''Toy Story'' and ''Tron'' -- Disney's latest animation soared, while its first foray into computer graphics flopped

By Ty Burr
Updated November 01, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

”Toy Story” and ”Tron”

It’s a heavily publicized Disney film that stands as a benchmark in computer animation. It concerns the relationship between an easygoing fella and his straight-arrow rival as they vie for glory and the attentions of a tangential female character. It takes place in a shiny, eye-popping never-never land. You think I’m talking about Toy Story? Well, okay, I am — but all of the above could just as easily apply to Tron, a movie that was so hyped 14 years ago that it was discussed in a Time cover story — and now languishes forgotten and unrented on video stores’ shelves.

Why the huge difference in their fates? How did Toy Story succeed while Tron went up in bigger flames than a 1995 Apple laptop? Certainly, after a decade and a half of cinematic miracle making, moviegoers are more savvy about how computers affect what we see on screen. But it’s not only audiences who are smarter. So are moviemakers.

Disney sank $21 million into Tron — a hefty chunk for 1982 — so it’s amazing that apparently no one bothered to ask whether audiences really wanted to see a story set inside a computer’s central processing unit. Actually, as written and directed by former animator Steven Lisberger, Tron begins in the real world, with flaky programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) taking on the corporation run by Dillinger (David Warner), who has stolen Flynn’s lucrative videogame ideas and who is ever more dependent upon an Orwellian computer system named Master Control Program (MCP). Seeking revenge, Flynn hooks up with his scientist ex-girlfriend (Cindy Morgan) and her new beau, button-down geek Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) — both of whom work for Dillinger — but in the process (and please don’t ask how) Flynn himself gets downloaded into MCP to do battle with the soul of this new machine.

What got the media all hot and bothered — and what Disney was banking on — was the 53 minutes of computer animation that surreally unfolds once Flynn is sucked into MCP’s innards. Basically, Tron is a metaphor for what goes on inside your computer, with characters cast as programs (Boxleitner, Morgan, and Warner all pop up, Wizard of Oz-style, as byte-size versions of their real-world counterparts). But while such action set pieces as a race on zippy ”lightcycles” pack the adrenaline rush of a good videogame, too much of the design is geometrically sterile — these polygons aren’t wearing any clothes. And the less said about dialogue like ”They haven’t built a circuit that could hold you,” the better.

Tron can’t help but look quaintly dated now, and it doesn’t help that the videocassette of the movie has muffled sound and murky image quality; seek out the remastered laserdisc if you want to be appropriately dazzled. But while Toy Story‘s animation may look nearly as dated in a decade or two, its story should hold up just fine. Disney, in collaboration with director John Lasseter and special-effects house Pixar, has stuck to what it clearly knows best and has made a kiddie movie — one with enough wit and resonance to keep grown-ups hooked as well.

Like Tron, Toy Story takes place in an alternate universe: a little boy’s bedroom. Here, though, the images are Day-Glo bright and alive with texture — they seem to ”pop” even more when seen on a small TV screen — and the characters full of vinegary individuality. The main action follows the rivalry between the boy’s once-beloved toy sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and new fave Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), but much of the pleasure lies on the sidelines — in the fractious community of other toys like Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and, above all, in the bedroom of the evil kid next door, where he recombines toys into nightmares redolent of PlaySkool Hieronymus Bosch. Toy Story, like Tron, is all about surfaces. It makes no bones about its shallowness, however. It’s a movie about playthings that is itself in love with play.

Best of all, Toy Story offers an object lesson that the entire heavy-breathing multimedia industry desperately needs to learn. As any medium evolves, it gradually hides its mechanisms behind narrative, like gears behind a theatrical scrim. Computer animation, simply, works best for most of us when we’re not aware of it — when the characters and events are so captivating as to render the technology invisible. Tron owes a lot to The Wizard of Oz, but in vain. Toy Story proves that it’s smarter to pay no attention to that Mac behind the curtain. Toy Story: A- Tron: C+

Toy Story

  • Movie
  • G
  • 81 minutes
  • John Lasseter