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An Evening with Disney: A look at 'Tron Legacy' and 'Tangled'

On a rainy October Monday we media types, invited by the Disney folks, gathered at a midtown NYC arts center. The lure: a peek at the studio’s two big holiday events: Tron Legacy and Tangled, their CGI-animated de/reconstruction of the Rapunzel story. I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and call Tangled Disney’s liveliest animated feature in a long time and their best fairy tale updating ever.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

On a rainy October Monday we media types, invited by the Disney folks, gathered at a midtown NYC arts center. The lure: a peek at the studio’s two big holiday events: Tron Legacy and Tangled, their CGI-animated de/reconstruction of the Rapunzel story.

Garlands of wheat-blonde hair twined around the handrails leading down to the basement auditorium to create an appropriate ambience for the main event of the evening (no, not the free buffet): a surprise, full-length screening of Tangled in its not-yet-fully-animated, not-yet 3D-rendered form.

Sean Bailey, Disney’s head of production got things rolling with a quick plug for Secretariat before screening some 20 minutes worth of (again, pre-3D’d) footage (“just out of the edit bay – it pains me to show it in an unfinished state”) from Tron Legacy, a film I’ve been drooling with anticipation for since I saw the first teaser. (As it turned out, the only reason they handed us 3D glasses on the way in was for the film’stheatrical trailer.)

How does one update an iconic film, built around some of the most vivid imagery from the dawning days of computer animation, in an age where school kids are playing with computers more sophisticated than the ones that created the original? For starters, Director Joe Kosinski (described by Bailey as a “new visionary,” the word du jour for any director doing sci-fi or fantasy these days) decided to give all that cool hardware from the original – light cycles, high-tech tanks and those floating thingies that look like the Monster Magnet I had when I was a kid (http://www.blippee.com/images/toys/wham-o-monster-magnet.jpg) – a serious glossing-up.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

But the biggest difference between the original and the 28-years-later sequel (apart from Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner returning as middle-aged versions of themselves): the stylized look of the original, the grainy black and white footage hand-painted in Korea or year-zero computer animation (which still looks goddamn cool, even by today’s standards) is gone. Everything in the land of Tron has taken on a physical solidity, from shiny black and white interiors to inky-blue storm clouds that fill the sky. Disc combat now takes place in a floating, rotating arena of easy-to-shatter glass and equally easy-to-shatter players. (According to Wikipedia, hero Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Bridges’ character Kevin is responsible for the microcosm’s visual upgrade.)

Tangled directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno then introduced their not quite fully animated (plenty of only slightly-rendered scenes and even a few storyboard frames) and yet to be 3D’d movie.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and call Tangled Disney’s liveliest animated feature in a long time and their best fairy tale updating ever. While their earlier fables played it essentially straight with sidekick characters providing the laughs, the dynamic between self-confident Rapunzel (she has no trouble kicking ass or calling the shots when necessary) and the self-infatuated thief Flynn is a pairing of equals that generates levity and gravity in equal amounts. (And don’t worry Disney critter fans, the film features a couple of companion animals who nicely up the comedy quotient.)

There’s also some impressively animated character animation so supple I could’ve sworn was motion captured, particularly during the villain’s song, but the directors assured me everything in the film was key-framed. (And that villain ain’t Rumpelstiltskin by the way; I think there’s a rule fairy tale characters can only appear in one film a year and Rumpel had his shot in Shrek this past April.)

I hate it when casual comments make me feel so old… during their introduction Greno and Howard credited “Disney animation legend” Glen Keane for mentoring the film’s “hot new” animators. I mean, the “Nine Old Men” are Disney animation legends; Keane’s of the new generation, he’s only been around the studio since… since 1977… never mind, I withdraw the objection.