Film Nerd 2.0: ‘Babe’ vs ‘Tron’ on Blu-ray

It’s been a long and frustrating day of dealing with my son’s educational future, so it seems appropriate for me to wrap it up with the latest column in the Film Nerd 2.0 series that outlines my efforts to help my kids make sense of the preposterous number of media options available to them.

I love seeing things with fresh eyes, and there is no easier way to do that than having kids and really engaging when you share something with them.  One thing I’ve learned is that kids make their decisions about what they want to see very quickly, based on the most basic information or impressions, and that it is hard to predict what will affect them and what won’t.

Both of my sons were out of town for a stretch of nearly six months at the end of last year, and as a result, when “TRON: Legacy” was released, they weren’t here.  Toshi, my five-year-old, had seen the trailers and was interested in the lead-up to release, but by the time they got back, the film was out of theaters.  And knowing there was a Blu-ray release of the original film in the works, I never broke out my old DVD of the film for him.

The entire time they were gone, I stockpiled movies for them, and we’ve been chipping away at them as we’ve been catching up.  Finally, as we were putting together our plan for a recent weekend, Toshi decided that it was finally time for the big “TRON” double-feature, while Allen decided he wanted to see “Babe,” or, as he referred to it, “PIGGY!”

There was some dispute about which order to watch things in, too, so I had to step in and negotiate a peace.  We decided it was going to be the 1982 “TRON” first, then “Babe,” and then we’d follow it up with the “TRON” sequel.  I was curious to see how each of the films played with the boys, and I was determined not to let my feelings about “TRON” influence them at all.

I’ll say this about the work that Disney did on the transfers for both of the “TRON” films on Blu-ray:  they are spectacular.  I’ve seen every previous transfer they’ve done of Steve Lisberger’s 1982 film, and I’ve seen the movie theatrically both 35mm and 70mm, and I can honestly say it’s never looked like this.  Ever.  Lisberger’s got to be over-the-moon happy with the way the transfer came together.  The story of the original film is a very simple sort of “Wizard Of Oz” riff, and both of the boys enjoyed it and followed it easily.  I was surprised how strongly Toshi didn’t like the look of the film, though.  As much as I loved the look of the film when I first saw it at 12, I have to admit it’s preposterously spare when you look at it now, and that totally stripped down look just didn’t do it for Toshi.  It didn’t help that he was impatient to get to some of the imagery he’d seen in the trailers for “TRON: Legacy,” and I’d be curious to see how many kids who started with the sequel reacted well to the original, and whether or not Disney did some sort of research that told them not to re-release the 1982 film before “T:L” hit theaters.

The reaction to the second film was almost directly inverse to the original.  With “TRON: Legacy,” they both reacted on a visceral level to the designs and the world and the remarkable palette, and they did notice all the Easter eggs and callbacks to the first film.  But the story didn’t just bore them… it confused them terribly.  Toshi must have asked me 1174 times, “Dad, who is Clu?”  And no matter how hard I tried to explain what happened between the two movies, it just didn’t add up to them.  Question after question, scene after scene, the film just seemed baffling.  With no clearly defined bad-guy and with action scenes that seem to end as soon as they start, the film was a frustrating sit for both of the boys. The only scene that they seemed to unreservedly love was the lightjet chase.  Even the hand-to-hand combat in a few scenes failed to draw them in, and these two will literally fight with any two objects they can pick up. The computer world didn’t make logical sense to Toshi, and most of his questions can be summed up by the moment he turned to me during the dinner scene at Flynn’s compound and asked, “Dad, why do they have a pig in ‘TRON’?”  

Obviously, the answer to that question is, “To eat it,” and that brings us to “Babe,” which I hadn’t seen since just before the sequel came out theatrically in 1998.  I remember enjoying “Babe” when it was released, and being charmed by it, and I remember how simple and effective the effects were at the time.  But what I didn’t remember is just how heavy the film’s themes really are, and watching the film with the kids, it almost played as a horror film to them.  After all, the entire film is about the existential panic of being eaten.  Babe’s journey in the movie is to figure out something that will make him indispensable so that Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) won’t eat him.

