Friday, April 8, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Tron's Blu-Ray Release

Tron: Legacy (2010) made its home video debut on blu-ray and DVD this week. Perhaps more notably, Disney also finally re-released the original Tron (1982) as well. They had earlier passed over the opportunity to re-release it in anticipation of the sequel’s otherwise much-hyped theatrical debut in IMAX and 3D last December. At the time, this led to understandable speculation that Disney was afraid of its own intellectual property. Of course, on the other hand, Disney is notorious for locking up its older titles into the proverbial “Disney Vault,” restricting them to very limited release windows, and ensuring their demand across decades and generations. This is a business model they’ve exploited as far back as WWII, after stumbling upon it out of economic desperation. As recently as two months ago, a second-hand copy of Tron’s first, since discontinued, DVD release (2002) was going for over $100 on Amazon.

Yet this makes Disney’s initial decision all the more curious; it lent further evidence to the idea that the company didn’t want people to actually see the original, for fear it would dampen, rather than heighten, interest in its sequel. While certainly a true cult classic, the original Tron did not connect with most moviegoers in 1982 and certainly has not aesthetically aged well since then, by any standard outside of nostalgia. The fact remains that Tron is one of the most important films ever made in the history of Computer-Generated Imagery, a milestone its knock-off sequel doesn’t come close to matching. Yet that, by itself, doesn’t equal blockbuster franchise material any more than Kubrick’s visually stunning but narratively-incidental 2001 would. This then prompted the even bigger question: why had Disney invested more than $200 million on a potential franchise that was built on the backs of a brand it seemed transparently ashamed of?

I am unabashedly a fan of the original Tron, but that comes with two important caveats. For one, I’m not exactly sure why. I find something truly sublime about the look and feel of the original. If I had to be more specific, I would probably focus on the film’s unintended evocation now of nostalgia for an earlier period—the dawn of digital imagery and the emergence of public arcade gaming, an era that came and went somewhere between the two Tron films. To wit, my favorite scene in the whole sequel has nothing to do with 3D or CGI—it’s the moment where Sam explores the eerily cavernous spaces of his father’s now-abandoned arcade. I think I also find the clean, cool surfaces of the Grid oddly reassuring in its simplicity, rather than alienating as many do.

There is another reservation to my Tron fandom. Even I was sitting in the IMAX theatre last winter and constantly asking myself, “Who was this movie made for?” Tron has a true base of followers, but not enough to justify such a lavish spectacle and considerable investment. Meanwhile, the story’s representation of computer technology was even more na├»ve and anachronistic than it had been three decades earlier. In every conceivable way, the new Tron surely felt completely nonsensical to anyone without familiarity to the original, which was in itself hardly a paragon of narrative and thematic logic to begin with. Tron: Legacy definitely made money, but relative to its costs and labor involved it probably did not fare much better than the original. Instead, the movie seemed to be another one of those properties that no one really loves, but which nonetheless coasts to decent numbers on the backs of massive hype, a popular soundtrack, and inflated ticket prices. And now that it’s available on home video formats, the most excited people seem to be Best Buy employees anxious for new material that’ll help move the latest High Definition televisions.

Nevertheless, the franchise seems to be moving forward all the same. In a way, Disney seems to be constructing a transmedia franchise in search of an audience. Marvel Comics released Tron: Betrayal in the fall of last year, the latest in several attempts to continue the narrative from the original. A new animated series is headed to the Disney XD cable channel next year. The property continues to lend itself to videogames on home gaming platforms, and rumors persist that a third film is in the works. Indeed, narratively, Tron: Legacy seemed more interested in the future of the franchise than the past.

But this still doesn’t answer the question: why? Why Tron? Why now? Disney’s attempt to build on the technological and theatrical success of James Cameron’s Avatar is one obvious enough reason (and that, ironically, makes it similar to the original’s attempt to tap into the explosion of interest in science fiction after Star Wars). Yet the new marketplace demand for IMAX and/or 3D films still doesn’t explain why Tron was chosen of all possibilities. The answer to this question, I feel, lies in Disney’s larger corporate history of repurposing, recirculation and cross-promotion.

By the end of the 2000s, Disney was moving away from its traditional interest in the Princess narrative, which had been there since almost the beginning (Snow White, Cinderella), but which really didn’t come to dominate the company until the Eisner era ushered in Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and so forth. Now, in retrospect, it’s impossible to see Disney without it. But this unquestionable stroke of business genius/luck came at a cost—all but the most die-hard of audiences have gradually tired of the same formula. The “Princess” imagery is more effective at selling merchandise than movie tickets. Another problem lays in the fact that this aspect of Disney had essentially alienated half the population—namely, adolescent and teenage boys, who were as lucrative a market as the next. Hence, it was not a coincidence, as others have noted, that Disney’s Tangled (2010) emphasized the male’s perspective, particularly in the promotion, about as much as film based on Rapunzel could.

This brings us back to Tron. In the entire history of the Disney company, very few remotely recognizable properties in the Vault could be realistically considered more favorable to the male demographic than Tron. This is especially true when you take Pixar’s recent innovations out of the equation, a brand that’s been as much in tension, as in collaboration, with Disney’s for the last two decades. The others, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Black Hole, are appropriately slated for remakes. This is significant because reusing existing theatrical properties is key to Disney’s success, and has been since Disneyland in the 1950s. It’s not that Disney couldn’t come up with new properties to attract boys, but the appeal of using Tron is that it could also triangulate the nostalgia of the father, just as princess films triangulate the nostalgia of the mother. Will it work? Who knows.

But Tron: Legacy, in retrospect, is really as much a traditional Disney film as something more self-evident, such as the fairy tale Tangled. Moreover, it’s better suited to Disney’s style than the (truly groundbreaking) original was. Since the “glory” days of Walt, nearly every one of their successful theatrical films has depended on 1) the shameless nostalgia of a pre-existing fan base (Tron fans from the 1980s); 2) the prominent exploitation of technological innovation (Disney 3D); 3) the presence of hit music which can thrive with, or without, the movie itself (the Daft Punk score); 4) the benefit and familiarity of transmedia ubiquity (videogames, comic books, TV shows); and 5) the white noise of endless cross-promotion. In this regard, Tron’s return—narrative incoherence and all—makes perfect sense. And while the new film may have few fans over the age of 18, we may wish to wait a generation or two before deciding whether Disney made the right choice to bring Flynn and Co. back out of the Vault.