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(From the back of the box) Fantastic journeys beckon from the mysterious nine realms. Places of dark mists and fiery voids, of winged creatures, giants in the ice, and of the most alluring quest of all – the search for the legendary Lost Sword of Surtur. Hungry for adventure, a young and sheltered Thor secretly embarks on the journey of a lifetime, joined by his loyal brother Loki, whose budding sorcery equips him with just enough magic to conjure up trouble, along with the Warriors Three – a band of boastful travelers reluctant to set sail on any adventure that might actually be dangerous. But what starts out as a harmless treasure hunt quickly turns deadly, and Thor must now prove himself worthy of the destiny he covets by saving Asgard itself. (PS: The Blu-ray cover art is a He-Man sized lie).

Thor: Tales of Asgard
The Marvel Animation people score points for making a fantasy/adventure movie after loads of superhero beat ‘em ups. Perhaps they’re just bored, perhaps the Marvel higher ups demanded a prequel to their live action Thor movie (not likely considering it covers much of the same ground, and character elements don’t really add up), but despite not making a single genuinely good movie, I’m forced to recognize that lately the Marvel animation team has taken pains to make their movies thematically eclectic, which is more than I can say for many of the DC animated productions and their boring obsession with Batman/Superman team-ups. Well, that’s not entirely true, the Marvel team does seem to have a hard-on for Hulk stories, and there is still an epic excess of unused characters in the Marvel canon. The production staff really should be more willing to take a chance on a less well known property (I’d sell my left foot for even a semi-faithful adaptation of X-Statix or Runaways). But I’m still impressed that they didn’t just go for a straight origin story on Thor, who continues to be one of the hardest mainstream sells of the recognizable characters in their massive universe. The story constantly threatens to buckle under the weight of too many characters, but actually manages to treat the large cast more efficiently than its live action counterpart.

I’m also impressed that Marvel Animation continues to improve, however slightly, with each film released. Perhaps someday they’ll make something really great. Thor: Tales of Asgard features their best and tightest script yet. The plot is a solid adaptation of a familiar story, and an effective mini-epic all its own, one where most of the pieces fit into their rightful place. The brief runtime certainly hurts, leading to some rather abrupt character arcs, and somewhat unsatisfying conclusions, but it’s far from a mess, and could probably be great given another 20 minutes of runtime. At the very least Thor: Tales of Asgard acts as a solid primer of the Marvel version of Asgard, which I say as someone that only has a passing knowledge of the universe. This script features some of the better dialogue we’ve heard out of the studio. The Asgardian tongue can be a handicap, but at its best it can be delightfully flowery and ironic. Thor and Loki mostly deal in plot and character development. They get a couple of flippant and funny one-liners (‘Attention wenches!’), but the majority of successful comedy comes from the supporting players, especially the Warriors Three and Sif (‘Can you fight?!’ ‘…yes…if we must’). The acting is also top notch, from the whimsy straight through to the melodrama (I could have sworn Sif was voiced by Grey DeLisle, and she’s credited on imbd, but the end credits state it was the equally talented Tara Strong).

Thor: Tales of Asgard
Despite what seems like a million years of production (the copyright reads 2009, which makes me assume this sat on the shelf to coincide with the theatrical release), the animation here is definitely a step back for this team, who started making downright ugly films like Ultimate Avengers, and finally built up to good looking minor budget work like Planet Hulk. Thor: Tales of Asgard looks a lot like Next Avengers, which was at the time an improvement over Invincible Iron Man and Ultimate Avengers, but compared to Hulk Vs. Wolverine and Planet Hulk this is a definitive step back (this is due in part to sharing supervising director Gary Hartle, who also worked on the similar looking He-Man and the Masters of the Universe reboot). I’m assuming that the DC team has bigger budgets to work with (they don’t have any ongoing series in production, they’ve created more overall animated films despite starting later, and their animation is just generally better looking). While watching the film I had to continuously remind myself that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ quite a bit from Norse mythology, but there’s certainly a lot of Peter Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings in this animated movie (the Sword of Surtur is pretty much a direct analogue of The One Ring). Unfortunately the big LotR inspired battle scenes suffer the most, especially in comparison to the similar scenes that worked surprisingly well in Planet Hulk. Avatar: The Last Airbender achieved much more on an even thinner weekly television budget.

