Marvel's direct-to-DVD animated films have usually been decent, but they've certainly left something to be desired. That fact, combined with how less-than-stellar most creative endeavors are when they're trying to cash in on a movie tie-in and how lame it usually is to see teenage versions of popular super-heroes, should have meant that the new feature-length film Thor: Tales of Asgard would kinda suck. It's a pleasure to report that this is not the case. It's actually pretty darn good.
The film, which comes to Blu-ray, DVD and game consoles on May 17, focuses on Thor and Loki as young brothers on the cusp of manhood, but not quite there yet, and it resists the easy temptation to show Loki's transformation into the skullduggerous villain we know him to be. Instead, we see the two being thick as thieves, trusting and loving one another as best friends and comrades-in-arms, thus underscoring how tragic their future will eventually be, and showing us why Thor will still love his brother no matter what sort of treachery he'll eventually commit.
Here, the pre-Mjolnir Thor starts as a fairly arrogant and obnoxious adolescent who is stunned to learn that all his glamorous combat victories in the arena have been due to his opponents taking dives lest the prince be publicly defeated and shamed. This humbling realization is driven home by the fact that young Sif is able to best him with nothing but the wooden handle of a pitchfork, and he becomes determined to prove himself the valiant warrior he always thought he was – despite Odin's efforts to keep them protected.
The Odinsons sneak aboard the vessel of the Warriors Three, who are fabled for their glorious tales of battle and adventure, thinking that they'll certainly find experience and valor alongside Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg. However, they soon discover that all the Three actually do is go to bars, listen to other people tell their stories, and claim them as their own when they return to Asgard. So Thor manages to guilt them into going on an actual quest for the fabled Sword of Surtur, lost somewhere in Jotunheim, the land of the Frost Giants. In that vast cold clime, they all begin to realize that perhaps they've bitten off more than they can chew, and tragic mistakes lead to a threat of all-out war that our heroes must scramble to forestall.
This is no "Muppet Babies" sort of sanitized youth – there is real death here, and believable motivations for every angle of the story (not that the Muppets had an adulthood in need of sanitizing, of course, but you get the gist). What makes this film interesting is that there are no real villains here, and we see that fairly plainly. Everyone has justification for their actions – the Frost Giants were trespassed upon in what they see as an act of war, and Odin's trusted advisor Algrim, the Dark Elf, has more than legitimate reason for the bitterness he harbors deep within his sage demeanor. As the creators explain in the "making-of" documentary, if there's any bad guy in the story, it's the Sword of Surtur, which brings out the worst in people.
It's refreshing to see the young Loki as a trustworthy friend rather than the mischievous traitor he becomes, as it adds a lot more dimension to his character – a direction that they may be headed with him in the comics in Fear Itself: Journey Into Mystery with the new child version of Loki somewhat dismissing the trickster of old. The Warriors Three are humorous and entertaining, as you'd expect, and the five adventurers in a barfight is mandatory, of course, but also quite fun. Sif has her own arc, as Thor frustrates her enough that she joins up with Brunnhilde's anti-male Valkyrie society, leading to eventual conflict when the heroes are captured there – and Loki gets a surprisingly funny line in when trying to free his friends that brings to mind Clarence Boddicker, if you can imagine.
The Blu-ray also contains full-length audio commentary from the writers, directors, producers and designers, as well as the aforementioned making-of entitled "Worthy," and it even includes the "Thor The Mighty" episode of Avengers; Earth's Mightiest Heroes if you want a little adult Thor action. Ahem, minds out of the gutter, ladies – we saw how you looked at that shirtless Chris Hemsworth. This is more about a grown-up with a hammer beating the snot out of the Wrecking Crew.
Overall, this might just be the best animated feature film that Marvel's made, and definitely a worthy companion piece to the live-action movie we've all seen and loved, illustrating just how heartbreaking the rift between the brothers truly is.