The corporate word for it is synergy. That’s what they call it when the machines of marketing and industry spin in precise time to make sure big, highly-anticipated summer blockbusters arrive in theaters surrounded by a phalanx of toys and videogames, of Happy Meals, of special promotions on Facebook, of tie-in direct-to-video animated featurettes…it’s all part of the name game, of getting the movie’s brand name out there into people’s heads, and nobody really expects most of that stuff to be any good. The toys break, the video games end up in the bargain bin, the Facebook promo ends up “unlocking” yet another trailer for the movie you were already planning on seeing anyway. But just like blue moons actually do happen and lightning sometimes really does strike twice, sometimes these things actually end up being worthwhile. And I’m both surprised and pleased to report that THOR: TALES OF ASGARD is one of these.
Calling it “Tales” is slightly misleading, as it’s one tale, and a familiar one at that – a classic hero’s journey, more or less straight out of Joseph Campbell. There’s nothing wrong with that, though, as it gives we the viewers an instant entree into this world of gods and giants. Our hero is Thor (Matthew Wolf), the son of Odin, lord of Asgard, realm of the Norse gods. This isn’t the Thor of the theatrical movie; this is a story of his much younger self, as essentially a brash, rebellious teenager. As prince, he enjoys the adulation due a great warrior, easily defeating his father’s elite bodyguards in arena matches before cheering throngs – or so he thinks. Annoyed by his thoughtless arrogance, his friend, the warrior maiden Sif (Grey DeLisle), tells him the truth: his father’s men have been ordered to let him win again and again to avoid embarrassing the future ruler of the realm in public, and he knows very little about fighting at all, as Sif demonstrates when she beats the tar out of him with a farm tool.
Humiliated, Thor (who does not yet possess his iconic hammer) vows to prove his worth by running away from home and undertaking a quest for the legendary Sword of Surtur. This quest is like the Asgardian version of a gang initiation or a snipe hunt; nobody has ever found the sword, but in sneaking into the deadly frozen wasteland of Jotunheim, land of the frost giants, and back out again, Asgardian boys earn glory and bragging rights. The last part is what especially interests Thor, as he sees his childhood friends – the charming Fandral (Jonathan Holmes), blunt Hogun (Paul Dobson), and jolly Volstagg (Jay Brazeau) – boasting about their adventures in the marketplace, surrounded by beautiful young maidens hanging on their every word. Enlisting his sensible, magically-talented half-brother Loki (Rick Gomez) on his mission, Thor stows away on his friends’ boat for their next “quest,” but soon enough events conspire to turn their adolescent lark into something more serious and deadly than they had ever anticipated.
I wasn’t entirely taken with the art style of THOR: TALES OF ASGARD, which seems to try to square the circle between a traditional action cartoon and something more anime and doesn’t really do justice to either – but the actual animation is smooth and attractive, betraying no signs of any sort of low-budget direct-to-DVD origins. Our heroes do exciting, fast-paced combat against huge armies of foes across sweeping cosmic vistas, and it all looks great. The voice acting is similarly impressive despite featuring mostly unknowns (although the great Clancy Brown, most famous as the Kurgan in HIGHLANDER, turns up for a tiny cameo role).
All that said, the real star of TALES OF ASGARD is the story, which continually surprised me with both its elegant, iconic simplicity and its grown-up sophistication. As I said above, it’s a twice-told tale – an adventurous coming-of-age story – but what matters is that it’s told well. The characters are likeable and their personalities come through strongly, the potentially complicated relationships of this fantasy world are explained in clear terms, and while there are protagonists and antagonists, what’s very interesting is that there is no real villain – everyone, even the “bad guy,” has perfectly understandable reasons for doing what they do. TALES OF ASGARD is pitched at a pre-teen audience, but it’s an “all ages” story in the very best sense of the term; it’s a fun, adventuresome story that children can enjoy, but that adults can watch right alongside without a shred of boredom or embarrassment. That’s a rare accomplishment even in theatrical films, much less direct-to-DVD features, and while the Kenneth Branagh movie is going to be getting all the attention this month, I honestly find myself wondering if the movie can live up to the quality and fun of its own tie-in.
Video: The 1.78:1 presentation here looks sharp and crisp on Blu; although as a cel-animated feature I don’t know how strictly necessary the extra resolution is, it’s an undeniably nice picture.
Audio: The audio comes roaring in on 7.1 channels, although again, there isn’t quite as much to do here as there would be with a live-action movie. Voices and music come through cleanly and a bit of use is made of the positional audio to enhance the clash of swords and the rumble of marching armies.
Commentary with Supervising Producer Craig Kyle and Screenwriter Greg Johnson – Craig Kyle is also the co-screenwriter with Greg Johnson, so it makes sense that this chatty, amiable commentary mostly focuses on the story. The two mean are clearly huge fans of the original material and drop names like Simonson (Walt Simonson, who wrote and drew Thor’s adventures in the 1980s) effortlessly while discussing the various shapes the story took as they hammered it into its final form.
Commentary with Supervising Director Gary Hortle, Director Sam Liu and Character Designer Phil Bourassa – This commentary focuses more on the actual production, with the two directors going into a bit of technical detail about how they broke down certain scenes, about casting the characters, designing the environments, and so forth. Phil Bourassa isn’t quite as chatty but still gets to say his piece; both this commentary and the other are pretty much nonstop from front to back, with no dead air, which must be a benefit of having people who are so engaged with the material.
Worthy: The Making of Thor: Tales of Asgard (22:03) – A surprisingly comprehensive making-of featurette, with a wealth of interesting production designs and the chance to see some of the voice cast in the flesh. A lot of the information here gets repeated on the commentaries in some form, so I don’t know if it is strictly necessary for anyone who’s listened to those, but it’s well-made and puts similar efforts on the Blu-Rays of bigger movies to shame.
“Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” Bonus Episode (23:09) – The new “Avengers” cartoon on the Disney XD channel is fantastic, a real coup for Marvel, whose previous animation efforts have been somewhat spotty. This episode, “The Mighty Thor,” establishes Thor’s status quo as an adult hero caught between his responsibilities at home in Asgard and his desire for justice and glory on Earth. For those who haven’t seen the show, it’s a good introduction and features a lot of fun hammer-throwing action.