Warner Bros. // 2009 // 65 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 19th, 2009
From the graphic novel and unseen in the Watchmen movie?
"You know, I still have some kind of half-baked idea that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are going to end up together someday." -Hollis Mason
In the animated film Tales of the Black Freighter, a pirate (voiced by Gerard Butler, 300) manages to survive a horrible attack on his ship. All of his shipmates were killed, and the pirate uses their bodies to create buoyancy for a raft. Will he make it home and find redemption, or will he ultimately succumb to madness?
In live-action film Under the Hood, a television reporter offers a nostalgic look back at the age of masked heroes. His primary interview subject is Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie, 300), a former hero who has written a book about his exploits as the original Nite Owl.
Alan Moore's Watchmen is a comic book miniseries that features several unusual storytelling techniques. Some of these techniques posed a small problem when Zack Snyder was creating the Watchmen theatrical film. For instance, the book offers a "comic within a comic" on numerous occasions, as a boy sitting at a newsstand reads bit and pieces of comic book saga entitled Tales of the Black Freighter. Such a concept might not translate quite as well to a cinematic medium, and these scenes were not included in the theatrical version of the film. In addition, each chapter of the 12-issue comic miniseries was accompanied by several pages of text that add a bit of peripheral knowledge to the story. Newspaper stories, essays, and police files are among the many items covered in these text passages, but the Under the Hood sections offering pieces of Hollis Mason's autobiography have always been the most memorable text pieces. These text passages were also cut from the film (save for a few quick references).
In a somewhat clever marketing move, the folks at Warner Bros. decided to turn the Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood stories into a straight-to-DVD double-feature. While it's hard to predict how strong sales will be on something that is so obviously geared towards those who have actually read the book, I think it's certainly an interesting concept. So, how well does the experiment work? Let's tackle one at a time.
I have to confess, I've often felt that the Tales of the Black Freighter bits represented some of the least interesting moments in Watchmen. Moore's general idea of attempting to parallel "real-life" events from the story with a pirate comic was an interesting one, but the story itself was a bit dull. Sadly, with the context of the larger Watchmen story completely removed (something that will apparently be added in the lengthy director's cut of the movie), this Tales of the Black Freighter animated short film isn't really much to write home about. It's a bloody and violent tale of madness, and the filmmakers do everything they can to add a bit of intrigue to the simplistic story, but there just isn't much here. I hate to admit it, but the best moment comes when the end credits arrive and Nina Simone performs her terrific version of "Pirate Jenny." The animation was a real mixed bag for me. Though any still frame will look fairly impressive, the action is really lacking in terms of fluid motion, and the characters ultimately feel a bit too much like wax figures. Gerard Butler's voice work is expressive and convincing, giving the story a heart if little else.
The transfer on Tales of the Black Freighter is rather impressive, without a doubt. The dark, rich colors look superb here. Blacks are very deep, and the level of detail is as remarkable as you might expect from a brand-new animated feature. The audio is solid as well, with a strong level of balance between the dialogue, music, and gross-out sound design (lots of squished guts and crushed bones to be heard and seen here). However, I was very disappointed with the effort of composer Tyler Bates (who also scored the Watchmen theatrical film). Bates provides a very generic score that is both anachronistic and completely lacking in memorability.
Fortunately, the disc is saved by Under the Hood, which turns out to be considerably better than the main feature. The 37-minute film is actually a very loose adaptation of the text passages from the book, using a unique format to enhance the Watchmen story in a very compelling way. We're given a convincingly crafted re-run of an episode of a 1975 episode of a television program called The Culpepper Minute, featuring an in-depth interview with Hollis Mason. Mason speaks about his new autobiography, and reminisces about his past a crimefighter. The special also includes interviews with the likes of other heroes like the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino, Sin City) along with villains like Big Figure and Moloch. There are also interviews with other minor characters from the book, like Bernard (the newspaper stand owner), Wally Weaver (one of Jon Osterman's early colleagues), the prison psychiatrist, and the bartender.
I thoroughly enjoyed Under the Hood, but I say that as someone who has both read the book and seen the movie. It may seem a bit dull or confusing to those who are completely unfamiliar with either (though I'm not sure why that sort of person would buy this disc anyway). The more you know about the world of Watchmen, the more you will enjoy the film. There are literally dozens of subtle touches and references to the film and comic throughout, and these are fun to spot. I love the fake old commercials for various products made by the Veidt Corporation, and the little foreshadowings of things that would happen later in the story. Prison psychiatrist: "I really do hope that I'm able to psychoanalyze one of these masked heroes someday. That would be something." The performances here are quite convincing and remain completely true to the characters. I love the Comedian's response when a cameraman approaches him and asks if he would be interested in answering a few questions.
The transfer here is intentionally unimpressive, with lots of grain and bits of damaged footage. It's meant to look like a 1970s television broadcast, and it does, all the way down to being presented in full-frame. The Blu-ray disc still offers a good deal of detail behind all of the artificial flaws, and the intentionally faded color palette is very pleasing. There's not much to say regarding the audio, as Under the Hood is primarily a talking heads piece. The intentional flaws also apply to some of the music that pops up every once in a while, particularly during the commercials. Slightly pinched sound and bits of distortion add an aged feeling to the audio.
The primary extra on the disc is "Story Within a Story," a 25-minute making-of featurette that covers both Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood. The featurette discusses why these elements were excised from the theatrical film, and there's a bit of information on how pieces of them will ultimately be incorporated into the director's cut of the film. There are interviews with lots of comics folks like Dave Gibbons, Paul Levitz, and Len Wein, along with movie folks like Stephen McHattie, Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. There's an elephant in the room, though everybody talks about the comic, but Alan Moore is rarely mentioned. We also get the first chapter of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic and a 10-minute look at the forthcoming Green Lantern animated feature. The disc also promises that additional features will be made available via BD Live.
Tales of the Black Freighter is a disappointment, and this stuff will probably be included on a future version of the film, anyway. Even so, the strength of Under the Hood makes this disc worth a rental.
Tales of the Black Freighter is guilty of failing to add interest to
it's dull source material, while Under the Hood is free to go. Court is
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Full Frame
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: Under the Hood
* IMDb: Tales of the Black Freighter