When news traveled that Disney had pulled the plug on a third TRON film, it was hard to not be at least a bit grief-stricken given the company's recent focus on Marvel Studios slate, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and making live versions of every one of their classic animated movies. TRON was an experimental film in 1982 that would go on to inspire countless films and technological break-throughs in special effects. TRON: Legacy furthered those causes nearly 30 years later but in the end was remembered for a few concepts, director Joseph Kosinski's stunning production and art design, and a score by Daft Punk and Joe Trapanese.
Unfortunately, the story made little impact on the fan base, and the most memorable beats (updated vehicles, the arena games, and fireworks at the end) were the same as in the original, leaving the film feeling at times more like a modern update than a sequel. This despite an initial teaser trailer that gave false hope of a story that would travel far beyond the Occupation's main base. A third film would have been interesting, but only because there was so much room to make a superior film.
Disney's money would have been better spent if they revisited another expansion of the TRON universe: their ground-breaking animated series, TRON Uprising, which has the most compelling, thrilling, and suspenseful set world-building stories ever to come out of the TRON franchise. Like Legacy, Uprising had its own unique style, creative "camera" movement and a dark tone for an animated series. Trapanese returned to score the series and the action was as good as anything Legacy did, and there was so much visual candy. But to justify more of the cartoon, let's take a look back at what the series did above and beyond the last film and what another season could have provided TRON fans.
TRON: Uprising begins immediately in the grid and its furthest outskirts. A small underground rebellion against the Occupation has begun, and the Grid's security program, Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) is slowly dying from a virus. He recruits a young mechanic named Beck who has already started his own resistance and been dubbed by the public as the "Renegade," to make trouble for the Occupation in disguise, using Tron's identity disc and costume. By doing so, Tron hopes Beck's actions will inspire other programs to fight back at the Occupation, believing that Tron lives. Rather than look at the visitor's point of view of the Grid, as the films did, Uprising looks at what the every-cycle life is like for a program living there. That makes the fight and need for an uprising more urgent and, for a viewer, a more sustained stay and investment in the series. CLU is still a massive presence and makes a few appearances, but more as an omnipotent villain toward which the series wants to carefully build. Taking the User element out kept viewers in the Grid, but also more interested in the uprising trying to create its own savior rather than waiting for someone to come through from the real world like one of the Flynns. We've seen enough Wizard of Oz stories and the Flynn's desire to create a perfect system is a little too deep. Uprising felt like a deeper look in the Grid, while the films just scratched the surface. Tragically, we only saw what one or two people could do against the Occupation, but it would have been cool to see what transpired once the uprising grew in numbers.
With all respect to the Flynn family, TRON: Uprising had a better main character than Sam Flynn in Beck, who was voiced by Elijah Wood. We never need to know his motivations or origins early on; we only needed to witness the Occupation's oppressive ways to know why Beck is stepping up. Beck is immediately endearing because he protects his friends, Zed (Nate Corddry) and Mara (Mandy Moore), and we are introduced to him doing heroic things. He's brash and impulsive, though, and that's where Tron's tutelage comes into play. So, while Sam tries to live up to the legacy of his father, Beck must balance the tasks of a mechanic and Tron's incredibly tough standards to become his stand-in. Then, there are all of his individual relationships, whether they're with his friends, his boss, Able (Reginald VelJohnson), or training with Tron. Wood was able to convey that heroic sense in Beck, but also the feeling of a student in training when he was in the presence of Tron. Sam has his blood line and...well, he has Quorra.
Uprising's villains are excellent, too, as the length of a TV season developed characters much more fully. We have three primary people leading the military occupation of Argon: General Tesler (Lance Henriksen), Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and Pavel (Paul Reubens). Each has his or her own back story and motives. Knowing who voiced each added to each character's affinity. For example, Henriksen's gravely performance has a viciousness that feeds Tesler, and his impatience in dealing with the Renegade. Paige is a femme fatale, but Chriqui gave her a softer side, too; you wanted to believe she could defect from the occupation as she and Beck danced deadly with each other. Then, there was Pavel, who was sniveling, maniacal, shrewd, and ruthless. Ninety percent of that comes through in Reuben's work. A story is only as good as its villains, and this triumverate of evil stressed what programs in Argon were up against. That they pushed and pulled for and against one another was a surprising dynamic and another win for Uprising.
