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THOR: THE DARK WORLD

It’s summertime in November, at least at the multiplex. Marvel comic super-heroes have become so plentiful on the silver screen that they’re apparently becoming an all-season phenomenon, not just one restricted to the hotter months. A primary piece of evidence is “Thor: The Dark World,” which opens at a time of year usually reserved for Hollywood’s more serious, intelligent fare. Let’s just say it doesn’t fit that pattern, being a brainless, chaotic piece of comic-book hokum so loud and action-packed that by the end you might feel you’ve been clobbered over the head by the hero’s big old hammer.

Actually the first “Thor” (2011) movie was an agreeably goofy romp, and “The Avengers,” in which the Norse god was part of the ensemble, was even better. By contrast this sequel—though it includes a goodly quantity of sophomoric gags—is little more than a non-stop avalanche of CGI pizzazz that quickly grows exhausting and dull. The last forty minutes or so is just an extended battle scene between Thor and the villain, not unlike the equally tiresome final act of last summer’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.” It differs in that it shifts from place to place—actually from world to world, to be precise—rather than being centered on one unlucky urban area, but in the final analysis that doesn’t matter much. The result is still not much more than the same punches and counterpunches landed by the stolid combatants over and over, to deadening effect.

The villain in this instance is one Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, encased in such thick makeup that it renders him virtually inexpressive). A lengthy introduction, filled with explanation that fans of the comic might understand but will make any else’s eyes glaze over (an effect that will only be increased by the pseudo-scientific gobbledygook that fills the next ninety minutes), indicates that the fellow, the leader of the so-called Dark Elves, was put into some form of stasis following the long-ago defeat of his realm by the army of Asgard. Thrown into hibernation with him and the other Elves was his chief weapon, a swarming red energy mass called The Aether, which supposedly has the power to destroy not just one world but all Nine Realms, among them Asgard and Earth.

What follows will be, in terms of simple coherence, largely impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with the comic. Somehow The Aether is rediscovered by none other than astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s erstwhile earth inamorata. Not only that, but she becomes its new host, which attracts the malignant attention of the now-revived Malekith, who wants to extract it from her body and install it into his own. Thor therefore dashes in to carry her off to Asgard, where his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, spewing out lordly commands in his best stentorian growl) has imprisoned his adoptive son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for his many “Avengers”-affiliated crimes while busily preparing for Thor (stalwart Chris Hemsworth) to succeed him on the throne.

But in order to save Jane and prevent Malekith from acquiring The Aether and destroying the universe, Thor will have to liberate Loki from his permanent prison cell and join forces with him. Some of his old earth helpers will also become collaborators, most notably Jane’s intern Darcy, as abrasive and irritating as she was in the first film and just as annoying played by Kat Dennings, and Dr. Erik Selvig, who’s apparently been possessed by some force that leads him to act wacky and go about half-nude. Poor Stellan Skarsgard is forced to embarrass himself in this role. Jonathan Howard is added to the mix this time around as Kat’s fellow intern Ian; he’s a thoroughly bland presence, and one sequence in which he appears to exhibit superhuman strength passes by without a mention.

It would be a tedious business to follow the course of the Thor-Malekith face-off, which is of course punctuated by interventions from the untrustworthy Loki and abrupt shifts to the activities on earth, where London, and especially the Greenwich Observatory, bear the brunt of destruction. Suffice it to say that the narrative doesn’t bother with even the most rudimentary logic; the screenplay is pretty much a ramshackle affair, simply lurching from effect to effect with little rhyme or reason. There are lots of hammer tosses and plenty of pummeling, which go on long past the point where they carry any thrill. Meanwhile some puerile humor is provided in the form of Loki’s and Kat’s sarcastic observations, which prove much less amusing than the scripters intended, and Selvig’s off-the-wall, often pants-less gyrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in silent comedies. The amount of visual humor is otherwise rather scanty, unless you’re willing to count moments like one in which Thor nonchalantly dangles his hammer on a coat hanger upon entering a room, which the fanboys in the audience apparently considered uproarious but you might consider a dumb sight gag.

Nobody in the cast distinguishes himself in this “World.” Hemsworth cuts the proper figure as Thor, but the character is basically an over-serious hunk and no actor can do much with him but stand majestically as his cape billows in the wind and mime a discus throw with that hammer. Hiddleston is the closest thing the movie has to a spark, but Loki is frankly a flame that burns ever less brightly with every appearance on screen, and three times prove too much. Portman apparently tries to counterbalance Hemsworth’s stolidity by turning on the pluckiness quotient too high. Renne Russo offers a few moments of calm understatement as Odin’s wife Frigga, but she’s not around much.

