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Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (2009)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 3/24/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/15/2009

It may seem like a modern idea, but movie tie-ins have been around forever. Starting with things as simple as magazines and posters, when a big movie was released, the powers that be would supply the film-going public with merchandise which was linked to the film. Today, we get t-shirts, action figures, video games, and many more things. Occasionally, the makers of a film will release a short film or TV special which relates to the major movie. With the recently released Watchmen, we've gotten several off-shoots. First, Warner released Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic for lazy people like me who wanted to know the story of the graphic novel, but didn't want to read it. Now, we get a second Watchmen DVD release inside of a month with Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter.

The Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter DVD actually contains two co-headlining features. The first is the titular "Tales of the Black Freighter". In several issues of the Watchmen comic, we see a teenager sitting by the newsstand reading a comic with the aforementioned title. Bits and pieces of the story from this comic are interwoven into Watchmen. Here, the entire story has been pulled from that context and fleshed out into a comprehensive story into an animated short.

The story opens in the aftermath of a ship having been destroyed. The Captain (voiced by Gerard Butler) is tossed about in a sea which is strewn with burning debris. Based on his comments, we gather that his boat was blown up by The Black Freighter, presumably a pirate vessel. Unable to save his shipmate Ridley (voiced by Jared Harris), The Captain finds himself washed ashore on an island, along with the corpses of his crew. Convinced that The Black Freighter will now be heading for his homeport of Davidstown, The Captain concocts a plan to return home and save his family.

This 26-minute animated feature is reminiscent of an old EC comic, not only because of the visual style, but also due to the grim twist ending. And, taken on its own, it's perfectly enjoyable, as it presents a coherent story with a beginning (sort of), a middle, and an end. But, when taken out of the context of Watchmen, it loses much of its power. In the comic, "Tales of the Black Freighter" cleverly parallels the larger story. Here, we simply have grisly Robert Louis Stevenson-esque tale which comes and goes quite quickly. Aside from the liberal use of sharks (a personal favorite), the best part of this animated "Tales of the Black Freighter" is that the sail which The Captain fashions resembles Rorschach's mask. I don't remember that from the comic. I'm not sure if this will appeal to even the most die-hard Watchmen fans.

That can't be said for the second feature, "Under the Hood". This 38-minute live-action short film is a faux TV-show from the Watchmen universe called "The Culpepper Minute" (which resembles 60 Minutes.) The framing device for the show is set in 1985, as host Larry Culpepper (Ted Friend) introduces a retrospective on masked adventurers. He then airs his 1975 interview with Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the man who was once The Nite Owl, and who, after retirement, wrote a tell-all biography called "Under the Hood". Mason talks about his life as a crime-fighter and what it was like to work with other masked vigilantes. Culpepper also interviews Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), who fought crime as The Silk Spectre. We also hear from villains Moloch (Matt Frewer) and Big Figure (Danny Woodburn). An attempt to get a comment from The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ends in a scuffle.

Now this is a movie tie-in. "Under the Hood" takes us into the world of Watchmen and deeper into the movie. Mason's autobiography is mentioned in the comic and excerpts from the book (which isn't real in real life by the way) were included in the original Watchmen comics. This piece isn't a dramatization of the book, but rather an interview with Mason, as we get his side of the story about the formation of The Minutemen and his life as The Nite Owl. Aside from the aforementioned characters who appear in the film (played by the actors from the movie), we also get minor characters, such as the News Vendor (Jay Brazeau) and psychiatrist William Long (Wiliam Taylor). There is also archive footage of old crime fighters like Mothman (Niall Matter) and Hooded Justice (Glenn Ennis). For those who didn't get enough of the Watchmen movie, "Under the Hood" is a nice companion piece which takes things a bit deeper.

So, "Under the Hood" is a pretty cool tie-in to the movie, but "Tales of the Black Freighter" is underwhelming. The bottom-line is that both of these shorts have the feel of something which would normally be included as an extra on a DVD release. It's up to you if you want to buy a DVD with only 64-minutes of content.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter sails onto DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. "Tales of the Black Freighter" has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The animation is crisp and the colors look good. The short has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which provides very impressive stereo and surround effects. Why can't all animation have sound like this? "Under the Hood" is presented in a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. Most of this is supposed to look like an old TV show, so there is grain and some hairs and lines on the image. Otherwise, it looks perfectly fine. Again, we have a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track here, but the bulk of the sound comes from the front channel, as we are dealing with interviews, not action.

The Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter DVD contains two extras. "Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen" (25 minutes) examines how "Tales of the Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood" are featured and used in the original comic. Representatives from DC talk about how the books were used as a touchstone to our reality and how they commented on the story. We also learn how the comic contained extra pages with extra art and "excerpts" from "Under the Hood". The text of "Under the Hood" included in a comic was a novel idea which further helped to separate Watchmen from other books. The speakers then turn their attention to "Tales of the Black Freighter" and discuss how that story was woven into Watchmen. Throughout this, we get footage from the "Tales of the Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood" videos included on this DVD and on-set footage from the movie. The DVD also includes Chapter One from "Watchmen Motion Comic".

Warner Home Video has also released Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter on Blu-ray Disc. "Tales of the Black Freighter" has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image looks fantastic and is completely free from any defects. The animation is very sharp and the colors are vivid. The Disc has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.0 Mbps. A few moments in, when the flaming mast falls into the water, you'll know how good the sound is here, as the audio of that event fills all 5 channels and then triggers the subwoofer. I was really impressed by the sound here. "Under the Hood" is presented 1.33:1 and has a 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps.. The image looks fine, but don't forget, it's supposed to be degraded as it's an old video from 1975. The show has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.3 Mbps. Being a dialogue driven piece, most of the audio comes from the center and front channels, but there's no hissing or distortion.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are the same as those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long