Thor: Tales of Asgard

Video


Once again this Marvel Animated/Lionsgate release more or less matches all the other similar previous releases. The image is clean, sharp, and swimming with colour and detail. From what I’m gathering the only shortcomings are all the fault of the source material’s limits, not the transfer’s. The utter clarity actually hinders the transfer at some points, as it reveals occasional frame rate problems (some shots appear to have been animated on threes, and none of it seems to have been shot on ones), and some floating cells (usually speaking mouths, which shift while maintaining lip-sync, though Odin’s clothing disappears entirely at one point). The colour quality is quite impressive, and this disc’s vibrancy allows us to enjoy some of the more subtle palette shifts (on his commentary track supervising producer Craig Kyle points out that the entire palette changes when the cold of the Frost Giants is present…except for Loki’s palette, which is a clever Easter egg for Thor fans, hint, hint). The deeper reds, and some of the browns display a tiny bit of digital noise, and some of the hard black outlines are a little pixilated (likely due to digital zooming), but I didn’t notice any blocking, bleeding or edge enhancement.

Thor: Tales of Asgard

Audio


As the general quality of these productions improves so do these Blu-ray’s audio tracks. This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track might be the best of the Marvel Animated bunch. This is a big, aggressive track, featuring plenty of directional work, busy surround and stereo channels, and a booming, punchy LFE presence. The big battle scene and magical fight towards the end of the film are clearly big aural moments, but I found the early barroom brawl to be the best sample of the track’s overall abilities, which are at their best when mixing dialogue, effects and music evenly. There are some clever minor additions during dialogue heavy sequences. I was genuinely fooled by some chirping birds at one point and looked curiously out the window to be welcomed by overcast skies and zero real birdies. Guy Michelmore’s musical score is an effective poor man’s version of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music. It’s dynamic, exciting, and it covers its non-symphonic, synthetic roots pretty well. The aforementioned barroom brawl is a good example of how well the music undercuts the action.

Thor: Tales of Asgard

Extras


Extras begin with two audio commentaries. The first track features supervising producer Craig Kyle and screenwriter Greg Johnson. Kyle and Johnson focus mostly, not surprisingly, on the film’s story and characters, including some discussion of the greater comic universe, which helps us newbies through the production. I also enjoyed the discussion concerning some of the scenes that were censored for their graphic violence, not because the production was afraid of an R-rating, but because they knew it was wrong for the film, which doesn’t pull too many punches, but does aim at a minimum age of 10 or so. If you’ve only got the time for one track, I recommend this one. The second track features supervising director Gary Hartle, director Sam Liu and character designer Phil Bourassa. This track covers a lot of the same ground thematically, and has noticeably more blank space, but generally covers things from a technical side, and focuses on crediting all the artists with their work (which is valiant but ultimately boring). Both commentaries feature a few mentions of scripted scenes that didn’t make the final cut here, and most of these would’ve made the film stronger overall.

‘Worthy: The Making of Thor: Tales of Asgard’ (22:00, HD) is a solid behind the scenes featurette that includes discussion on the characters’ histories (including a look at a few different comic series, like Thor: Son of Asgard, which was the major influence), the pre-production process, production design, screenwriting, animation, main title design, music, and general storytelling. Next up is an episode of The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which is not surprisingly Thor and Asgard heavy (23:00, HD). Here Loki leads more mindless versions of the Ice Giants into Asgard, and with Odin on the verge of the Odin Sleep (an annual period of rest where he recuperates his awesome powers), Thor is called in to assist. The Warriors Three and Sif also make an appearance. It’s a pretty good series, actually, with better overall animation and action than the movie, though their Kirby influenced Asgard stuff looks a little too much like the Kirby influenced New Gods stuff on Justice League. The disc also features trailers for other Marvel Animated releases.

Thor: Tales of Asgard

Overall


Thor: Tales of Asgard is a whimsical and amusing little animated film that doesn’t entirely overcome its budget and runtime constraints, but is probably the best of the shaky Marvel Animated canon. With a slight bump in production values, and perhaps a full 90 minute run time, this one could’ve been great, maybe even better than its live action counterpart. Apparently Lionsgate and Marvel Animation had a deal for eight animated films, and this marks the end of their relationship. Since the same production team has been working on the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes series I assume Disney will be ordering more, and perhaps that will mean a quality, or at least a small budget bump, but this is all wishful speculation on my part. Regardless, this is the end of an era. An era of mediocre STV animation, but an era nonetheless. This disc looks and sounds good, and features from decent extras, so fans should feel free to pick up this release.

*Note: The images on this page are taken from the DVD release and are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.


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