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Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter / Under the Hood [Blu-ray]

In adapting Watchmen for the screen, there was a massive amount of material that had to be cut. You simply can’t take a twelve part graphic novel series and place it up on the screen. Director Zack Snyder understood the significance of some of the material that originally had to be excised from the story and has made it available on DVD, with plans to eventually insert it into an extended edition of Watchmen. Considering the mixed success the actual movie is, how does this supplementary material pan out? As disappointing as I may have found parts of the Watchmen movie, I have to say Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood get it right, potentially bringing some of the lost subtext back that was lost in converting the story from graphic novel to film. The first time I read Watchmen, I didn’t understand the inclusion of some of the supplementary material. Sure, the glimpses of the “real world” the comic book was set in was interesting, but I didn’t really think it was all that necessary. At the same time, I saw the introduction of the pirate comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter as an interruption of the narrative of Watchmen. It was cool to see that, in a world where costumed crusaders are real, people turned to pirate stories for their comic entertainment, but I didn’t get why it was there. It took several readings and almost a decade later before I finally “got” that the story within the story served as a mirrored story structure, echoing the personal story of one of the characters in a more dramatic and accentuated fashion.

For the motion picture franchise, Tales of the Black Freighter has been moved from comic book format to an animated presentation. This is not a children’s cartoon, however, and it maintains the visceral nature of the original presentation. The story still follows an unnamed captain of a ship that fell prey to the vile “Black Freighter” pirate ship. Stranded, left for dead, the captain assumes the Black Freighter is headed for his home port. Desperate to beat the Black Freighter home so he can save his family, the marooned sailor succumbs to unrealized depths of humanity. Rotting corpses, bloated by gases and fed on by gulls and sharks, make up a large element of the visuals here. While they might be animated in appearance, they are still quite disgusting in their presentation – a needed element to communicate the horrors this sailor will resort to.

I was originally afraid the animation wasn’t going to be very impressive for this release. Let’s be honest – direct to DVD follow ups for movies like Kung Fu Panda have brought lower quality animation in the interests of grinding out a sequel quickly. That’s not the case here. The movie is hand-animated, missing that manufactured look of CG animation or the shortcuts of Saturday morning animation might carry. The animated short looks very reminiscent of some of the mid-80s animation, particularly Heavy Metal, the Dragon’s Lair video games, or Warriors of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika), fitting the era Watchmen is set in perfectly.

The story is narrated by the captain, voiced by 300’s Gerard Butler, who does a fantastic job of bringing his unnamed character to life. We get a sense of his desperation and devotion through his family through the narrative, and the story maintains that separation between the character rationalizing what he’s doing as right, even though the audience knows he’s wrong.

I have no idea how Snyder plans to incorporate Tales from the Black Freighter into his extended cut of Watchmen, because what’s offered pretty well stands alone. Originally, the Black Freighter story was divided up into several comic book issues, highlighting or contrasting what was going on in the main Watchmen story, with the narration from the comic within the comic overlapping with the events of the main story. I don’t think Snyder can get away with the same thing here, and I’m almost afraid that cutting such a well done animated short into pieces and inserting it into the primary narrative might damage both the flawed Watchmen and the flawless Black Freighter. As a supporting element, this is really impressive, but only time will tell how putting it back into its original context will work.

The other included feature here is Under the Hood, which gets its name from a tell-all autobiography written by the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. Excerpts from the book were shown at the end of a couple of the original Watchmen issues. But how do you bring something like that to a visual format? By having the fictional Mason appear on a news magazine style program, just like real celebrities do to hawk their wares.

In this case, the presentation is a 1985 episode of The Culpeper Minute, a 60 Minutes style program. In the episode, they are offering a retrospective look at an episode from ten years prior, where they interviewed Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) as well as other people from his biography that appear in Watchmen – Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), Edgar Jacobi (Matt Frewer), and even The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) put in appearances.

What’s more important than the movie crossovers, and what Under the Hood gets so much more right than Watchmen does, is that it involves the average person in the interviews as well. We finally get to hear takes on Watchmen events from Bernard the newspaper man (Jay Brazeau), or hear from Silk Spectre’s agent on what it was like promoting the early team. The special gives a sense of context to the world of Watchmen, offering the thoughts and opinions of the average person about what it’s like living in a world of costumed crusaders. Once that is offered, the reaction to the existence of a real super-power, like Dr. Manhattan, is even more impressive.

