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"Thor: Tales of Asgard" - Mighty Adventure Worth the Wait

Thor: Tales of Asgard Blu-ray Combo Pack box artAnd here we are…the last Marvel direct-to-video animated feature for the time being. Well, actually, that’s not 100% true. While Thor: Tales of Asgard is the final animated film released in the eight-picture Marvel Animation/Lionsgate Entertainment deal, it is not the last one produced. This is the seventh production, with last year’s Planet Hulk the actual final film completed between the two studios. Thor: Tales of Asgard has been on the shelves waiting for release for over eighteen months, give or take, and it’s now seeing the light of day thanks to the big-screen, live-action Thor feature. And, surprisingly, the two films kind of compliment each other nicely. Looks like Lionsgate Home Entertainment made the right choice in holding on to this film. And, I gotta say, Thor: Tales of Asgard is worth the wait.

Following a youthful Thor, Thor: Tales of Asgard gives us a look into the rarely-seen (-ish) early adventures of everyone’s favorite Mighty Avenger. By no means is this an origin story, but instead an exploration of Thor’s first real adventure. Far from the accomplished hero the world will come to know, here we see him as the Asgardian-equivalent to a spoiled child. That doesn’t last, however, as a harmless quest to receive a sword ends up putting countless innocents in danger. After Thor accidentally violates a fragile peace treaty, he throws Asgard into a war it’s not prepared for, but that war is only one of the many problems the Asgardian Prince finds himself in. For those initially skeptical about Thor: Tales of Asgard, prepare to be surprised by this invigorating fantasy-adventure.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Marvel Animated Features, some more than others, and this installment is really no different. From start to finish, it’s an enjoyable affair. The story is well-told, the characters are great, and it’s just a pure fantastical romp that’s suitable for nearly all-ages. Thor: Tales of Asgard also takes a few chances, especially with the main cast. Our hero, Thor, is an utter jerk, dragging along his brother who wants no part of the journey. The Warriors Three, who boast of tales of adventure and sorcery, are frauds. Even Sif, the love-interest for Thor, takes up with a group of man-hating women. Pretty much everyone is against type here, or ends up making some questionable (though usually justifiable) decisions. If handled poorly, this film could’ve easily gone off the rails, but the creative team behind this little adventure do a superb job at keeping everything, and everyone, on track. There are many shades of grey as the story unfolds…nothing is simply black and white in the world of Asgard.

Thor, Sif, Loki, and the Warriors ThreeNearly every character gets his or her moment, but only a few have really poignant ones that stand out. King of Asgard and All Father Odin has a great little scene with the Dark Elf Algrim, discussing if he’s done right with his two sons Thor and Loki as he looks out to a moonlit sky. Thor and Loki share a few great moments where we see how strong their friendship and devotion to each other is, which is only compounded as we know the eventual differing roads these two characters take. Every character, even if some get smaller roles than others, do feel fleshed out. The story drops us into the world of Asgard and, bit by bit, we’re introduced to this mythical realm and those who dwell within, but it never feels expository or confusing. Every drop of information always feels natural and crucial to the story. Even if characters have to unload a bit of information, it doesn’t screech the film to a halt, but it just unfolds naturally. The writing on this film walks that fine line perfectly, allowing for the viewer to get fully enveloped in the world and the characters who inhabit it.

All characters, on all sides, have valid reasons for their actions in Thor: Tales of Asgard. Interestingly enough, there’s no straight-forward hero and villain clash. While those we consider good and evil do engage, everything is presented in an even-handed fashion. When Thor takes the Lost Sword of Surtur from the land of Frost Giants, the Giants see it as an act of trespassing which escalates after a tragic mishap involving the son of Odin, the sword and a couple Giant sentries. War is sparked. The film presents this in a very justifiable matter that makes it impossible to cheer for one clear victor. Yes, we do want who we consider the good guys (Thor and the Asgardians) to win the day, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s complicated with serious implications (leading to some great character growth for Thor). In fact, we see lots of amazing character moments as the film leads toward this great climactic battle in the finale, and actually veers in a way viewers may not expect. Yes, there’s plenty of action, but it’s not between who you’d think. And there’s at least one scene that I guarantee will shock viewers as it did me. Thor and Loki both get some really memorable moments during the harrowing climax, set against an epic, viscous battle.

