Dec. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Why Disney is keeping 1982 'Tron' out of sight

What if someone announced plans to make a sequel to the Wachowski Brothers’ “Speed Racer,” or the infamous Ben Affleck/ Jennifer Lopez vehicle “Gigli”? If you were asked to help bankroll the eagerly awaited follow-up to Bruce Willis’ “Hudson Hawk,” would you reach for your checkbook?

Probably not. And if you had told people 28 years ago that there would one day be a second installment of “Tron,” you would have run into the same sort of skepticism. The mega-hyped Disney science-fiction thriller about a video game designer (Jeff Bridges) zapped into the computerized universe he helped to create was considered a techno-turkey when it was first released, an almost incomprehensible mish-mash of “Star Wars” and Pac Man that left most audiences mystified.

I was assigned to review the movie for The Grand Rapids Press (in the period when my work badge bore the unfortunate job title “teen reporter”) and I had to sit through “Tron” twice before I could even start my write-up. Sure, it had visual style to spare. But the storyline was so jumbled and chaotic, I got the feeling even the actors weren’t sure what was going on at any given time. Although I enjoyed it on a certain level, I didn’t exactly rave about it.

“Tron” also had the bad luck to arrive midway through a highly competitive summer. We’d already been dazzled by Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” a few weeks earlier, “Poltergeist” was giving America nightmares, “Rocky III” was introducing the world to Mr. T, and a little movie with a short title — “E.T.” — was already on its way to becoming the biggest film of its era. Although “Tron” had a great look (my father, who was in marketing, said he knew many art directors who were crazy about the film’s production design), the younger audience Disney expected to storm the cinemas spent their cash on “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” instead.

So what accounts for the creation of “Tron: Legacy,” opening nationwide on Friday? Throughout the 1990s, “Tron” built up a sturdy cult following, made up primarily of people who saw the film when they were children, or discovered it years later via video and found it to be great retro fun.

But Disney would rather not allow potential “Legacy” customers to stroll down Memory Lane. In recent weeks, I have heard from dozens of curiosity seekers who failed to track down “Tron” on DVD; it’s long out of print. Netflix is no-go, nor can you rent it from iTunes or Amazon Video On Demand. Disney claims it’s freshening up the film for release on Blu-Ray next year.

That might seem like a strange strategy, hiding the original while trying to sell a sequel, but Disney isn’t dumb. Executives know that computer-generated animation that may have been startling in 1982 is going to look pretty hokey to contemporary viewers who’ve grown up with Pixar and “Avatar” — and they’re right.

My 15-year-old niece was intrigued by the “Tron: Legacy” clips she’d seen, so I talked her into watching the original a few weeks ago. After she stopped laughing at the early-‘80s fashions and puzzling over the scenes set in Flynn’s Arcade where throngs of teens eagerly pour quarters into video games (“They really had places like that?” she asked), she spent the rest of the movie in a state of bewilderment. When I tried to explain that this was considered cuttingedge back in the day, she rolled her eyes in disbelief, and as Bridges and his cohorts battled the evil Master Control Program, zoomed around on Light Cycles and soared through the electronic skies aboard their Solar Sailer, she remained utterly uninvolved.

“It’s so confusing!” she complained. Apparently, some things never change.