Tron’s Legacy

December 30, 2010
By | 7 Comments

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.


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7 Responses to “ Tron’s Legacy ”

  1. Eleanor Seitz on January 1, 2011 at 1:54 PM

    Thanks for a fascinating post! Disney’s CGI strategy still takes advantage of the family image that Disney has constructed for itself, largely a result of its cell animation “legacy.” I haven’t studied Disney at all, but it is my impression that this new strategy conjures up the contrast between cell animation and CGI. Though hand drawn Disney films might be dead, their absence is pointed to symbolically by the newness of shiny Pixar movies and other CGI films,like Tron. Is it me, or is Tron’s B.O. disappointment reminiscent of Speed Racer’s underwhelming take? Is this an example of the limits of franchise branding? Or a testament to the fact that it takes more than eye-candy hype to entice and audience?

    • Myles McNutt on January 2, 2011 at 12:57 PM

      Frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to call Tron’s take a disappointment. As Robert points out, it actually makes a lot of sense: while there were unrealistic expectations that Legacy would become “this year’s Avatar” thanks to the elements of 3D/IMAX spectacle, this is a sequel to a long-dormant property which wasn’t that beloved to begin with. I’d also add that the film is in a genre which requires star power or brand recognition to really land – science fiction can be a huge draw, but it usually requires something on the level of Star Trek, or a star on the level of DiCaprio (or a director on the level of Nolan) to sell it to audiences.

      Tron’s $130 Million and counting total (thanks to the expected holds over the Christmas-New Year’s period) will likely combine with international grosses and DVD sales to make the film profitable, which is a far cry from Speed Racer’s sub-$100 Million worldwide numbers. This is not some sort of enormous failure, at least not by the standards of other holiday fare like Gulliver’s Travels or How Do You Know. Instead, it’s a solid hit, which is almost worse when dealing with a studio in transition.

      • Eleanor Seitz on January 2, 2011 at 1:15 PM

        Perhaps not a total disappointment, but certainly not the numbers Disney was hoping for, especially, as Rob points out, box office sales dropped 56% in the second week. I certainly do not think the situation is exactly the same as Speed Racer, but I guess I felt there are similarities, such as dormant franchises being re-imagined, lotsa hype, and heavy CGI. And though not sci-fi, Speed Racer did have an A-list director, or diectors I shoukd say – the Wachowshi bros. But you make excellent points Myles. And since I was one of the dupes who paid to see How Do You Know (excruciatingly bad) I take extra pleasure in knowing that it and Gulliver’s Travels aren’t doing well. I won’t be seeing GT, but I do find the premise completely offensive on principal.

        • Myles McNutt on January 2, 2011 at 3:51 PM

          I certainly think there are similarities, the very ones you aptly identify, but I think that they haven’t played out at the box office. Most of this has to do with oddities of the Christmas period – Tron dropped 56% in its second weekend because Christmas Eve/Christmas Day (not big movie-going days) fell on Saturday/Sunday, and it held fairly well on the weekdays and dropped only 2% in its third weekend. And yes, I spend too much time on Box Office Mojo.

          As for the Wachowskis (who we can only call Bros. when speaking in the past tense these days), I think I’d challenge their “A-List” status at the time of the film’s release – the Matrix sequels had by that point tainted their image considerably, so while they were still positioned as a draw (unlike Kosinski, who has been a non-entity in all branding efforts) they didn’t actually operate as one.

  2. Robert Brookey on January 2, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    Like Mike, I spend way too much time on Box Office Mojo, and I have to agree that Tron: Legacy is not the bomb Speed Racer proved to be. But we need to keep in mind that gross box office receipts do not translate into studio revenue (exhibitors take a cut), and the reported production budget doesn’t include the marketing costs. So it may be a bit early to declare Tron: Legacy a solid hit. In any event, I agree the film will probably make a profit once the international box office, home video market and ancillary revenues are all counted. Yet I’m also in agreement with the Dixon Gaines over at Movieline: “It’s tough to consider a movie that’s made $130 million a bomb, but I’m sure Disney was expecting much, much higher grosses from this movie (The Karate Kid will probably make more!).” I think both Tron: Legacy and Speed Racer represent different degrees of the same kind of failure. Both were targeted to a core fan base with the expectation that they would connect with audiences outside of that core. Speed Race failed to do this, and Tron: Legacy has been, well, disappointing.

    • Myles McNutt on January 2, 2011 at 10:43 PM

      I think there’s no question that Tron: Legacy qualifies as a disappointment (versus the failure of Speed Racer), but I think Disney has some breathing room with Tangled performing admirably and Toy Story 3/Alice in Wonderland each joining the $1 Billion club in the same year. While there might be some internal discussions on why the film failed to ignite, discussions I’d be very interested in seeing from the perspective of a fly on the wall, I’m guessing shareholders will be satisfied with a slight profit considering the year Disney had overall.

  3. Ted on January 10, 2011 at 12:08 AM

    I have to point out at least one fallacy in the article. Princess and the Frog is NOT Disney’s last hand drawn animated movie. Winnie the Pooh (which is hand drawn) is in production and scheduled for a 2011 release.
    John Lasseter (the same Pixar guy) LOVES hand drawn animation and is the head of Disney Animation (another fallacy in the article, he runs Disney AND Pixar). He has stated that it is up to the director of the animated film to decide if they want to do CGI or hand drawn. Although a failure of Winnie the Pooh might change that.