Hollis Mason doesn’t get a ton of screen time in Watchmen, which is only right – it’s not his story. Under the Hood is, however, and McHattie really shines here, bringing a substantial depth to a former crusader who obviously misses his heyday, and even has some regrets about what he did and didn’t do. The look in his eyes as he discusses the existence of Dr. Manhattan or his once-wished for life with Silk Spectre is amazing.

I don’t see how Under the Hood will fit back into the narrative of Watchmen and I haven’t heard any plans to include it (other than the DVD saying both shorts are intended to go with the film in the extended cut), but this is a must-see when it comes to the world of Watchmen. We finally get the voice of the average person presented here, as well as a good sense of the history and legacy that comes with being a costumed crime fighter.

Both Tales from the Black Freighter and Under the Hood are short (Black Freighter is less than half an hour, while Under the Hood clocks is only ten minutes longer). Neither of these are truly stand-alone features, since they both kind of require knowledge of the Watchmen graphic novel in order to get what is being done here. That said, both of them serve the source material a lot better than Snyder’s feature film does, and make for some excellent viewing that brings the world of Watchmen alive without dominating much of the viewer’s time. It’s hard to rank a DVD release like this because, let’s be honest, this is a disc that is pretty much only supplementary material. Tales of the Black Freighter is kind of a bonus for the movie Watchmen that will eventually be put back into the movie. Under the Hood may only ever exist to support Watchmen. Basically, there is no primary feature here - that’s still in theaters - so complaining about a lack of bonus material for a release that is almost all bonus material is kind of silly. That said, there isn’t much here to supplement the major parts of the disc. We get one behind-the-scenes look, and a few other paltry offerings that are really focused more on selling more Warner Premiere DVDs.

I got the opportunity to check this out on Blu-ray, and the picture quality for Tales of the Black Freighter is fantastic. The image is very crisp and clear, accentuating the animation style. The video on Under the Hood isn’t quite as impressive, but that’s by design. Filters were used to give the video a distinct ‘80s and ‘70s appearance as appropriate, which pretty much make watching it in high definition pointless. Blu-ray is nice, but it’s not integral for this kind of release, particularly when there’s so little to watch with all the running times so short. A digital copy is available via download through a code insert in the package.

The behind-the-scenes featurette is titled “Story Within a Story: The Books of teh Watchmen” and is about as long as either of the primary contents of the disc. The featurette focuses on how Watchmen made use of various genres in its printing, and how they are trying to do the same thing in the movie’s adaptation. Interestingly, several of the people admit to not understanding why Tales of the Black Freighter appeared in the original comic, just as I did above. Illustrator Dave Gibbons is on hand to provide quite a bit of information, although that other guy who created Watchmen is, as expected, nowhere to be seen. We do get the chance to see some footage of material that has been alluded to - the fight with Hollis that was cut from the theatrical version of Watchmen, and the curb newsstand pieces that will segue into the Black Freighter pieces when they are put back into the movie.

The featurette is pretty cool, with interviews with various cast members and production people. On its own I can’t say it’s that special, but as an indicator of what we’ll probably see when Watchmen comes to DVD/Blu-ray (in one of its various incarnations), it looks like we should be getting some quality contents for the movie. These people know their stuff, whether it’s because they were involved with the original creation like Gibbons or the people at DC Comics, or because they had to do their homework to help Snyder make his movie adaptation happen.

There’s a “First Look” at DC’s upcoming Green Lantern animated movie, which isn’t as “first” as you might think since the same featurette appeared on the Wonder Woman DVD a few weeks ago. There’s also a chapter from the Watchmen Motion Comic that came out on DVD a few weeks ago, just in case you wanted the story on DVD instead of just reading the graphic novel. Neither one is all that fantastic, and is pretty much just aimed at selling more copies of other Warner Brothers DVDs.

For the person who just discovered Watchmen through the movie, this release isn’t going to be that much use. Under the Hood does a great job of fleshing out the world the characters live in a little more, but Tales of the Black Freighter isn’t going to mean much to the newcomer. For people who have been waiting for years for Watchmen to come alive, this is absolutely worth checking out. Considering we already know it’s going to be included as part of a future DVD release, I don’t know that I can recommend buying it in good conscience, but I do think it’s worth taking the hour or so to see what’s on the disc now, rather than waiting until later in the year. Who knows, it may even be enough to make you watch the Watchmen in theaters again. I bet Warner Brothers is hoping so.