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Tron: Disney’s Most Underrated Accomplishment

Disney really needs to keep utilizing some of their more underrated properties.

With the amount of IP’s the Big Mouse has under its belt, it’s hard to forget that before the superheroes and the Star War, Disney had some pretty inventive ideas that were so ahead of its time. Atlantis and Treasure Planet are a couple that comes to mind.

But one IP that Disney constantly underutilizes and deserves way more love is the Tron franchise. We’re going to take a look at why this property deserves the love that it should.

Small Beginnings

Photo Credit: Disney Enterprises/Alex Kane-USA Today

The first film, written and directed by Steven Lisberger, may seem like just another cheesy 80s sci-fi film. However, it still manages to hold some sort of wonder and spectacle, as well as lay the groundwork for what is to come. The film presents a classic tale of revolution and “fish out of water trying to find his way home”, while simultaneously doing an insanely impressive amount of world-building. So many cool concepts such as light cycles, futuristic gladiator games, “derezzing”… all of it is some of the most original ideas ever put to a film.

For the time, the visual effects featured here were some of the most advanced and cutting edge at the time. While the amount of CGI-laden spectacles have made these effects seem…..outdated, there’s still a certain kind of charm to the way this film is designed. It really DOES make you feel like this is what computers at the time would look like as a real world.

The cast here is terrific too. Jeff Bridges brings a warm likable everyman persona to the genius Kevin Flynn. And Bruce Boxleitner, for his first time in the role is….average as Alan Bradley/Tron.

Financially, the film did okay, grossing $50 million against a $17 million budget. However, this was still seen as a financial loss by Disney. Over time the film, while not a megahit, became a cult favorite in the years since.

While this film does introduce some cool ideas to the series, it wouldn’t be until around 30 years later that the film would find its real creative explosion.

Oooh, Shiny!

Photo Credit: Disney Enterprises/Andrew Liptak-The Verge

For 26 years, no word was heard from the Tron series again. There was a first-person shooter game for PC that came out in 2003, and a small appearance in Kingdom Hearts II, but other than that, no news on a sequel of any kind was heard.

And then, San Diego Comic-Con 2008 happened. At the Disney panel, a surprise was shown to the attendees: test footage of a potential Tron sequel (then called TR2N, which they should have kept). At the time, it was never officially confirmed, but the test footage showed that Disney was seriously considering heading back into the Grid.

And this trip wasn’t like our last time in the Grid. Everything looked way more shiny and sleek. LightCycles looked way cooler, the suits looked more refined, it showed the return of Jeff Bridges and….young Jeff Bridges?? The teaser definitely promised a bigger exploration of the world Steve Lisberger established in 1982.

However, Lisberger would be not behind the chair again this time. Rather, it would be Joseph Kosinski, who would make his directorial debut with the newly titled Tron: Legacy. At the time, Kosinski was most notable for directing commercials for Halo 3 and Gears of War.

Tron: Legacy is, without a doubt, a million miles better than the original. It takes the world of the original film and expands it in such new and interesting ways. The programs and world now feel lived in. We see hints of society, levels of class, how the differences in The Grid look buildings-wise in terms of rich vs poor, etc. The most interesting part is the idea of ISO’s. The concept of ISO’s being this race of programs that spontaneously appeared on the Grid, as opposed to being made by users, and being shunned and rejected by other Programs, is a genuinely interesting one. It’s kind of wild to see Disney sneak in a message about class warfare in a movie that literally shines every five seconds.

Speaking of shiny lights, this movie is drop-dead gorgeous to look at. Joseph Kosinski brings a sleek, neon/chrome-like look to all the buildings. Every frame of this movie has something cool to look at and discover, from the buildings to lightcycles to the new suits. Kosinski did such a great job at creating what an updated Grid would look like.

It helps that, to set the mood of the film, Kosinski got two of the greatest musicians to create one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Daft Punk’s score is next-level BRILLIANT here. They go for an entirely different sound here, mixing big orchestral pieces with their signature music. Seriously, some of these pieces range from absolute BANGERS to some surprisingly quieter and sweet moments. The result is one of the most genuinely fascinating soundtracks ever composed.