Yes, there's more in this department to applaud. Apart from Tesler, Pavel and Paige, the guest-stars in Uprising are all memorable, including Lance Reddick, Aaron Paul, Marcia Gay Harden, John Glover, and Kate Mara. Most of their characters were featured in at least two episodes, and they stood out as much as anything else. Of course, there's still CLU and he's consistently public enemy No. 1, in every incarnation of Tron. He popped up in Uprising, too, but only in the biggest moments: His influence is present whenever the color yellow is incorporated; it's done very effectively. Why not feature him again and again? It's like seeing Superman fight Lex Luthor over and over. At some point, someone else has to step forward, and Uprising minimized CLU for the greatest impact. This allowed the world of TRON to grow out from light cycles and Jeff Bridges.
Going Beneath the Surface
There's no denying that TRON is a visual delight. That much is consistent across the board but, besides having cool production/art design, awesome vehicles (and, gosh, are there plenty in Uprising), and sleek, sexy threads, Uprising went deeper into the world and ignited the imagination. One could learn about day-to-day concerns of living in the Grid, like what happened when a program lost his/her identity disc and which city was best in which to hit the black market to sell and buy stolen goods or get reprogrammed. There were programs besides the military occupation, faceless arena combatants and the sirens, like scientists, medics, and the aforementioned mechanics. Under those helmets and glowing suits were faces and people and, if they were derezzed, viewers felt a true loss.
Widening the Grid
Another thing I disliked about the TRON films is how confined the Grid appears. In Uprising, the grid opens up. There are at least four cities mentioned, including Argon, Pergos, Bismuth, and Gallium, each with its own personality and potential for focused stories. Environmentally, there are mountain ridges where it snows and where Tron's lair remains hidden, vast bodies of water, islands, and crater pools. Most of them came into play in the first season as purposeful plot devices, not just settings. Life is also shown throughout, whether it was socializing at the clubs, sitting in traffic, and there are programs trying to go beyond their original programming and be independent thinkers. Creatively, this did so much to add to the world of TRON and the programs that populated it.
More Bruce Boxleitner
Boxleitner was given such a minor role in Legacy, but as a mentor/urban legend in Uprising, we received so much more of his classic character. There was also a much bigger story introduced halfway into the season that explained why Tron has been hiding, how he was deeply scarred, why programs reconsider revolting, and the tension between programs and isomorphic algorithms (ISOs), expanding what was hinted at in Legacy. Having Boxleitner's likeness and voice added to the serious attempt at satisfying diehards and, again, kept you hooked in this world.
Both TRON films end definitively. A sequel would presumably start with Sam and Quorra but, if that sunrise is the last thing we see with them, I'm satisfied. That doesn't happen in Uprising. First, the suspense from scene-to-scene within individual episodes was superb, and carried through to the next installment. Season 1 kept building to a boiling point at which the Renegade and Tron eventually became enough of a nuisance that CLU and his fleet flew into toward Argon to personally take care of matters. This is the final scene of the series. In the end, we can make our assumptions as to what happened, since Uprising took place in between the two films, but there is so much to explore, still. This is a world where you want to stay a little while longer. How could they leave it at that? Will Paige ever make the connection between the Renegade and Beck? Would Zed and Mara? Would we see more cameos of Quorra? There are other dangling story lines, like the dynamic between Tron and Dyson, the inner turmoil between Paige, Pavel and Tesler, the fate of Cyrus, and whether Zed would ever get the girl. Another season would've answered tied up these loose ends and deepen the mythology.
An Unjust End
One has to wonder how much of what we saw in the final episodes was done to wrap things up in a bow. Perhaps CLU wouldn't have invaded Argon until later seasons. The eventual cancellation of Uprising wasn't clean. For months after the airing of the last episode, many wondered about the future of the series, and the eventual answer was worse than a gut punch - it was like being derezzed. Uprising received poor ratings but, to be fair, Disney XD's cable profile in 2012 was limited compared to that of a Cartoon Network's, only enjoying a recent boost with Star Wars Rebels. The erratic time slot moved around too much, and it was hard to find the show unless you had a DVR that could target it. Disney also didn't know what to do with a cartoon that walked the fine line of PG and PG-13, what with programs being reduced to cubes in many episodes. Rumors were that Uprising was extremely cost-prohibitive and didn't sell merchandise, too...not that it felt like Disney was trying too hard on that end. And you can't even catch up on it easily - it's currently off Netflix and available through Amazon Instant Video to buy, not free to its Prime members. These are all excuses for Disney, who didn't give the series a chance to succeed or build an audience, but those who have seen it wanted much more. So, with a film future currently unlikely for the franchise, the "golden age" of television upon us, and PG-13 level adventure animation having made big strides thanks to the likes of DC's work in the field, why not revisit TRON most satisfying incarnation?
What do you think? Did you enjoy TRON: Uprising as much or more than TRON: Legacy? Would you rather see more Uprising, or another film? Sound off in the comments!