Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood preserves a place for content from the graphic novel that could not be worked directly into the recent movie release. The main content of the DVD clocks in at a little less than an hour, and despite its virtues it simply doesn’t offer enough to justify its retail price.
The world of Watchmen is one where superheroes are largely unwelcomed by society, so it’s a world where there would probably not be much of a demand for comic books of that genre. That world would still need entertainment, though, and “pirate comics” fill that void. Tales of the Black Freighter was a comic within the comic. It was intricately woven into the Watchmen story, with the arc of its captain’s journey mirroring that of one of the characters in the main story.
The animated short is an intriguing tale of one man’s descent into madness. I found it to be reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. Nothing good comes of an encounter with the pirate ship, the Black Freighter. Our captain is the sole survivor of one of its attacks. Stranded on an island, surrounded by his dead crew, he has but one compulsion. If he moves quickly enough, he might either save his home town from the Black Freighter or, at the very least, avenge them.
Visually, the style of the animated short does not match that found within the panels of the comic. I had no issue with this. I simply saw it as artistic interpretation, and thought the line work of the comic wouldn’t translate well into the medium of animation anyway. But the color palette chosen for this piece matches the tone of the tale and evokes the appropriate emotions. I found myself delighting in small elements that might be interpreted as imperfections in other forms of animation, such as the slightly off proportions when the captain’s head turns. If I were to make a complaint, it would be that the special effect elements were too clean and contrasted too sharply with the hand-drawn animation.
The framing of the shots, while different from the comic, largely help to set the mood. There is, however, one shot of our journeyman laid out upon a dead shark, mid-nightmare, hovering above a swirling whirlpool backdrop that unintentionally took it from the serious to the comedic for a moment. The story takes particularly large liberties in how grotesque it chooses to be. The print version of the story was more conservative in its use of blood and rotting corpses, and managed to more effectively tell the same tale.
The narration is fairly close to the text found in the comic, though it does diverge from the original content at some points. I don’t believe the captain ever had a conversation with his deceased first mate in the original, for instance. I found the voice work to be enjoyable and sufficiently creepy. The captain’s voice is never overwhelmed by the environment noises. I was never distracted by the background sounds and music, which simply tells me that it accomplished what it was supposed to.
I’ve read other reviews online that describe Black Freighter as a total misfire. It’s certainly not perfect and it’s definitely not necessary, but neither is the rest of this DVD. That said, it is still enjoyable. It manages to take a small part of a comic story that itself was attempting to evoke the mood of another artistic style of a different genre of comics, and effectively adapts it to another medium.
I had not read the graphic novel before watching it, and can say that The Black Freighter can stand on its own. On the other hand, to derive any sort of enjoyment from the live-action Under the Hood you really do have to have read the Watchmen graphic novel or have seen the movie.
Within the world of the Watchmen, Under the Hood was a bestselling autobiography written by Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl. It follows his life, from the reasons behind his choice to become a masked adventurer through to his decision to stop. The feature on the DVD approaches the material via a newly created 60 Minutes style show called The Culpeper Minute. It’s 1985, and a decade has passed since the book was originally published. The Keene Act has since banned all forms of vigilantism, effectively killing the ability to operate as a costumed hero without extreme consequence. Culpeper has decided to run a retrospective of his 1975 interview with Mason, with additional interview footage with Sally Jupiter and a former villain, Edgar Jacobi.
I found this feature to be entertaining once I had read the graphic novel. It’s possible to enjoy it for its technical merits, but it doesn’t have any emotional impact without the back story to give it weight. The actors do their job effectively, adding an extra layer of emotion through their delivery of the script and their body language. Interspersed throughout the feature are commercials that effectively capture the time period in which this was supposed to have aired. One of them has a direct connection to the Watchmen story.
Under the Hood attempts to visually convey the time period of the footage or pictures shown, with mixed results. Film footage of the 1940’s and 50’s effectively captures the look and feel of its supposed time. The 1970’s and 80’s footage, though, doesn’t quite hit its mark, and feels like modern footage made to look vintage. I don’t remember anything from my youth looking quite that crisp. Equally, any photos shown do not look vintage and have clearly been digitally altered.
The DVD comes with three extras. Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen is a 25-minute feature on the making of the two features, focusing on the importance of The Black Freighter and Under the Hood to the Watchmen universe. It’s a treat to see some of the storyboards, character designs and unfinished animation from former. There’s also a brief glimpse of some costumes unused in the movie and a bit of footage cut from Under the Hood.
The second is the first chapter of the Watchmen Motion Comic. It had me until Laurie Juspeczyk opened her mouth and a man’s voice came out. I had to stop watching the extra at that point as I realized I could no longer take the work seriously. The final extra is a promotional first look at the upcoming Green Lantern DTV.
It’s clear that a lot of work went into the making of this DVD. It looks and sounds fantastic. The two main features are quite entertaining. There’s just simply not enough content to justify its own DVD release, which may push it into the realm of the rental for anyone who is not a Watchmen completist.