Until we watched this film, I’m pretty sure the kids never made the connection between animals and the food on their plate, but since watching it, they’ve started asking about every single serving of meat, “Dad, what was this?”  They’re not freaked out by it, but they are starting to make the connection, and they’re working to understand the entire notion of the food chain.  More than that, though, they’re both asking questions about what it is that I do, and why I chose to do it.  For Toshi, the big lesson from the film wasn’t about whether or not someone’s going to eat him, since he’s pretty sure that isn’t going to happen.  He is concerned now, though, with the notion of what he’s going to contribute, what he can do with his life.  He has told me a few times now that he wants to do something “important,” which is a hell of a thing to hear from a five-year-old who is just wrapping up kindergarten.

In their way, the effects in “Babe” are just as dated as the effects in the original “TRON,” but the difference is that they’re used as a way to help bring characters to life in “Babe,” but never at the expense of the basics of storytelling, while in the 1982 “TRON,” the effects really are the whole show.  As much as I love the way “Babe” works, the difference between the Henson puppets and the digital work by Rhythm & Hues is blatantly apparent at this point.  It doesn’t matter, though.  The Blu-ray does a wonderful job of reproducing the rich and gorgeous world that cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and director Chris Noonan built.  We’ve watched it twice since that first viewing, and what really makes the film stick is the little detail work throughout.  Allen loves the singing mice in particular, while Toshi’s quite taken with Ferdinand the Duck.  And both of them love Farmer Hoggett, which I completely understand.  I forgot how gentle and wonderful Cromwell’s work is in the film, and when he delivers that last “That’ll do, pig,” it is an emotional sledgehammer each and every time.

The real difference between the two experiences is that neither one of the “TRON” films seem to have made any deep impression on the boys, and since playing them, they haven’t asked to see them again once.  With “Babe,” the film is already in the rotation of things they’re going to revisit time and again, and that’s the most honest review anyone can offer.  Kids won’t sit through a film a second time out of any sense of obligation, and if they love something, good luck talking them out of it.  “Babe,” which Toshi didn’t even want to see, sank in, and more than just enjoying the cute, the film seems to have started them thinking about their relationship to the larger world around them.

Of course, not everything a kid takes from a movie is an important moral lesson.  We also watched the 1933 “King Kong” recently, and a few nights later, we watched “Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd,” in which the guys find a treasure map that leads to Skull Island.  It took me most of that movie to convince them that there were not going to be dinosaurs and King Kong in the film, despite the appearance of Skull Island, and it was only once it finally registered that Toshi turned to his brother, sadly, and pointed out, “You know, every movie would be better if it had King Kong and dinosaurs in it.”

Indeed.  Sometimes, that’s all the lesson you need to learn, and honestly, can any of you tell him he’s wrong?

Want to read earlier installments in the series?

Here’s the moment the series was born, at the tail end of the series of “Star Trek” reviews with Toshi. (9.2.09).

“The Last Starfighter” on Blu-ray (9.7.09)

“Popeye,” empathy, and David Bowie’s codpiece (9.21.09)

Talking Heads, ‘Astro Boy,’ and “Willy Wonka” on Blu-ray (10.26.09)

“The Dark Crystal,” featuring a guest appearance by Toshi’s little brother (12.2.09)

“Help!”, in which Toshi discovers the Beatles, especially Ringo (1.4.10)

‘Last Action Hero” introduces Toshi to Armer Shirtzganoma (1.18.10)

A Tale Of Two Zorros (2.23.10)

“Clash Of The Titans” on Blu-ray (4.2.10)

“Jason And The Argonauts” on Blu-ray and Harryhausen at AMPAS (8.9.10)

“Time Bandits,” “Mars Attacks,” and letting go (9.7.10)

“Toshi and Allen encounter high adventure with ‘The Goonies'” (3.6.11)