The Good: Decent-enough animation, Good acting in Under The Hood, Good stories
The Bad: Expensive, Only tangentially related to Watchmen, A LOT of advertisements.
The Basics: Adequately fleshing out the cinematic Watchmen, the comic from within the comic book Watchmen is now presented as an animated feature, Tales Of The Black Freighter.
The nice thing about getting to the bottom of my backlog of video reviews is that I can finally begin enjoying new DVDs that I've had on the shelf for months and yet not had an opportunity to watch. Principle among those DVDs is the Tales Of The Black Freighter DVD that has been gathering dust on my shelf since it was released. Arguably the reason, atop the other DVDs I had already watched but not yet reviewed, it has taken me so long to take in this DVD was the fact that I loathed the Watchmen Original Motion Comics DVD that was released at the same time (reviewed here!) and the fact that my wife had no interest in watching Tales Of The Black Freighter. I suspect that my partner has not yet forgiven me for subjecting her to the IMAX experience of Watchmen (reviewed here!), so I humored her by not pushing the issue. So, finally, while she was at work today, I had a chance to sit back, pop some pistachios and watch everything that is on the Tales Of The Black Freighter disc I bought months ago.
First of all, it is worth noting that Warner Premiere, which is producing and distributing Tales Of The Black Freighter is trading on the fans of Watchmen and preying upon their desire for completion with naming the DVD Tales Of The Black Freighter. The Under The Hood segment of the DVD, which is advertised simply as a bonus feature to the main program, actually is ten minutes longer than the animated feature. Perhaps this was necessary because Tales Of The Black Freighter was rated "R" and Under The Hood only received a PG rating. Second, it does appear that the content of this disc is on the Watchmen Ultimate Edition DVD and Blu-Ray. This, ultimately, was what turned me to the "not recommend" for this disc.
For those unfamiliar with the Watchmen world, in the original comic and graphic novel Watchmen (reviewed here!), there was a comic book presented within the storyline. As certain events happened in the middle and end of the story, a young man sat on a streetcorner reading a comic book, Tales Of The Black Freighter. This worked - despite being confusingly interpolated between panels of the main story - on an allegorical level and in the quest to keep the cinematic Watchmen under three hours, this was one of the first omissions from the live-action film. However, because fans of Watchmen were no doubt going to kvetch about the absence of Tales Of The Black Freighter, much the way The Lord Of The Rings die-hards continue to complain about the lack of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson's films, director Zack Snyder let slip early on that there was an animated feature being produced to correct this oversight.
More than that, fans of the cinematic Watchmen can expect Tales Of The Black Freighter to be melded with the live-action film when it arrives on DVD, as part of the "Ultimate Edition." This, however, is a recipe for disaster. Tales Of The Black Freighter rightly fleshes out the entire world that Watchmen is set in by essentially answering the question, "in a world where super heroes are real, what would comic books be about?" It's an interesting, if geeky, question, and Tales Of The Black Freighter works to do that. Putting the animated feature back into the film - anywhere other than a prologue to prime the audience - is potentially disastrous as the concept works better than the execution. While the movie Watchmen was complex and deep, the diversion to have a comic book told to the audience (Tales Of The Black Freighter) is an unnecessary distraction in an already long and complex film. This would be like having an animated short of Moby Dick placed into The Dark Knight; are there themes that parallel the live action and animated stories? For sure. Is it necessary? Not at all.
So, on its own, Tales Of The Black Freighter works better. It's a good bonus feature, but an unsatisfying addition to a meal. Surprisingly rated "R," the animated feature is a bit gore-filled and not intended for children. More accurately entitled "tale of a survivor of an attack from the Black Freighter," Tales Of The Black Freighter tells a pirate story perfectly translated from the original graphic novel.
Following an attack that destroyed his ship, a sea captain washes ashore to a desert island. There, he becomes fearful that the Black Freighter which obliterated his ship is headed to his home, Davistown. As the bodies of his crew wash to the same island and bloat in the sun, the Captain decides he must do what he can to save his home. He lashes the bodies together and sets back out to sea. On the open water, he fights gulls, dehydration, hallucinations (one of his dead friends begins to speak to him) and a shark attack in his attempt to get home. But returning to Davistown to try to stop the denizens of the Black Freighter, he is driven mad and his homecoming is not what he anticipates it being.
Tales Of The Black Freighter is an interesting story, but the character work is told far more than shown, especially as an animated feature. The Captain provides a voice-over, but the voice-over - from actor Gerard Butler - is delivered in the same rational, reasoned tones throughout, which make no real sense by the end of the episode. As the Captain is driven mad, one suspects he would sound different, but Butler delivers the lines with a consistency that seems to defy the theme of the comic.
Visually, Tales Of The Black Freighter is well-made. The animation is quite good and this is not a hokey performance like the Motion Comics were. There are a few issues - the Captain describes the sky as golden and it is not, for example - but more often than not, the animation crew at Warner Premiere got it right. In fact, they insert some nice visual nods, like a bloodstain on the Captain's improvised mast looking like a Rorschach ink blot!
More worth the Watchmen fan's time, money and attention is the presentation Under The Hood. Fleshing out Stephen McHattie's character Nite Owl, Under The Hood takes the form of a retrospective look at an interview with Hollis Mason (Nite Owl) from the release of his autobiography, Under The Hood. Under The Hood tells the story of the Minutemen, the first group of masked vigilantes working in New York City to fight crime. This allows peripheral characters seen only in the opening credits of the cinematic Watchmen to have their day on screen. Mason discusses the backstory of what drove the women and men who dressed up as costumed heroes to do what they did. The feature is presented as an interview show and has Hollis Mason, Sally Jupiter and Moloch being interviewed. The concept is fun and it is well-executed down to the fact that it looks like it was filmed in the 1970s.
Under The Hood stars Watchmen stars McHattie, Carla Gugino, Matthew Frewer and a cameo from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as well as a few others from the movie. This is a nice bonus feature and watching it before seeing Watchmen certainly enriches the world of the film appropriately without revealing anything that the film focuses on. Also, the interview show is broken up by advertisements . . . for products by Veidt Enterprises!
Other bonus features on the disc include a featurette on the making of Tales Of The Black Freighter and Under The Hood. Fans desperate to get their Watchmen fix will enjoy the fact that in the behind-the-scenes shots there are snippets of Hollis Mason's demise, which was edited out of the cinematic release. As well, in talking about integrating Tales Of The Black Freighter into the Ultimate Edition of Watchmen, there are scenes featuring the Bernards (the comic book vendor and reader) which are supposed to bridge the live-action into the animated feature which are teased. As well, the DVD has previews for Terminator Salvation (the film and the video game), the new straight-to-DVD Green Lantern feature preview, and previews for the film and video game for Watchmen. As well, the first chapter of the Watchmen Original Motion Comics is provided, but that acts more as a deterrent to purchasing that DVD than an effective sales tool.
Ultimately, this disc is a bunch of glorified DVD bonus features being sold separate from the main feature. Fans lose nothing by not seeing Tales Of The Black Freighter, though most would appreciate Under The Hood. It is not enough to recommend this DVD, especially at the stifling $20+ price tag.
And on the off chance that Watchmen director Zack Snyder is reading this: take it from a loyal fan, the movie is good enough without Tales Of The Black Freighter. Don't ruin what you have by reintegrating this! Every other deleted scene, we'll take, right where they belong. But this animated feature . . . even with its allegories that enrich the main story . . . hold, enough!
For other DC-universe animated DVDs or animated features, please check out my reviews of:
Batman: Gotham Knight
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
For other movie reviews, please be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.