If anything, the only thing that does not hold up as well is young CGI Jeff Bridges. It was their first time using this technology so, at the time, it was pretty fascinating, if not revolutionary.

Nowadays, this looks like the unholy spawn of Satan. Kill it. Kill it with fire.

Unlike the original, the film was not well-received critically, earning only 51% on Rotten Tomatoes. Also unlike the original, the film was a major box office success, grossing $400 million worldwide on a $170 million budget.

It would be another wait, albeit a much shorter one, before we would see anything else from this universe.

Movin on…..down to Television?

Photo Credit: Disney Television Animation/Primo Saktyawan- Medium.com

About two years after Tron: Legacy debuted in theaters, the franchise would return one last time (for now) in the form of an animated television show. Tron: Uprising premiered in 2012 on Disney XD (more on that in a moment).

The show acts as an interquel, taking place in between Tron and Tron: Legacy. Rather than focus on the Flynn family, the show takes place in the Grid, showing the lives and actions of the Programs within. A young program, Beck, leads a double life between being a mechanic and secretly leading a revolution against CLU and his minions as the new Tron, being trained by the original Tron.

Right off the bat, the show has one of the most unique animation styles I’ve ever seen. The design mixes 3D and 2D animation and looks so different than most shows. Buildings and designs look so sharp and refined. Even the outside of the Grid, beyond the main city, looks so desolate and bleak.

In addition, Robert Valley, the character designer for the Gorillaz music videos, designed the characters for the show. They definitely look like they belong in one of Gorillaz’s videos. Their movements are so lanky and wobbly, making for some really interesting fight sequences.

Finally, this show has a STACKED voice cast. Elijah Wood, Bruce Boxleitner (returning as Tron), Mandy Moore, Lance Henriksen, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Reginald VelJohnson, Aaron Paul, Paul Reubens, Olivia Wilde, David Arquette, Lance Reddick….the list goes on and on. Everyone in the voice cast absolutely KILLS it. They all bring such layers and intrigue to these characters.

Sadly, the show was canceled after only one season. This cancellation can be chalked up to two reasons.

Reason 1: The show probably didn’t sell enough toys, and when your animated kids’ show doesn’t sell toys, it doesn’t last very long.

Reason 2: The show premiered exclusively on Disney XD. Disney XD is a cable channel dedicated to more action-oriented and “extreme” shows. The problem is that Disney XD is very, VERY exclusive to certain cable packages. This means that very few people would have been able to find it, which means fewer viewers, which means fewer ratings.

An utter shame because this is a genuinely interesting part of the Tron mythos. It’s cool to see the Programs and their world fully realized, and how the actions of Kevin Flynn and CLU affected them greatly. The animation is top-notch and the writing is pretty great too for a kids’ show. The entire series is streaming right now on Disney+, and I can not recommend it enough.

“I kept dreaming of a world I’d thought I’d never see….”

Photo Credit: Shanghai Disney/Dave Zatz-Zatz Not Funny!

So where do we go from here? All has been fairly quiet up until recently on a return to the Grid.

A Tron Lightcycle themed rollercoaster opened at Shanghai Disney in 2016, with a cloned version coming to Magic Kingdom in Orlando in 2021 (although whether COVID will affect this remains to be seen).

The BIG news however is that Disney HAS started development on an upcoming third installment in the series, entitled Tron: Ares. From what I’m seeing, it’s going to be the true follow-up to Legacy, will NOT be directed by Joseph Kosinski (instead of being directed by Garth Davis, who made Lion), and will star everyone’s favorite cult leader, Jared Leto.

Photo Credit: Krishna Manoj- The Illumenerdi.

Leto will co-produce the film as well. Ares is said to not only feature the return of the cast of Legacy BUT will potentially also be scored once again by Daft Punk.

Not only is new Daft Punk enough to get me into a seat, but the idea of Disney returning to this truly wonderful and unique IP brings a smile to my face. This whole universe is one of Disney’s most underrated franchises, one that deserves way more love than it gets.

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