On July 9, 1982, Disney introduced the sci-fi actioner Tron to theaters, where it grossed $33 million and decades later got a sequel in Tron: Legacy. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
It would be all too easy to describe Disney Studios. Tron another special effects film in a year in which special effects have reached unprecedented heights of sophistication and technical virtuosity. Of course it is, and it probably relies more heavily on computer-generated animation than any other film that has been produced to date. Both the eye and the mind are constantly overwhelmed by a barrage of images that literally defy description. Who could hope to describe the electronically generated transformations that occur at lightning speed in the complex circuitry of a computer? You have to be seen to believe it, and even then you’re not quite sure.
But young Steven Lisberger, who both wrote and directed Tron, never lets the shenanigans lead you to believe that it’s primarily telling a story and that it’s essentially a people film. Of course, his people, who live a few generations from now, are more familiar with computers than we are. In fact, for most of them, their entire life is controlled by a master computer, and the man who controls the master computer controls the world. And the man who hopes to reach that enviable position is David Warner.
Somewhere at the heart of the main computer, however, lies the uncomfortable information that Warner has in fact stolen some key technology from Jeff Bridges, a “user” (someone who knows how to make a computer work). To secure his position of power, Warner plans to eliminate the “users” by miniaturizing them into passengers (or drivers) in the cars, planes, and rocket ships that dissolve in a flash of light in today’s popular arcades. The victims are so tiny it’s almost a victimless crime! Others are taken down in a deadly game that appears to be a cross between handball and jai alai, with just a touch of ancient gladiator shields thrown in to ward off the deadly fireballs used in the competition.
I consider it an act of creative imagination, if not pure genius, that Lisberger could look at our slot machines and envision a time in the future when man would be caught up in his own pleasures. It’s a bit like closer look combined with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – a skilful mix of wonder and adventure. Lisberger also doesn’t spoil his film, which is made for children of all ages, as the saying goes, with nightmarish images. There are car and flying object chases (airplanes would be imprecise; they look more like flying triumphal arches) that set the pulse racing; but even the electronic tortures Warner is developing seem relatively benign. Certainly, the survival rate of its victims is surprisingly high.
All the main characters have dual identities, real world and computer world. Bruce Boxleitner is Tron (or Alan Bradley), a computer whiz whose work is inexplicably blocked by his boss, Warner (Ed Dillinger or Sark). Jeff Bridges is in fine form as the easygoing Flynn (or Clu) content to run an arcade until he is persuaded by Boxleitner to stop Warner’s rogue plans. And Cindy Morgan isn’t in bad shape either as his spunky lab assistant (Lora/Yuri) who once had an affair with Bridges. Barnard Hughes is particularly impressive as an elderly scientist who looks miniaturized like Humpty Dumpty defending the master computer. All of the live performers were shot in black and white, by the way, with the colors of their costumes added later (by computer, of course), giving their faces an oddly appealing, almost mask-like quality.
And Lisberger’s screenplay is peppered with amusing, tongue-in-cheek anachronisms. “They never built a circuit that could hold him up,” notes one “program” admiringly from Tron (Boxleitner), who attempts to escape. With his comedic touch he’s not quite as simple as Lucas or Spielberg, but it’s always nice to find a young filmmaker who doesn’t take himself or his screenplay too seriously.
Still, one keeps coming back to those eye-filling (and ear-filling) special effects, highlighted by the stunning credit list at the end, which includes credits for its Taiwanese animators in Chinese script. It’s a far cry from the old days when everything Disney was based solely on Disney. Even though Tron Produced by Donald Kushner of the Disney organization, much of the work was contracted out to companies such as Magi Synthavision, Information International, Robert Abel and Associates and WallaWorks (sound). Even the music of Wendy Carlos was composed (via synthesizer) and literally invoked in New York.
And yet I look Tron as another key feather in Disney’s (and executive producer Ron Miller’s) chapeau alongside Snow White and Fantasia. Both films ushered animation into a new era, setting new standards of excellence and new frontiers of experimentation. I think it’s great that a studio as staid as Disney allows a new director so much leeway and the generosity that recognizes that new ideas require new techniques, techniques that aren’t necessarily best handled by the “in-house” staff. But the public will see it anyway Tron like a Disney movie, and realize that Disney is once again at the forefront of creative animation. — Arthur Knight originally published July 8, 1982.