If there’s anything that really disappoints me about this feature it’s the quality of the animation. I found it really lacking at times. It seemed to be a hair or two above standard television quality, maybe even sometimes less. Movement seemed to be jagged and jumpy at times. There were scenes where animation cycles for smoke, for example, were obviously not smooth nor aligned properly. There were moments where it looked as if there were frames missing. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t consistently bad, but just a noticeable step down from the likes of Planet Hulk and Hulk Versus. The quality just seemed below what previous titles in the Marvel Animated Features line has provided. There are some pretty fantastically animated sequences, definitely, but the film does get bogged down with some weak animation which can occasionally be distracting.

That's a whole lotta frost giantsIt’s a shame, too, because the design work on this film is really excellent. The backgrounds look great, usually a mix of lush paintings and sketchy linework. The character designs themselves, by the incomparable Phil Bourassa, are excellent. They seem a bit tame as compared to this other work, notably on the DC Universe Animated Original Movie titles from Warner Home Video and Cartoon Network’s Young Justice, but they’re still really sharp looking. The while cast looks really excellent, though it is obvious that there was a guiding hand to make sure all the characters fell in line to a certain look. All the characters are definitely comparable to their older comic counterparts (and even the Thor theatrical film versions, too).

I also want to point out the structure of the film. It’s not as episodic as I originally thought it was going to be, based on the early promotional material, it’s definitely a very linear story, but the way it’s edited gives the impression that television presentations were definitely considered during production. There are plenty of moments that seem made specifically for commercial breaks, or episode cliffhangers, which does occasionally break the flow of the movie. It’s nothing that hurts the story, but it does dull the ‘epic feature-length adventure’ feel the film is going for.

As always, I feel the need to point out the excellent work by composer Guy Michelmore on this film. Quite possibly his best work yet, the score here sounds robust and just epic. Michelmore has obviously taken his cues from the fantasy aspects of the film and just runs with it. As a result, we get a very memorable score. It’s amazing to see how Michelmore has really grown as a composer on these titles, and the odd Marvel Animation series he’s had a hand in, with this DTV giving us probably his grandest work to date.

Thor: Tales of Asgard doesn’t really play it safe with its characters, avoiding what could of been a very simply good versus evil story and, instead, presents us an even-handed take for all characters on both sides. Consider that Thor is a bit of a jerk for most of the movie, taking advantage of Loki and placing everyone in danger on a thoughtless quest that spirals out of control and sparks war. This guy is supposed to be our hero! Plus, the movie does throw the viewers right into the world of Asgard, providing exposition and context only as the story permits. It’s risky, but it works. The movie fully embraces the lavish roots of Thor’s incredible comic book history and never looks back, which I believe benefits the viewer more than playing down some of the more “out there” concepts to be found in Asgard. It’s actually rather refreshing to see this take on who can be considered a very complicated comic book character, and it makes the film stronger. Nothing here is dulled or washed out. It doesn’t play anything down for a younger audience, nor go for over-the-top graphic content for the older viewers. Characters make mistakes, war breaks out, there’s death and destruction, but it’s handled in a balanced way. It’s neither slight nor excessive.

Comparing Thor: Tales of Asgard to the other seven titles in the Marvel Animated Features line, this one would probably fall in the middle, maybe a bit higher. The story is actually better than most of the other titles, easily standing alongside the likes of the insanely underrated Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow and Planet Hulk, but the animation quality falls somewhere in the lower spectrum, sadly.

Algrim and OdinBy no means is the story original but it’s handled in a way that makes it fresh. It’s an interesting new perspective on what could be a tired tale, and the film excels because of it. Greg Johnson, responsible for the screenplay and story inspiration with Craig Kyle, takes some bold chances with Thor: Tales for Asgard that does pay off in the end. I’m actually surprised at how much Johnson is able to put into this movie without it ever feeling like it’s about to collapse under its own weight. There is so much here that it warrants repeat viewings. Just look beyond the disappointing animation quality and I promise you’ll find an enjoyable story that provides a fresh spin on the standard superhero adventure.

Moving on to the movie’s home presentation, Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings Thor: Tales of Asgard to the home video market with this great Blu-ray Combo Release. Featuring the film in both high and standard definition, Lionsgate has put together a release worthy of the mighty Mjolnir itself!

