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Tales of the Black Freighter DVD Review

Category: Watchmen Reviews
Article Date: March 28, 2009 | Publication: | Author: Jeremy Thomas

Posted by: stagewomanjen

Tales of the Black Freighter rated R for violent and grisly images.
Under the Hood rated PG for mild thematic elements, brief violent and suggestive images, and smoking.

Watchmen has finally made its way into theaters earlier this month after years of speculation, and has quickly become one of the most divisive and talked-about films of the year. Audiences have chimed in on both sides of the movie, with many people loving Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel and many others hating it. While the film is destined to become a financial success— it has grossed $150 million worldwide—the grosses have been undeniably disappointing for a film upon which impossibly-high expectations were set. Still, the film has its legion of supporters, and many of those are waiting for the promised director’s cut to come out on DVD in July, which will incorporate a lot more footage into it to create the ultimate vision of Zack Snyder. For some people that wait is too long however, and to appease those fans, Warner Bros. has released Tales of the Black Freighter. The comic within a comic, which is supposed to become a film within a film in the director’s cut, is a deeply allegorical piece that was one of the two large supplemental materials that Moore and Gibbons included in the original material. It has been created by Snyder’s creative team as an animated piece and, along with an adaptation of the other supplement Under the Hood, finds its way to DVD for fans to see before the eventual inclusion within the greater whole of the film.

The Movie

The titular portion of Tales of the Black Freighter tells the story contained within a comic book of the Watchmen world. A young mariner (Butler) finds his ship attacked by an infamous pirate ship known as the Black Freighter. After washing up on the shore of an island as the sole survivor, he agonizes over the thought that the Freighter’s destination is his home port Davidstown. Believing himself too late to save his family or anyone else, he is nevertheless determined to get back to Davidstown at least in time to get revenge on the Black Freighter's crew. But during his desperate journey, his deteriorating mind could lead to a worse fate than any he could have imagined.

Black Freighter is adapted into animated form for this DVD by Snyder and Alex Tse, following Alan Moore’s story almost word-for-word. The story is a morbid and haunting mirror to several elements of the Watchmen film, most notably and obviously that of Adrian Veidt, and Tse follows David Hayter’s Watchmen script in that he does an excellent job of keeping the story faithful to the source. This allows the original, brilliant story by Alan Moore (uncredited as always) to shine through and be told. The story holds nothing back, going to some disturbing lengths as the mariner’s story carries through to the inevitable climax, and it is clearly not the kind of cartoon that is meant for kids. By taking those brave steps, the short film creates a very worthy piece of the Watchmen story, telling its own story but enhancing the story of the main film as well.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the animation is incredibly done. Beautifully drawn in an anime style, it manages to retain the spirit of Dave Gibbon’s original animation while creating something very fascinating in its own right. Swathed in dark colors that evoke the gloomy context of the story and foreshadow the events to come within, it is as much of a visual treat as the movie itself, albeit in a very different way. Directors Daniel DelPurgatorio and Mike Smith keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and while the tale loses some of its context by being presented outside of the greater whole of the Watchmen story it works perfectly well as a stand-alone story. The voice acting, primarily done by Gerard Butler who is both main character and narrator, is quite good; Butler’s voice is unmistakable, but it is easy to accept him as the mariner trying to get home. It provides for as good of a companion piece as it possibly could be, and will very likely be even better when it is included in the director’s cut DVD of the movie.

Tales of the Black Freighter Rating: 8.0

The second piece on the DVD, Under the Hood, relies far more on original material than Watchmen or Tales of the Black Freighter. Using the pages of Hollis Mason’s autobiography as presented within the graphic novel, Hood presents itself as a news magazine program called “The Culpeper Minute,” set in 1985 at about the same time of the movie’s events. The host of the program, Larry Culpeper (Friend), re-examines a segment done ten years earlier upon the release of Mason’s autobiography “Under the Hood” in order to take a look back at the origin of costumed crime fighters. The segment features interview segments with Mason (McHattie), Sally Jupiter (Gugino), Moloch the Mystic (Frewer), the Comedian (Morgan), and various people on the street. Along the way we learn a lot more about the original masked hero team, the Minutemen, how these heroes have come to be perceived by the public, and where they fit within the alternate history created by Moore and Gibbons.

Under the Hood may be the most original aspect of the Watchmen experience, and in some ways the best. Screenwriter Hans Rodionoff uses the Mason interview segments to provide the bulk of the content from the source material and intersperses other bits throughout other interviews and narrative points, while still retaining enough creative license here to deepen the story even for those familiar with the graphic novel. Rodionoff even cuts in commercials at the appropriate moments done in the proper motif for the era: one for Nostalgia perfume—a product from Veidt’s corporation that features in the source—one for Seiko watches and lastly for Sani-Flush toilet cleanser. These could seem to be time-filling distractions, but they work quite well in keeping the viewer within the story of the news piece and the Seiko commercial is a clever wink at the watch imagery that features so predominantly in the feature film. The whole piece uses a lot of situations that are not directly part of the source, but it never feels unfaithful and indeed provides a much deeper look into the world in which the story takes place.

