Tales of the Black Freighter (2009)

2010 #100a
Daniel DelPurgatorio & Mike Smith | 25 mins | DVD | 15 / R

In the world of Watchmen, superheroes are real, and so comics have turned to other avenues; mainly, pirates. Threaded through the novel is a boy reading one of these pirate comics, which we also get to see excerpts from, because it (rather obliquely) mirrors the arc of one of the tale’s major characters. As a comic-within-a-comic — indeed, a comic commenting on a comic — it works well as a conceit. But when it comes to adapting the novel to the big screen, how do you convert that?

In this case, as an animation… which was then removed from the feature. It’s back in the home-video-released Ultimate Cut though, which I’ll cover at a later date. First, what of Tales of the Black Freighter as a standalone animation, which is how it was released in the run up to Watchmen’s theatrical run last year.

Appropriately, the short emulates an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon style… albeit in cinematic widescreen, evocative 5.1 Surround Sound, and with horrific R-rated gore. Yes, this probably wouldn’t actually have been shown on Saturday morning TV, even in America. Nonetheless, considering Watchmen’s ’80s setting, it’s a solid choice for this adaptation, which could well have gone down a more modern-styled route.

The story itself is a bit slight. It barely runs 20 minutes once you take off credits at either end, and even at this length feels a little drawn out. It’s a morality play, one that it would take mere minutes to cover the key points of, including a twist ending that seemed surprising in the original. Knowing what was coming, I can’t say if it’s as surprising on screen as it felt on the page; the cartoon is at the disadvantage of presenting the story in one 20-minute chunk, whereas in the graphic novel it’s scattered in small chunks throughout, delaying the reveal and making it harder to piece together the clues.

Overall, however, I did find the story easier to follow in this form. Perhaps Zack Snyder and Alex Tse’s screenplay strips away some of Alan Moore’s typically pretentious narration, or perhaps it was just the benefit of consuming it in one sitting rather than in morsels woven through an already-complex narrative, but keeping track of what’s happening is easier here. Does it lose something when taken out of that context though? Probably, but then I never felt it added much to the graphic novel in the first place. It’ll be interesting to see how it fits into the film when I finally get round to watching The Ultimate Cut — I already have some reservations waiting to be expressed in my review.

I did enjoy Tales of the Black Freighter, though I wouldn’t readily recommend it to others without specific reason. One can easily imagine it as an episode of an anthology series about this mysterious vessel; indeed, thinking of it that way makes me long to see more episodes. But it’s still an odd tale, one created primarily to serve a purpose alongside the main story of Watchmen. I think it does stand alone, but in doing so it becomes reliant on the final twist, which takes a time coming. I’m not sure how many would be interested in the story if they weren’t fans of the novel or film.

It’s got an excellent song over the end credits, mind. Definitely the highlight.

3 out of 5

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