After an extensive pre-release campaign, and whole lot of hype, Tron: Legacy opened to a rather disappointing weekend, only generating $44 million at the box office. Its second weekend compounded the disappointment, given that its box office draw dropped 56%. Actually these numbers might have been anticipated, given that the original Tron movie wasn’t a great success, either commercially or critically. Indeed, the mediocre performance of the first film explains why it took Disney about 30 years to release a sequel. Tron, however, had maintained a loyal core fan base over the years, and as Todd McCarthy notes, “Kids who caught the original at 12 when it came out are 40 now and may recall it through a fog of uncritical nostalgia.”
Disney was not only banking on the foggy nostalgia of this group, but also the real possibility that these folks now have kids of their own. Disney’s marketing strategy was quite clear: get these former kids to pass on their love of Tron to their own kids, and thereby revive the franchise with a new audience. This strategy is implied in the title of the sequel, and Tron: Legacy is a sequel in every respect, with a narrative that extends from the original film, and Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner returning to reproduce their roles as Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley respectively. Legacy’s central character, however, is Flynn’s abandoned son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), and the film focuses on the renewed relationship between father and son, a narrative that certainly complements Disney’s marketing strategy.
Tron was one of the first films to use CGI animation, and although the quality of the animation is significantly better in Legacy, certain design elements remain. The light cycles from the original movie return, but now move in three dimensions, to best exploit the 3D release no doubt. The costumes and the sets in Legacy are decidedly darker, but they are all still outlined with lighted elements. In fact, almost everything in the film is wrapped in a neon glow, including the Disney logo in the opening credits.
Of course, redoing the studio logo in the design aesthetic of the film is not an uncommon practice, but it struck me as a visual metaphor of how CGI has overtaken, and some might argue corrupted, Disney’s cultural production. I have always associated the decline of Disney’s cell animation production with Toy Story, their first collaboration with Pixar. That is an easy association to make, given the success of Pixar’s films and the fact that Disney’s own CGI films have not come close to the commercial and critical success enjoyed by Pixar. Although Disney bought out Pixar in 2006, Pixar maintains its autonomy to develop its own projects independently, and Disney merely handles distribution and marketing.
It’s also difficult to chronologically associate the decline of cell animation with Tron, given that Disney’s most successfully animated features, including Lion King and Aladdin, were released well after the film. Yet Disney, not Pixar, first introduced CGI to film-going audiences with Tron, so may be a more accurate point at which to locate the beginning of the end for Disney’s cell animation.
After the disastrous Home on the Range in 2004, Disney shut down all of its cell animation studios. In November 2010, the LA Times reported that Disney’s last cell animation feature, The Princess and the Frog, would indeed be its last cell animation feature. In other words, the real legacy of Tron may be the death of the one cultural form that once elevated Disney to a Magical Kingdom: there may never be another Snow White, another Bambi, or even another Lion King. Admittedly, there are plenty of reasons to question the “magic” of Disney, but they appear to have traded in their tradition in animation for a $44 million opening weekend. That’s some legacy.