Movies: Thor * * *
Branagh halts the Thor
(12A, General Release)
It would be a churlish critic who didn't welcome Kenneth Branagh back to the Hollywood big leagues. He was the surprise choice to direct this $150m action caper that may or may not be the source of yet another superhero franchise.
And in fairness to Branagh it won't be his fault if there isn't a Thor 2, because overall he does a pretty good job of handling an unwieldy film that is very much a game of two halves.
In a deadly dull opening 20 minutes, Thor's position among the Norse gods in the extraterrestrial kingdom of Asgard is clumsily established, and it's only after he falls to earth that the film springs enjoyably to life.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the impetuous eldest son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), legendary warrior and king of the Asgardians.
Many years before, Odin defeated his people's sworn enemies the Frost Giants, who had colonised and overwhelmed Earth. But Odin is old now, and Thor is impatient to succeed him as king.
Impetuous and bellicose, young Thor is actually a bit of a pain in the arse, and when he disobeys his father's orders and travels to the Frost Giants' layer looking to start a war, Odin is not impressed. The king banishes his son to Earth, but he sends Thor's magic hammer Mjolnir after him.
What Odin doesn't know is that Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has set him up and is planning to oust his father himself, but down on Earth Thor has other problems.
When he falls to earth in the New Mexico desert he's hit by a van driven by a bunch of scientists. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) have been monitoring unusual astronomical events, and they don't come much more unusual than this.
When they take him to a hospital, Thor thinks the medics are trying to attack him and knocks seven bells out of the lot of them.
But after Jane and Eric spring him from jail he begins to bond with them, and starts to realise that high-handed behaviour only gets you so far.
Meanwhile, out in the desert, Thor's magic hammer has been discovered, but is embedded Excalibur-like in a lump of rock and no one can pull it out.
Thor naturally assumes he can, but when he sneaks past the police and tries to retrieve his hammer he finds that he can't budge it either.
His father has cast a spell on the weapon, which can now only be withdrawn by someone worthy of its power.
It's a test for Thor, who will have to learn humility and forbearance, but, meanwhile, back on Asgard, Loki is about to orchestrate a Frost Giant invasion.
Thor is filmed in 3D with all the requisite CGI bells and whistles, but in fact it's all this technology that initially lets it down.
The film's Asgard is a grey and ugly creation, and the extraterrestrial opening sequences are gloomy and hard to watch. The Frost Giants are unappealing villains, who plunder mournfully and don't even pause to crack jokes.
One is beginning to despair of ever being entertained when Thor hits the New Mexico desert with a dull thud and things suddenly get interesting.
Thor's initial interactions with a world in which he's no longer an all-powerful prince are hilarious, and strapping Australian actor Hemsworth is suitably charismatic in the part.
Portman's habitual intensity can be problematic in lighter roles, but she's much more relaxed than usual here and as a consequence is charming in a kooky sort of way. Not as kooky as Dennings, who's very funny as Portman's flaky assistant.
All in all Thor is an enjoyable romp, and Branagh just about succeeds in stopping the special effects from overwhelming an entertaining story.
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