Home > Reviews > TRON vs. TRON: LEGACY (also TANGLED)


I waited to see Tron: Legacy until I could see the original Tron again, so I could see the whole story straight through.  Easier said than done, since for some reason Disney didn’t want the original film available on DVD until after the sequel came out, but I was able to reserve a copy from the library and it finally reached me last week.  I’ve just gotten back from seeing the sequel, and I’m able to compare the two now.

1982’s Tron, written and directed by Steven Lisberger, was quite innovative for its day.  It was the first film to make heavy use of computer graphics, but its technical innovations went beyond that.  This was a time when computer animation was very basic and clean — there was essentially no chance of replicating reality, but the uncanny smoothness and purity of CG imagery was a striking novelty then.  The goal of Tron was to make a whole film that embraced that artificial aesthetic, to make even the live-action characters look like constructs painted in lines of light.  But contrary to what many people assume about the film, they didn’t have computer technology to let them achieve that.  The animation of vehicles and many of the landscapes was CGI, but all the shots featuring live actors, and a lot of the scenery of the computer world itself, were hand-animated using standard optical techniques and backlit animation cels.  The actors were filmed in black and white and each frame was blown up onto cels, with photographic and hand-rotoscoped mattes being used to isolate the lines on their costumes so that a backlit glow could be composited into them.  They were then matted into hand-painted backgrounds which were backlit in similar ways or used airbrushing to create the appearance of a glow.

The film that resulted was an ambitious technical marvel, but perhaps a bit too far ahead of its time, for the results were somewhat flawed-looking, the actors’ images too degraded and flickery due to the photographic blowups and multiple exposures.  And the backlit mattes aren’t as successful as they could’ve been at making the characters appear to be formed out of light, as was the intent.  It’s one of the most visually unique films ever made, but the execution doesn’t always live up to the ambition.  Still, a lot of it is highly impressive, especially in the way it’s able to make hand animation look like a continuation of the CG imagery.

As for the story, it’s rather basic, but it’s just a frame to hang the visuals on.  Edward Dillinger (David Warner) and his Master Control Program (voice of Warner — the programs carry the “spirit” of their creators  — the “Users” — and are thus played by the same actors) run the company Encom, or rather the MCP runs Dillinger and the company and is about to hack into the Pentagon and Kremlin and basically take over the world.  It and Dillinger are trying to cover up their nefarious activities by cutting off access from the individual programmers, including Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan), who seek help from Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an ex-employee who’s the real creator of the smash computer games that made Dillinger rich.  When Flynn tries to hack the system, the MCP uses a convenient experimental laser teleporter to beam him into the game grid so he can be killed off by the MCP’s lackey Sark (a third Warner role).  But he escapes with help from Alan’s program Tron and it’s a pretty basic chase narrative until Tron makes contact with Alan and gets a sort of debugging program downloaded onto his identity disc, which is also a frisbee, because this was 1982 and it didn’t yet seem totally hokey for a frisbee to be a cyber-warrior’s superweapon.  It’s kind of a weird story structure, since Flynn’s the main character but Tron is the hero.  But then, the sharing of the heroic role is fitting, since the underlying symbolism is about the struggle between the centralized control of information/technology and a more egalitarian approach where the programmers and individuals have the power.  It’s kind of prophetic, because the decentralized approach won out in reality too.

Tron: Legacy centers on Flynn’s son Sam and his quest to find his long-lost father within the Grid, a new universe that Flynn created as an extension of the original virtual world, though it evolved in isolation from the Internet revolution.  So the story doesn’t have the same kind of allegorical underpinning that the original did.  At the start of the film, it looks like there’s going to be a thread about Sam fighting for free, open-source access to information against the nefarious corporate types who cling to their proprietary software and demand lotsa bucks for its use.  That could’ve been an interesting modernization of the original theme, a more corporate variation of the theme of central control vs. individual power.  But it has no bearing on the story once Sam gets sucked into the Grid.  It also doesn’t work as a continuation of the original film.  Sam is apparently championing free access to proprietary software because it’s what his father would’ve wanted, but Flynn’s motivation in the original film was precisely the opposite: He wanted to reclaim ownership of the software that another had taken from him, and when he succeeded, his reward was immense wealth and control of the entire company.  The Kevin Flynn of 1982 was nothing if not a solidly capitalist, profit-seeking figure.

Here, Flynn doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular; he’s just the lost father figure that Sam must find and be reunited with.  He created this new, isolated Grid and made a program called Clu — namesake and sort-of lookalike for the original Clu (also Bridges)  who appeared briefly in the original film but was tortured to death (or derezzing) by Sark.  He told Clu to make this digital world perfect, which naturally led him to become a genocidal dictator when emergent AI sentiences began arising spontaneously and he saw them as imperfections to be destroyed.  Clu’s ambition is to capture Flynn and use the special codes on his identity disk (the new model which resembles Xena’s chakram more than a frisbee) to materialize himself and his army in the real world so he can take it over.  This is a plan oddly lacking in vision compared to the MCP’s ambitions.  Why would a computer entity want to take over the world by physically materializing an army?  In today’s wired world, it would make more sense to try to get an Internet connection and conquer by hacking as the MCP did.  So even though Clu’s master plan gets a lot more screen time than the MCP’s did (since its plan for global conquest was essentially an afterthought in the film, a threat that the protagonists never even knew existed), it feels rather more petty.

