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Since Watchmen was released in U.S. theaters in early March, Warner Bros. has released several companion DVDs and Blu-rays for fans of the series. They’ve released the a full-length, five-and-a-half-hour, animated “motion comic” of the irreverent superheroes created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins; a video game; and now a disc that includes two shorter stories, The Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood. The Tales of the Black Freighter is really a comic within a comic and Under the Hood, is a pseudo-documentary on the origins of the Watchmen which contains excerpts from a from a tell-all book by Hollis Mason.

Black FreighterProduced for Watchmen director Zach Snyder’s extended cut, the animated adaptation of Tales of the Black Freighter is based on a comic book a young man reads in Moore and Gibbon’s skewed superhero epic. As presented here, the story last just over 25 minutes but it tends to be more effective within the Watchmen saga, because the authors intended the story’s plot and character’s to reflect some of the people and events in the main narrative. On its own, the story doesn’t have nearly as much of an impact. Though I’m sure avid Watchmen fans will want to add Black Freighter to their collections.
Gerard Butler (300) voices an eighteenth-century sailing ship attacked by the pirates of the “Black Freighter.” The crew murders all of the captain’s men and sinks his ship. As the only survivor, the Captain thinks of his wife and daughters as his drifts on the waves. He wonders how he will protect his family from an attack by the Black Freighter on his home town.
The captain becomes obsessed with making it back to his family in Davidstown and the rest of the story recounts his journey. His time at sea includes hallucinations, shark attacks, and impending doom, culminating in a horrifying conclusion as he transforms into an obsessive madman, bent on revenge. Seemingly unrelated to the central Watchmen storyline, Tales of the Black Freighter actually deals with the moral struggles and eventual fall of the graphic novel’s central villain. It’s a subtle parallel to be sure, but one that reveals the mindset of a man who longs for peace, yet is willing to resort to violence to achieve it.
One could actually make the case that The Black Freighter parallels the lives of several of the different Watchmen, in that they all have a need to fight evil wherever they discover it, without giving any thought to the consequences for their actions. Tales of the Black Freighter manages to be entertaining, scary and eye-opening all at the same time.
While Tales of the Black Freighter is animated, Under the Hood is a live-action piece. Reminiscent of Dateline or 60 Minutes, it’s a 38 minute mock documentary is presented as an episode of The Culpeper Minute, with host Larry Culpepper (Ted Friend). The show focuses on the formation and eventual dissolution of The Minutemen, the original group of superheroes from 1940. There’s a dinner chat between a journalist and the original Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie) and intercuts the former hero’s comments with Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) interviews, accusations from ex-villain Moloch the Mystic (Matt Frewer), and a few brief and volatile appearances by the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).Everything is done with a straight face and the show even has semi-fake commercials. That way, the audience is meant to believe superheroes really did exist back in the day.
I found the mockumentary a little more interesting than Tales of the Black Freighter. It provides another angle on the Watchmen universe we might not otherwise get, and for Watchmen fans, it’s close to essential viewing. However, both make for a compelling and entertaining addition to any Watchmen fan’s collection.
Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood feature distinct, yet wholly proficient 1080p/VC-1 transfers that bring their respective short films to life. Tales of the Black Freighter offers a bold rendering of its source, lining up well with the transfers offered on other recent Warner Brothers animation releases. Its palette is vibrant, blacks are inky, and detail is refined and revealing. Even though faint pixelation disrupts some of the film’s finer lineart, it’s rarely a distraction. Likewise, while banding appears from time to time, it doesn’t undermine the quality of the presentation. In fact, the picture is extremely clean — significant artifacting and noise aren’t a problem, and color fills are consistent and stable.
Under the Hood has recreated the faded look and rough feel of a dated ’80s television show. While it’s framed at 1.33:1 and filtered to resemble a standard definition presentation, color saturation is excellent, skintones are natural, and the convincing mock-archive footage weaved throughout the various interview segments evoke an actual broadcast. Fine detail is surprisingly sharp despite the nature of the production
Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood look nothing alike, but both manage to deliver the high definition goods. Watchmen fans won’t be disappointed.
Because the filmmakers tried to make Under the Hood seem older than it is, they deliberately toned down the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound (or Dolby Digital 5.1 if you can’t play the lossless track), with much of it sounding like monaural or limited stereo. However, on Tales of the Black Freighter, the audio cooks. It displays great directional effects, a tremendous dynamic range, and thunderous lows, the lossy track sounding a tad brighter and edgier than the TrueHD.
The Blu-ray edition of Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood includes the same supplemental content as its standard DVD counterpart, and adds in a few intriguing BD-Live exclusives for good measure.
Story Within a Story (HD, 25 minutes): First up is a fairly extensive and detailed investigation into how Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood functioned in Alan Moore’s original comic, what they lent to his overall epic, and how they came to be in the first place. Better still, a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage of Snyder’s production offers early glimpses at set pieces and characters that didn’t make it into the final theatrical version of Watchmen.

• Motion Comic Chapter
(HD, 26 minutes): Warner has also decided to include the first full chapter of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic, an extraordinary project I reviewed earlier this month that successfully introduces Moore’s original 12-part miniseries to a new generation of readers.
A First Look at Green Lantern (SD, 10 minutes): Yet another upcoming animated-project preview from DC Comics and Warner that consists of little more than talking-head interviews, concept art, and rough sketches.
BD-Live Exclusives: This release also allows users to download a behind-the-scenes featurette with executive producer and director Zach Snyder, as well as a deleted Watchmen scene that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut of the film.

  • Digital Copy: A bonus digital copy disc of Tales of the Black Freighter in standard definition (for Windows Media only and not compatible with Apple Macintosh or iPod devices)

Don’t forget, Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood is available on ITunes and On Demand!