The human performers, in any event, are distinctly secondary to the effects; in many ways “The Dark World” is essentially an animated film with some life-action additions, not far from following the “300” model. To be sure, the visual team does a good job, within the cartoonish parameters of the style, which at least doesn’t take too much advantage of the potential abuse of the 3D format. So does director Alan Taylor (replacing the first film’s Kenneth Branagh), though in a picture like this the helmer is more a traffic director than anything else. The tech credits are pro across the board, with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, production designer Charles Woods, supervising art director Ray Chan and costume designer Wendy Partridge all offering solid contributions. Brian Tyler adds to the mayhem with a loud, pounding score. As usual with these Marvel movies, there are allusions to future pictures in the credits. One is to the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which on the basis of the clip shown here does not look promising. A second foreshadows another “Thor” installment.

In that last shot the Thunder God shows no signs of the terrible beatings he takes throughout “The Dark World.” Of course, that’s nothing compared to the pummeling the viewer endures watching the movie.

FREE BIRDS

There aren’t many Thanksgiving-themed family movies out there to choose from, but be aware that if you take your kids to see “Free Birds,” the new 3D flick from Reel FX Animation, you should expect them to demand pizza for their holiday dinner instead of turkey—and cheese pizza at that. Though the picture is decent from a production standpoint and has some action and a few laughs, it’s liable to transmit some pretty bizarre messages to the youngsters, and it will come as no surprise that Chuck E. Cheese’s is a promo partner on it. The degree of product placement is frankly hard to swallow.

Owen Wilson voices Reggie, a scrawny turkey who can’t make his barnmates believe that they’re being fattened up for Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately for him—if not them—he’s chosen by the president’s little daughter to be the bird pardoned by her daddy. That takes him to the high life at Camp David, where he soon becomes addicted to pizza deliveries and melodramatic telenovelas.

But his life of Riley doesn’t last long, because a wild-eyed turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) shows up and kidnaps Reggie at the behest of an apparition calling itself the Great Turkey. Their mission: to commandeer a time machine called Steve (voiced by George Takei) being tested by the US military and go back to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to remove turkey from the menu for the first Thanksgiving—and all those to follow.

That will be difficult, though, since the nasty Captain Myles Standish (Colm Meaney, whose surname is apt in this case) is out hunting turkeys for the big feast. The local flock, an Indian-turkey blend led by Chief Broadbeak (Keith David) and his macho son Ranger (Jimmy Hayward), is desperately trying to avoid Standish, and when Reggie and Jack blunder into the forest, their situation becomes even more precarious. Goofy Jake and intense Ranger cross wings almost immediately, while lovesick Reggie spends so much time courting Broadbeak’s daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler) that he loses sight of their goal in hope of getting back home and taking her with him.

Lots of chases, escapes and fights—including a strange one that turns into an impromptu dance between Jake and Ranger—follow, and the solution to everything comes in the form of the dim-bulb Chuck E. Cheese’s delivery guy (Scott Mosier) whom Reggie ultimately transports through time to deliver pizzas to Plymouth, which both pilgrims and their Indian guests so love that they give no further thought to turkeys. (Note well the absence of toppings on the pizzas, except for accidental anchovies.) The moral seems to be that pizza is the perfect food not just for Thanksgiving but for every meal, a notion that Chuck E. Cheese might embrace but might cause some consternation among nutritionists concerned with childhood obesity.

The animation in “Free Birds” is adequate—not Pixar standard, to be sure, but not appreciably worse than the stuff made by Blue Sky—and the voice talent is fine, with Wilson doing his usual sad, sleepy sack routine and Harrelson easily putting across Jake’s boobish persona. Poehler and the rest fill the bill more than competently, too, with Takei seeming to have an especially good time as the voice of the time-traveling machine. But Hayward and Mosier provide only a few good jokes for them to deliver, and the incidental characters are mostly a bland lot, except for Standish, who comes across like the sort of lip-smacking villain Christopher Lee might have played—hardly a person Longfellow would have recognized. (That’s only one of the oddities in the depiction of the Plymouth pilgrims, who are hardly the heroic pioneers tradition generally portrays, led as they are by a portly gourmand identified with Governor Bradford.) Probably the best single sequence occurs early on, when Reggie and Jake, in order to take control of Steve, have to avoid a troop of hazmat-suited guards also voiced by Hayward. The nattering soldiers are fairly amusing fellows, and the picture could have used more of them—in the fashion of the Minis of “Despicable Me.”

“Free Birds” was originally titled “Turkeys,” and given the connotation the word usually carries, it’s no surprise that somebody nixed the moniker. It’s not all that bad, but in story terms it’s a pretty foul fowl, and as far as these computer-driven animated kidflicks go, it’s utterly mediocre. It probably won’t be long before it goes the way of the dodo.