There are also some credibility and continuity issues raised by the film’s implication that the laser system for crossing between worlds can allow whole virtual armies to be brought to life.  In the original film, Barnard Hughes’s scientist character explained that the laser worked much like a Star Trek transporter: it disassembled a person’s molecules, suspended them in the beam, then later reassembled them following the originally scanned pattern.  Going by that, it seems that there’d be a one-to-one ratio of entries to exits; if only one person came in, there wouldn’t be enough particles suspended in the beam to reassemble more than one person.

Of course, the essence of Tron isn’t the story, it’s the design and technical achievement.  How does this film work as a visual/stylistic continuation of the original?  I have to say, not that well.  The original film embraced the aesthetic of the digital, the unreal, and used it to create a striking, colorful, heightened and distilled reality, even trying to make the live-action characters look computer-generated.  It was an animated film in its sensibilities and execution, even though it contained live actors.   In the features on the DVD, one of the creators of the original suggests that we’ve lost something since then by striving to make computer animation ever more realistic, and thus perhaps failing to make the most of the unique aesthetic it makes possible.  Tron: Legacy illustrates that paradigm shift, the effort to make virtual imagery look realistic, as opposed to the original film’s effort to make real imagery look virtual.  TL’s Grid is a heightened, stylized reality, but it comes off more as a physical world than an ethereal realm of light like the original.  Indeed, much of it is shot on real sets designed to look vaguely Tronnish, as opposed to the original, in which every location in the computer world was a (hand-animated) virtual set.

The most prominent illustration of the modern paradigm of making CGI look real is the much-touted digital recreation of the younger Jeff Bridges’ face as Clu (and in flashbacks).  Many have complained about how it falls short of perfectly replicating reality, how artificial its mouth movements look, and I could see that some of the time.  But really, that’s the one part of it that looked to me like I felt a Tron movie should look.  If all the characters and settings in the Grid had been CGI creations, I think that would’ve been more faithful to the sensibility and intent of the original.  Although it certainly wouldn’t have stood out today as much as the original did.

It’s also very dark and drab compared to the original.  The designers made the mistake of basing the whole world’s look on the monochrome lighting of the characters in the original film — blue for good guys, red for bad guys — instead of the richly colorful look of their environment.  While the Sea of Simulations in the original film was visually lush and complicated with lots of  weird stuff going on in the background, here it’s just a vague, dark mountainous terrain.  And rather than being made from light, the characters are merely highlighted by far more minimalist “circuit” patterns.  Rather than feeling like an evolution or upgrade of the original aesthetic, it feels like a radically different aesthetic with only some minor homages to the original.  It’s far less interesting to look at than the original film was, even though it’s far more technologically sophisticated.

(Also, I’m upset that apparently Syd Mead didn’t get a design credit even though his original lightcycle design appeared in the film, and many of the vehicles were updated from his original designs.  No credit either for Moebius, the film’s other chief designer.  Yet the original film’s sound designer Frank Serafine did get a credit here, presumably for the reuse of some of his sound effects.)

Overall, it’s not a bad film.  It’s not brilliant, but the story is moderately entertaining, with some decent bits, mainly involving Jeff Bridges.   But it might be a more enjoyable film if you don’t watch the original first, or if you haven’t seen the original at all.  If you have expectations based on the original Tron, the sequel will probably fall short.

My first attempt to see Tron: Legacy was yesterday, but the sound system blew a circuit breaker so they cancelled the showing and gave the folks in the theater (all three of us) the chance to pick another movie then and there and a free pass for a second movie later.  I used the latter to see T:L today, but for the former, I decided to see Tangled, Disney’s CGI version of the Rapunzel fairy tale.  I’m not normally a fan of Disney’s fairy-tale/musical/princess movies, but from what I saw in the commercials, this Rapunzel was a gorgeously designed and animated character, and I really wanted to see her in action.  She’s the work of Glen Keane, whose character design and animation work I’ve been impressed by in the past (he also did Disney’s Pocahontas character, who was by far the most appealing thing about that movie).  This is the first time I’ve seen one of his animated ladies in 3D, and the results are indeed spectacular.

I was also interested because I knew the film had a lot of John Lassetter’s influence, and I figured that Pixar sensibility would make for a strong story.  And I was right.  This is a very good film, very funny and well-made.  It follows a pretty standard Disney formula in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t feel hokey or cliched because it’s just too lively and fun and fresh.  The character designs are terrific, the character animation is richly nuanced, the overall visual design is lush and painterly, the voice work is good, even the songs were nice.  And they came up with an effective justification for why Rapunzel’s hair grew so long, and made it a key driving force in the story (which built to a rather shocking climactic moment that I did not see coming).

Though am I the only one whose favorite “sidekick” was not the chameleon or the horse, but Rapunzel’s trusty frying pan?  I loved the frying pan.  It was virtually a character in its own right.  I was upset when it fell into the river and relieved when Flynn (hunh, another Flynn) managed to retrieve it.

Mainly, though, I loved Rapunzel.  Great character, well-played, gorgeously, gorgeously animated.  There were moments when I felt her eyes were a little too big, her features a little too infantile, but there was just so much life and expression and personality to her… fantastic work.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,
  1. Tim
    January 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    I appreciated your thoughtful comments about Tron. I revere the original and was stoked for the sequel, and while disappointed, was still pleasantly surprised. We took our kids after seeing the original a few times at home. They enjoyed it, which isn’t surprising since it included major action sequences and a girl heroine (we’ve got two very saavy girls at our house). I managed to miss out on Tangled, though based on your commentary, I should probably give in when the kids implore me to take them for a reprise.

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