran for one season.
This Disney property has also inspired a ride called Tron Lightcycle Power Run which opened at Shanghai Disneyland in 2016 and will be coming to Magic Kingdom in 2021. A film like Tron lends itself so well to rides and appearances in the parks, specifically in Tomorrowland.
I look forward to seeing what the future holds for this franchise, whether it be in film, television, or in the parks.
Both films and the television show are available to stream on Disney+.