Hard to believe there was a point in the 21st century when you could say Disney wasn’t completely risk-averse or desperate enough for something to connect that they’d take a shot on giving a person or team enough creative slack to impose a hefty amount of character and vision onto a film. Well, it’s been such a long time since both the Marvel and Lucasfilm Ltd. buyouts of the 2010s that you’d be forgiven for forgetting when Disney didn’t have over a quarter of domestic box office shares at cinemas and could rest on their laurels (and giant mountains of cash) and churn out whatever their market research and algorithms would guarantee a hit amongst the general public.
No, in the ’00s and pre-Avengers 2010s, Disney wasn’t on the most solid footing zeitgeist- and box office-wise. They weren’t struggling per se. They had massive hits with their Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and had steady earning and critical acclaim with their acquisition of Pixar, not to mention mid-level hits amongst a younger, more female-focused crowd with things like Confessions of a Shopaholic, Hannah Montana: The Movie and Tangled. Disney was more in want of films that would net them that all-powerful “white male. 18 to 35” demographic that was (and largely still is) the lifeblood of blockbuster box office. The buyouts of Lucasfilm Ltd., Marvel, and later Fox would solve this problem for them for the foreseeable future. Why breed your own hype and golden goose when you can just buy it?
Yet, in the late ’00s and early ’10s, Disney was open to taking properties they owned or were ubiquitous enough and giving the reins over to people who had pop-y, unique but distinctly commercial visions for what was supposed to be developments of franchises, like the ill-advised and whitewashed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time adaptation of the video game of the same name and the ill-fated John Carter, which was set up to be a Harry Potter-meets-Star Wars-meets-Gladiator-style hit. In addition to Prince of Persia, Disney went back to the Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski well with the even more ill-advised (albeit with one glaring train-shaped merit to its name) The Lone Ranger in hopes of rekindling that Pirates of the Caribbean madness and magic. With the exception of John Carter, which is a solid picture in my opinion, these would all prove to be duds, not only financially but artistically as well. These movies faded from memory pretty much as soon as The Avengers and The Force Awakens took centerstage. However, in 2010 there was another property revival that has stood the test of time in the memories of those who took a ride to their nearest IMAX in 3D and let the sound and spectacle wash over them.
The development history of TRON: Legacy is a lengthy article unto itself but the short version is that plans for a sequel to the 1982 cult hit TRON had been floating around the entertainment business ether as early as 1999, but Disney wouldn’t start any serious development until around 2005 when they brought on visual artist and designer Joseph Kosinski to helm the project, which is wild when you consider that this nearly $200 million project would be his first feature film. Kosinski’s bonafides were his work on notable commercials for Microsoft video game franchises Gears of War and Halo 3. In 2007, he would court the legendary French house DJ duo Daft Punk to score the film, a courtship that would last over a year before they would eventually say yes. Furthermore, Disney took a risk on letting Kosinski (and music supervisor Jason Bentley) persuade them into letting the two robots score the film more traditionally with an 85-piece orchestra (instead of their usual tools of synths and sequencers) without the help of a more established composer like Hanz Zimmer or Harry Gregson Williams (both of whom were asked) to help them navigate the new territory.
Besides the unusual pedigree involved, there was of course updating the look of 1982 TRON’s iconic “The Grid” in ways that would compel an audience with not only a different relationship to technology in the nearly 30 years since the original film but who were also now accustomed to the muted, sharp images brought to light by 1999’s The Matrix that were solidified and codified by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. TRON: Legacy’s biggest hurdle was finding the right balance of fresh and exciting sound, aesthetics, world-building and just enough nostalgia to satiate an audience looking for life in a digital world 10 years into the 21st century. The advantage TRON: Legacy had going for it in this regard is that the original movie’s premise isn’t exceedingly complex. A software developer and computer programmer being sucked into a digital world and having to participate in what is essentially gladiatorial combat isn’t exactly the most lore-dense tapestry to keep sacred, so Kosinski and Co. ran with the iconography of people doing battle in “The Grid” but also expanded the world (computer programs evolving into something else!) and shaped it into something a little cleaner and little darker, i.e. “The Grid” looks like what you imagine living inside an iPhone in the 2010s would look like.
While I’ve skipped over the thematics and actual text of the film, cinema is a complex creature. Yes, a good story and well-realized characters are what make us remember a movie and make return viewings more rewarding. However, it’s a visual and sonic medium as well. Watching something that immerses you into a world with a little razzle dazzle and a wall of sound is just as invaluable to how entertained and moved you are by a picture. It’s a purely visceral experience, one I think TRON: Legacy does a great job giving its audience.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.