The actors are as good as they were in the film. Stephen McHattie is unquestionably the star of this piece, and he is excellent as Hollis Mason, expanding on the brief scene we saw in the feature. He projects a weary feel, while still managing to seem nostalgic about his time. Carla Gugino, whose aging make-up is much more subtle in this piece, stays firmly within character and provides more of that charm that made Sally Jupiter work so well within the film; Matt Frewer has an expanded role here as Moloch and does quite well. Ted Friend, playing the host Culpeper, gives a nice performance as well, carrying the gravity of a television show host behind a warm, “welcome home” sort of charm.

Given the decision to go outside of the established format of “Under the Hood” in the graphic novel was a risky but necessary choice if the material was to be presented; obviously, presenting the pages of a novel would have been tedious to say the least. Director Eric Matthies does an excellent job in presenting the right look, capturing the feel of the 80’s very well within the program. This piece is far more reliant upon having seen the film than Black Freighter simply by virtue of it being a background piece and not an allegorical tale, so there will be quite a bit more lost here if one has not seen the film or was not fond of it. For those who have seen and enjoyed it however, Under the Hood is an excellent piece that bears being seen.

Under the Hood Rating: 8.5

Overall Film Rating: 8.5

The Video

Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood are presented in two very different visual looks; one being slick, dark animation and the other being vintage, saturated video footage. Both of them work perfectly well for what they need to be. Black Freighter’s video presentation is beautifully rendered, with a strong color presentation and clean delineation. Meanwhile, the Under the Hood segment successfully mimics the various eras it portrays within the 80’s news magazine stage, the 70’s interview pieces and the older-yet archival footage of the 50’s and 60’s. Obviously it isn’t going to be the most visually stunning work, but it works amazingly well at being what it wants to be and there are zero technical issues with it. Neither piece as any noticeable compression flaws, and this is all around an impressive video transfer.

Video Rating: 9.0

The Audio

Much like the video, the audio depends on which segment one is viewing and any perceived flaws are purely stylistic choices intended to keep loyal to the era presented within the works. There is only one audio mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track, with English subtitles available. Black Freighter boasts an impressive audio format, with Butler’s rich voice coming through quite clearly above the nicely-done score and effective sound effects. Under the Hood again tries for the dated feel, but it never sounds bad and works quite well in evoking the era of the subject matter.

Audio Rating: 8.5

The Packaging

Warner Home Video has chosen to house Tales of the Black Freighter within a standard snap case. The cover of the DVD is impressive, with the distinctive Watchmen logo along the side with an ominous-looking image of the mariner on his journey home; Under the Hood is reference in the bottom right hand corner of the case, which is an unfortunately-necessary disservice to the story since most fans are more interested in the Black Freighter story. The menu features an impressive animation cell with very easy to navigate menus.

Packaging Rating: 8.0

Special Features

Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen: (24:59) This is the best of the special features, and is a twenty-five minute-long featurette about adapting Black Freighter and Under the Hood to be the companion pieces that they are. We get some great information presented here, including a discussion of how and why Black Freighter provides an allegory for Ozymandias and background about how pirates came to be the comic book subject of choice within the Watchmen universe. There are interviews with the cast and crew, as well as Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons and DC comic heads. There’s a lot of praise lavished on the source material, but it never seems falsely congratulatory, and the information provided makes it more than worth a look.

Watchmen Motion Comic, Chapter 1: (25:28) This is, as it states, the first chapter of the Watchmen Motion Comics, a project designed to present the original story within the film medium as a direct translation. It features the original Dave Gibbons art and Alan Moore words, partially animated with actor Tom Stechschulte doing all the voices as one might do in an audio book. Stechschulte’s voicing of the female characters is distracting at first but that feeling quickly fades, and while this is essentially a demo/advertisement for the Motion Comic DVD, it provides a good feel for it if one is considering checking it out.

A First Look At Green Lantern: (10:11) This ten minute spot is a discussion of the upcoming Green Lantern direct-to-video animated film, with interviews from the comic creators and the crew behind the film-to-be. They talk about Green Lantern’s origins as a character and provide some good details for those not familiar with it, as well as some concept art.

Special Features Rating: 7.5

The 411: Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood provide an excellent set of companion pieces to the Watchmen movie. Staying faithful to the source material—even when it takes a very different approach to presenting it—the creative team behind the two pieces create something very worthy of being included within the film’s banner. While those who were not fans of the feature film may not find much to appreciate here, those who enjoyed Zack Snyder’s effort will be thrilled by this release, though they may wish to wait until the Watchmen Director’s Cut DVD to actually buy. Either way, it is well worth checking out in one fashion or another.

Final Score: 8.5 [ Very Good ]


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