Adult-targeted animation among DVD releases this month

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

25 March 2009

cover art

Watchmen: Tales from the Black Freighter / Under the Hood

(Warner Brothers)
US DVD: 24 Mar 2009

Things are busy on the animation front with three noteworthy efforts - all of them aimed squarely at adult audiences - making their DVD debuts this month.

They include a spin-off of the big “Watchmen” movie, a French film of astounding visual beauty effort and a 70-year-old classic.

“Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter” is a lurid comic book come to life in which a shipwrecked sailor makes a raft from the bloated corpses of his crew (victims of demonic pirates who sail on the titular Black Freighter) for a shark-and-delirium-plagued journey across the sea.

Watchmen fans will recognize the Black Freighter as a comic book read by one of the graphic novel’s minor characters. While it isn’t essential to the larger Watchmen saga, it provides literary counterpoint and commentary on aspects of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ opus.

The Black Freighter yarn is missing from the theatrical version of “Watchmen” now in theaters, but director Zack Snyder insisted that it be made as a stand-alone 20-minute film that eventually will be incorporated into a definitive cut of the movie.

It’s not for the kiddies. The traditional cel animation used here is dramatic and astonishingly grotesque. Gas-filled corpses spew erupting intestines, gulls pluck festering eyeballs. It’s also weirdly beautiful with its depiction of wheeling birds and blood-red sunsets.

Gerard Butler (“300”) provides the voice of our protagonist, deftly navigating the overwrought dialogue (Moore clearly based it on the madman-as-narrator model pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe).

The “Black Freighter” DVD also has a couple of extras essential to Watchmen stalwarts.

“Under the Hood” purports to be a 1975 television interview with Hollis Mason, the first (and now retired) Nite Owl.

It’s a perfect re-creation of a period TV show, right down to the commercials. In addition to giving us a wonderful faux documentary on the history of masked crimefighters, “Hood” also gives us a better chance to know Mason (Stephen McHattie) and the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), both of whom get limited screen time in the feature film.

A third effort, “Story Within a Story,” is a mini-doc exploring how the Black Freighter comic and Mason’s memoir “Under the Hood” fit into the overall “Watchmen” experience.

Great stuff.

The French “The Princes’ Quest” is one of the most unconventional and visually beautiful animated movies in ages.

An arresting blend of computer animation and flat cel imagery, Michel Ocelot’s film also is aimed primarily at grown-ups, not because it’s lurid, but because it rejects the usual Disney-inspired animated storytelling. There are no cute animals, no overt jokiness and, despite its fantasy elements, the yarn is grounded in real human behavior.

The tale begins in Renaissance France, where a widowed nobleman turns his son over to a servant, a woman from the Middle East with her own baby the same age. Blond Azur and dark Asmar grow up as sometimes brawling brothers, but eventually they are forced into very different lives.

Years later they are reunited in a distant Arabian land. Azur has come to woo and win a fairy princess; his “brother” Asmar has the same idea. Will they oppose each other or combine their efforts to overcome the many obstacles in their way?

The story is diverting enough, but it’s the incredible visuals that you’ll remember. The European segment seems to have been based on medieval tapestries, while the Arabian scenes draw heavily from the geometric art that decorates mosques.

The temptation is to call Ocelot’s style minimalist, yet it’s also quite opulent once you leave behind your preconceptions of what animated storytelling should be.

Finally there’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Max Fleischer’s full-length cartoon from 1939.

“Gulliver” is noteworthy as only the second feature cartoon ever (it came out a few months after Disney’s “Snow White”).

Frankly it’s more interesting from an historical perspective than an entertainment one.

In adapting Jonathan Swift’s biting political and social satire, Fleischer’s crew - their most successful character was Popeye - have softened and sweetened the material.

Gulliver is shipwrecked in the land of the thumb-sized Lilliputians, who initially make him a prisoner. There’s a weary subplot in which a prince and princess of warring countries carry on a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance (an opportunity for some forgettable love songs) and much clowning around by Gabby, a bumbling night watchman who discovers the half-drowned Gulliver passed out on a beach.

Some of the scenes - like the one in which the Lilliputians used derricks and winches to tie down their unconscious visitor - still retain their magic.

Mostly, though, “Gulliver” illustrates the vast superiority of the Disney product.

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