Starting off with the video and audio for the Blu-ray release, Thor: Tales of Asgard looks really sharp thanks to excellent video quality. The animation is crisp and clear, with lush backgrounds coming out as clear as day. Colors are full and vibrant, and blacks are deep and pure. Whether it’s the Sword of Surtur unleashing it’s vibrant fiery, or Thor trying to attack an opponent in pitch black, there’s nary a flaw to be found. Every inch of the film’s widescreen frame looks stunning. Moving on to the audio, Lionsgate provides a hefty 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, allowing for a full-bodied experience. From the opening credits to the final scene, Thor: Tales of Asgard sounds clear and crisp. The quiet character moments are easily on par with the action-oriented sequences, the film definitely sounds as good as it looks. Lionsgate usually does an excellent job with these Marvel Animated Features titles, and this one is no exception.

For the extras, fans get a nice helping of commentaries, a featurette, a bonus The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes episode, and the usual helping of trailers. While the extras aren’t as boisterous as the last couple Marvel Animated Features releases, there’s nothing to scoff at here.

Up first are two audio commentaries that fans will definitely enjoy. The first features supervising producer Craig Kyle and screenwriter Greg Johnson, both providing great insight and behind-the-scenes factoids. Kyle and Johnson thankfully spend very little time actually narrating the movie, but just exuberantly sharing great stories on the creation of this film. Thor fans will heartily enjoy this. The second commentary includes character designer Phil Bourassa, supervising director/producer Gary Hartle, and director Sam Liu, and is also worth a spin. While not as electric as the Kyle/Johnson track, there’s still plenty of interesting notes and facts to be found. The track slightly suffers from the odd dead pause, but the technical details and tales told are genuinely interesting.

Up next is the Worthy: The Making of ‘Thor: Tales of Asgard’ featurette, a 22-minute look that provides a quick overview of the main feature. The featurette covers the comics which served as inspiration, the animation process, character designs, the music and a few other odds and ends about the film’s production. The creative team behind the film gets plenty of face-time, naturally, and they cover all the bases pretty well. I was jazzed to see some time given to Guy Michelmore, acknowledging his incredible work on these animated titles. A solid featurette.

It’s also worth noting in that Thor: Tales of Asgard Executive Producer Eric Rollman briefly mentions the Thor animated series during the featurette. The animated series, which was announced in late 2008 for a Fall 2010 debut, has nary been mentioned in recent months, and any questions concerning it have been met with silence.

Before the hammer, there was the swordThe Blu-ray disc is finished off the The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes episode “Thor the Mighty,” in glorious high-definition, and a trailer gallery. This episode actually serves as a nice follow-up to the main feature, I have to say, and those who enjoy the main feature will undoubtedly enjoy this great little extra, too. And, I gotta add, the show looks just excellent in high-definition! Here’s hoping The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes gets a Blu-ray release sooner than later! The trailer gallery includes brief plugs for Hulk Versus, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow and Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther.

The second disc in this Blu-ray Combo Pack is, naturally, the DVD. The DVD features all the same content as the Blu-ray, just in standard definition. I have to give props to Lionsgate for including both a fully stocked Blu-ray and DVD in this Combo release, as other studios have been taking to the habit of releasing a stuffed Blu-ray, but nearly vacant DVD. Fans are definitely getting the best bang for their buck with this release, and Lionsgate deserves a tip of the hat for it.

Thor: Tales of Asgard is an excellent Blu-ray release from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, there’s no question about it. The movie itself looks just great from start to finish, especially in stunning high-definition, and features a great helping of bonus content to compliment. While some of the earlier home video releases for the Marvel Animated Features line were noticeably bare, Lionsgate Home Entertainment really stepped up to the plate over the past few releases, and that continues here. We get commentaries, a solid featurette, and some extra goodies that fans will dig. Whether it’s Blu-ray or DVD, you get it all! It’s just a great package that other studios should take a hint from when releasing their own comic book-based animated features, especially when it comes to that second disc in the Blu-ray Combo Pack. Thor: Tales of Asgard is definitely worth your time, and the Blu-ray Combo Pack is the best way to experience it.

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