From the movie poster.


Original medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Disney
First Appeared: 1982
Creator: Steve Lisberger
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Back in the Paper Age, before the potential of computers to revolutionize practically every area of human commerce was fully realized — assuming, of course, it's fully realized even now — it took a real leap of imagination to look at the primitive graphics of the 1970s computer game Pong and see something that might someday be refined to the point where it it can produce animation good enough for a theatrically-released feature-length film. When animation producer Steve Lisberger …

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… (Animalympics) made that imaginative leap, it provided the flash of inspiration that eventually resulted in Tron, one of the first computer-animated movies ever.

Tron blended live-action with animation, like the later Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or the earlier Song of the South. It's just that the animation was done with radically innnovative techniques, the kind familiar to us today in everything from The Incredibles to Jimmy Neutron. Also, anticipating Reboot, it was partly set in the world made possible with computers. Most of the action took place in what novelist William Gibson dubbed "cyberspace" a couple of years later. There, the heroes and villains, controlling powerful software, battled it out in a way very reminiscent of superheroes.

The conflict that drove the plot involved Kevin Flynn and Ed Dillinger, both programmers for ENCOM, a corporation producing video games, as several companies were starting to do at the time (it was released July 9, 1982). Ed stole Kevin's work and prospered in the corporation by representing it as his own, while Kevin was shunted off to the sidelines. Kevin hacked in for evidence of Ed's wrongdoing, but his online presence was caught and deleted by the Master Control Program.

Another programmer, Alan Bradley was locked out as well, and when Alan complained to Ed that this would put the kibosh on a security program, Tron, that he was working on, Ed learned the Master Control, which had somehow developed free will, had been out to get Tron anyway because it might interfere with MCP's plans. The MCP, now "outed" as trying to accomplish The Brain's goal of taking over the world, fought back as Alan, Kevin and Alan's girlfriend, Lora Baines (who had invented a way of "digitizing" real-world objects to make them available in cyberspace), and mayhem ensued. When the dust settled, Ed was fired, Kevin was running ENCOM, and everybody else lived happily ever after.

Lisberger was unable to secure financing for Tron at first, but got the first few stages done on his own before approaching Disney in 1980. There, much of his original work was discarded, but Disney's animators, who were well set in their ways by then (that was the era of The Great Mouse Detective, The Fox & the Hound and other lackluster films) accepted him about as enthusiastically as the old Terrytoons crew had welcomed Gene Deitch, the UPA-trained hotshot who had taken over the studio when founder Paul Terry sold out in 1953. Lisberger and his crew felt like outsiders, and that movie wound up the only thing both studios worked on together.

Kevin was played by Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane in Iron Man), Alan by Bruce Boxleitner (whose few toon connections include a minor part in Tales from the Crypt on TV), Ed by David Warner (Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Beyond) and Lora by Cindy Morgan (who lacks other toon connections). All did the voices of their cyberspace counterparts, including Boxleitner as the hero, Tron himself.

Tron wasn't a licensing bonanza for Disney, except, like computer animation itself, for future generations. There were a couple of video games by Bally Midway, a comic book adaptation in Sweden by Hemmets Journal AB (which also reprinted Asterix in that country), and not much else. But decades later, it was a different story. Slave Labor Graphics (Dr. Radium) did a 6-issue comic book containing new stories continuing the scenario in 2006, then continued it again with the oneshot Tron: Ghost in the Machine in '09. In 2010, Disney released Tron: Legacy, an updated version, with mostly the same actors.

The movie didn't make a big splash at the time, at least in terms of mass audience acceptance. But the techniques it pioneered will be a part of the animation industry for a long time to come.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Walt Disney Company.