I'm counting your heads as I'm making the beds: Chris reviews Tales of the Black Freighter

Let it be known that I did not care much for the Watchmen movie. While it had some already much-discussed merits (the opening credits sequence, some of the performances), I felt the Zach Snyder's adaptation focused too much on getting the tiny details correct and missed the comic's grander themes in place of adopting a "kewl" bone-crunching aesthetic -- a clear case of not seeing the forest for the blood-smeared smiley buttons if you will. (The possibility that Snyder was being tongue-in-cheek, as some claim, doesn't make the juxtaposition between the content and the visuals any less jarring.)

So it was with some trepidation that I popped the new Tales from the Black Freighter DVD into my Xbox. For those who don't know, this is a supplemental animated version of the "Black Freighter" story that runs co-currently in Watchmen alongside the central plot. Rather than excise the sequence completely, the filmmakers decided to create a separate cartoon that supposedly will be incorporated into the final, four-hour (or whatever) version of the film.

Having been so disappointed with the screen adaptation, I expected this to be a dreary more of the same.

Surprise! I actually liked it. Mind you, the film (and the other supplementals found on the disc) is not without its problems, but it's certainly more entertaining and truer to its source than the feature film that it spawned from.

The original Black Freighter sequences were some of the most gruesome bits in the comic, with the narrator building a raft of bloated human corpses in a mad attempt to save his village from the pirates that slaughtered his crew.

So, as you'd expect with a faithful adaptation, the cartoon doesn't shy away from the gore at all, and there's lots of severed heads and birds eating eyeballs and whatnot. At times the level of violence comes off as more gross than disturbing or horrific, such is one of the problems with adapting a work from comics to film -- even in animation the violence becomes more "real" and literal.

The other problem in adapting this sequence lies with Moore's deliberately purple prose, as he was both trying to evoke the florid type of writing found in those types of comics and evoke the speech an mannerisms of a 18th-century sea captain. Again, I had little trouble with the way the liberal use of Moore's writing here, a large part of that is no doubt due to Gerald Butler, who inveighs a good bit of humanity and earnestness in the tortured sailor.

I liked the look of the film too. The animators (all of them from South Korea apparently) don't attempt to ape Dave Gibbons style so much as approximate it. The end result is something that's neither quite Gibbons or anime but an odd blend of the two. Some may bristle but I thought it helped set the film apart from the source material and made it feel a bit more like a standalone work.

Which brings me to my final point. If I had to complain (and trust me I do, doctor's orders) it's that by surgically removing Black Freighter from Watchmen's larger narrative, a good deal of its emotional resonance and impact is lessened. Although its purpose may not have been apparent at first glance, its placement in the story was integral for the mood and themes Moore and Gibbons were trying to explore. Shorn of those, Black Freighter feels more like a grim but clever EC story than anything else. All that's missing is a "choke" and "good lord!"

A nice touch: Playing Nina Simone's rendition of Pirate Jenny over the end credits.

In addition to the cartoon, the DVD also features Under the Hood, a short, live-action attempt to adapt some of the supplemental material that graced the back of the various chapters in Watchmen, most notably the "excerpts" from Hollis Mason's memoir.

The filmmakers wisely avoid attempting any literal dramatization of the first Nite Owl's early life and times and instead frame the material within the context of an old, 60-Minutes style TV program. Thus, we get Larry Culpepper of The Culpepper Minute, circa 1985, pulling out his old interview with Mason from the 1975 archives. I really liked the attention to period detail that director Eric Mathies invests in the film, right down to the old commercials for Seiko watches and Sani-Flush. It looks and feels like the sort of news magazine programs my parents watched (much to my annoyance) back in the late 70s and mid-80s.

In the short, Mason (played by Stephen McHattie) expounds on his life as a crimefighter -- most of his dialogue is lifted directly from the comic -- and we see newsreel footage of himself and the other Minutemen hard at work. Carla Gugino and Jeffrey Dean Morgan reprise their roles as the Silk Spectre and Comedian respectively, to offer their own perspectives (or, in the case of the Comedian, not). For my money, though, the best part was watching Matt Frewer as an aging Moloch.

Watchmen fans will no doubt enjoy the cameo appearances of newsdealer Bernard, Silk Spectre's manager, wally Weaver and the (as yet unscarred) psychiatrist, although I was annoyed by his declaration of how much he'd love to be able to psychoanalyze a superhero. Blatently obvious foreshadowing has that effect on me.

Still, it's a fun, amusing little mockumentary, one that gives a nice bit of backstory for those who only saw the film and want more info on the Watchmen universe. Fans, meanwhile, will enjoy the interpretation and seeing text passages brought to life.

The special features included on the disc (I watched the non-blu-ray version) are more than a little anemic and consist of the first episode of the Watchmen Motion Comic (and the less said about that the better) and Story Within a Story, a documentary that basically attempts to explain why this DVD exists in the first place. Various DC execs, movie honchos, comics folk (so that's what Len Wein looks like) and Dave Gibbons talk about the significance of the original material. There's a lot of annoying blather and back-slapping puffery about how groundbreaking the book was (the Black Freighter story was a precursor to the Internet? If you say so.), though it's always interesting to hear Gibbons and Wein talk about how the comic came together. It's the least interesting segment on the disc.

Overall, Black Freighter, though far from essential or revelatory, manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls and problems that plagued the feature film. One would have thought it would be the other way around.

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