Judge Dan Mancini once wielded the claw hammer of Stanley.
Before the hammer…came the sword.
Thor: Tales of Asgard is an odd fish indeed. A sort-of-but-not-really prequel to director Kenneth Branagh's live-action spectacular, it covers the same emotional arc and some identical plot points. The whole enterprise smacks of a weird lack of planning by Marvel Studios—especially since this direct-to-video animated feature is clearly designed to syngergize marketing, maximize revenue streams, increase brand awareness, and all that jazz. Add to that that Tales of Asgard catches the young god of thunder before he came into possession of Mjolnir, the world's most badass hammer, and the movie comes off as oddly unnecessary and almost entirely unsatisfying.
If you've seen Kenneth Branagh's movie, some of this may sound familiar: Coddled and spoiled because of his position as Odin's heir, young Thor decides to strike out from his home in Asgard and travel to Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants, in order to find the Lost Sword of Sutur. The problem is that Odin has brokered a fragile peace with the Frost Giants, mortal enemies of the Asgardians, and Thor's presence in their realm may lead to open war. Thor is joined in his quest by The Warriors Three—Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg—as well as his brother Loki, who is just discovering his own magical powers. Along the way, they also pick up the warrior woman Sif, who is training with the Valkyrie (in large part because she's exasperated with Thor, who is too dense to recognize that she has a crush on him). As all hell breaks loose, Odin struggles to maintain the peace, unaware that he's been betrayed by his closest advisor, the Dark Elf Algrim. Humbled by the realization that his pride may cause the downfall of Asgard, young Thor fights to defeat Algrim and return the Sword of Sutur to the Frost Giants.
Whatever its faults, Thor: Tales of Asgard's conception of the Nine Realms is fantastical and fun in its literalism. To escape Jotunheim and make their way back to Asgard, Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three scale the Yggdrasil (Tree of Life) like little kids climbing a backyard oak. The simplicity and directness make for a delightfully cartoonish interpretation of Norse mythology. It's too bad the story and characters aren't nearly as whimsical or inventive as the production design. Thor is a fundamentally decent naïf whose character arc is a boilerplate journey towards an awareness and acceptance of his own weaknesses and limitations. It doesn't work nearly as well as in Branagh's big-screen Thor because the teenaged cartoon version of the otherworldly superhero-to-be hasn't yet come into his powers. His epiphany has less to do with learning humility despite having great power than with coming to the conclusion that he's a punk-ass kid with little real sense of how the world around him operates. His emotional and psychological transformation lacks drama because it is standard-issue adolescent coming-of-age stuff dressed up in capes and fur boots. We get none of the enraged sense of entitlement that Chris Hemsworth brings to the character in the live-action movie. This is Thor as a dumbass but basically well-meaning kid out to impress his father and prove to himself that he has what it takes to be a great warrior—and, in the process, mucking everything up.
The animation in Thor: Tales of Asgard is on par with other Marvel Studios direct-to-video releases, which is to say pretty decent though slightly inferior to DC Comics' animated movies. The highlight of the character design is the Frost Giants, whose blocky necklessness is obvious homage to Marvel Comics legend and Thor co-creator, Jack Kirby. Thor himself looks little like the badass that adorns the front cover of the Blu-ray. He sports flowing blond locks that stretch to the middle of his back, shaggy Ugg-style boots, and the slight underbite made popular by petulant little anime heroes over the years. The teen hero of this show is so far removed in both appearance and demeanor from the comic book hero that it's difficult to imagine him growing into the hammer-wielding god of thunder. That alone makes Thor: Tales of Asgard a less than satisfying experience.
The movie arrives on Blu-ray from Lionsgate in a 1080p/AVC transfer that delivers a smooth, detailed image with bright, accurate color. Audio is an expansive, though hardly thunderous, DTS-HD Master Audio mix in 7.1 surround.
Extras including two audio commentaries (the first with supervising producer Craig Kyle and screenwriter Greg Johnson; the second with supervising director/producer Gary Hartle, director Sam Liu, and character designer Phil Bourassa), a 22-minute production featurette called Worthy: The Making of Thor: Tales of Asgard, and an episode of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes called "Thor the Mighty."
It's clear that Marvel is eager to use Kenneth Branagh's feature adaptation as a springboard to launch Thor out of his decades-long stay in the purgatory of second-tier comic book characters (much as they were able to do with Jon Favreau's Iron Man). The big pile of Meh that is Thor: Tales of Asgard is unlikely to advance their cause.
By Odin's beard!
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