There’s a peculiar history to the world of Tron. The original film, released in 1982, is an enjoyable, nostalgic romp featuring technology that isn’t only outdated, but also rather nonsensical. Regardless, it’s tale of a programmer whisked away into a digital universe of his own creation who must battle alongside the heroic Tron to take down the villainous Master Control Program was an engaging, entertaining one.
Yet oddly, things didn’t end there. There were a series of unfortunate and forgettable video games, and then in 2010, director Joseph Kosinski made Tron: Legacy. Despite bringing back the wonderful Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, and adding notables such as Michael Sheen, Olivia Wilde, and the musical stylings of Daft Punk, the film was a miserable affair. Beautifully rendered with a unique visual flair, it was ultimately as empty and soulless as its antagonists (and not aided by a bland, uninteresting lead in Garrett Hedlund). Despite all of that, it still managed to make an impressive $400 million.
And so inevitably, the world of Tron is being resurrected again, now with the animated television series “Tron: Uprising,” which debuts next month on the Disney XD cable network. Taking place between the original film and the events of the 2010 sequel, it features a new protagonist named Beck, who is yet another underdog taking on the massive, oppressive computer overlord Clu and his army of fiery colored shock troops. To whet your appetites, the pilot episode, “Beck’s Beginning,” is now available online (and embedded at the end of this review).
The series will be directed by Kosinski as well as Sean Bailey and Charlie Bean, and boasts an impressive cast — Elijah Wood plays Beck, a program whose homeland is being subjugated by Clu (Fred Tatasciore), as represented by the nefarious General Tesler (Lance Henrikson). Beck seeks to take up the mantle of Tron to try to inspire the populace and incite a rebellion, and along the way, he encounters the original Tron (Boxleitner, reprising the role). Other actors include Mandy Moore and Nate Corddry as his friends Mara and Zed, and Emmanuelle Chriqui as Paige, General Tesler’s chief program hunter/killer.
And you know what? The pilot is damn good. It’s far superior to the garish sequel, and while the characters are somewhat stock and obvious, let’s remember that this is an animated Disney series. But it’s still smart and entertaining. It’s helped by an absolutely stunning visual palette, and of course the advantage of using animation to recreate this unusual universe is that now all budgetary constraints are removed, and literally anything can be made a part of the Tron world. The show’s creations include the staple lightscycles and bizarre, horseshoe-shaped flying battleships, but also whole new ideas and vehicles, each cleverly designed and sharply rendered. Tron: Legacy was very pretty, yet still felt somewhat sterile and cold. On the other hand, “Uprising” brings a needed sense of warmth and intimacy to its digital world, something that makes the characters more likable and the settings more interesting. The stark contrasts remain, but there’s a new life to the set design, and the world seems sleeker with a greater sense of detail.
Even more importantly, the cast seems to work (at least based on this first 30 minutes). Wood is an enjoyable protagonist, full of self-doubt coupled with youthful bluster and naivete. Henrikson could probably play Tesler in his sleep, but his voice work thankfully doesn’t mail it in, and instead gives the character a real sense of thoughtful menace, just as Boxleitner imbues Tron with a weary nobility. Most impressive was Emmanuelle Chriqui as Paige. The character’s arc is already being somewhat telegraphed as she begins to doubt her masters, but she brings a cocky, self-assured strut to the series, made more fun by the way she casually kicks Beck’s ass up and down the digital streets.
It’s not a lot to go on, but “Tron: Uprising” is has the makings of becoming the strongest entry in this oddball franchise since its inception. It’s a flashy, f ast-paced and well-acted new addition, adding a solid depth to the gaps in between the films. Most importantly, it’s fun, something that was sadly missing from the sequel. The pilot is certainly worth checking out, and hopefully the series can continue to maintain its intensity and strange, light-filled techno-charm.