“The Lennon/McCartney songs used in the film seem to have been conceived and brought forth in the pure simple spirit of mystical innocence, like the works of Chagall. And, like Chagall’s works, the film tries to include everything in the world to make up its own cosmos. The animation style ranges from storybook simplicity to pop art and psychedelic shimmer.”–Punch magazine
DIRECTED BY: George Dunning
FEATURING: Voices of Paul Angelis, John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten, Dick Emery
PLOT: The music-hating Blue Meanies freeze the residents of the idyllic undersea kingdom of Pepperland. Only Admiral Fred escapes in his Yellow Submarine; he travels to Liverpool to enlist the assistance of the Beatles to deal with the threat. After a sailing through several surreal seas, the lads eventually reach Pepperland and use the power of music to defeat the menace.
- Yellow Submarine was animator/director George Dunning’s only feature length work. His job here consisted mainly of supervising the 200+ contributing artists who worked on the film.
- In 1968 the Beatles were disenchanted with movies after the mediocre reception to their self-produced television special Magical Mystery Tour (1967). They were still under contract to United Artists to produce another film and, despite the fact that they weren’t happy with the Americanized Beatles animated TV show, they saw lending their images and four new songs to a cartoon movie as a good way to fulfill their bargain. They liked the finished product well enough to agree to appear in a live-action epilogue.
- The script was co-written by Erich Segal, a professor of classics at Yale who had never even heard of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” when he was hired for the project. Segal later wrote the deplorable novel Love Story, which was turned into an even more deplorable movie.
- Liverpool poet Roger McGough also worked on the script, supplying many of the jokes and puns, but did not receive a screenwriting credit.
- Peter Batten, who voiced George, was discovered by the producers in a pub and cast because he sounded like Harrison. He was later found to have deserted the British army during WWII and was arrested before filming was completed; his remaining lines were recorded by Paul Angelis (who also voiced Ringo).
- The “Hey Bulldog” segment was cut for American theatrical release.
- A 3-D motion capture remake was planned by Disney but scrapped in 2011, to the delight of thinking people everywhere.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking out a favorite frame from Yellow Submarine is like picking a favorite note from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The psychedelic submersible of the title should probably be featured, but what bizarre pop-art backdrop should it be floating past—the gray and grimy industrial wastes of Liverpool, the optical netherworld of the Sea of Holes, or the lysergic bestiary of the Sea of Monsters? We selected the moment the sub transforms itself into a Zippo lighter to re-enact an old slapstick routine with a giant purple boxing beast, but we wouldn’t put up an argument with just about any random image anyone wanted to champion.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blurring the line between a children’s story and a hashish-fueled daydream, Yellow Submarine is a riot of color and visual imagination sure to delight kindergartners and stoners alike. You don’t even have to picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies—over a hundred animators worked for almost a year to paint those vistas for you better than your feeble imagination could ever manage.
Original trailer for Yellow Submarine
COMMENTS: We often think of the Sixties in terms of revolutions: the sexual revolution, the civil rights upheavals, and the growing influence of the hedonistic counterculture. Although Yellow Submarine embodies the spirit of those other revolutionary movements, it’s less well recognized that this movie fought, and won, an insurgency on its own remote front. Call it the Animation Revolution. Before 1968, feature length animation was completely monopolized Uncle Walt Disney, whose aggressively cute cabal of anthropomorphic animals crushed all attempts by other studios to bring unwelcome visual diversity to the masses. Yellow Submarine, with its anarchic explosion of Peter Max-ish pop-art psychedelia, gaudy irrational rotoscoping, photographic cutouts, and a dense visual technique that resembled Dadaist collage assembled with brightly colored construction paper, was the first venture to successfully spit in the Mouse’s omnipotent eye. Yellow Submarine‘s immediate influence can be clearly seen in Terry Gilliam‘s grotesquely funny cutout animations for Monty Python, in the childlike scrawlings of Sesame Street (compare the countdown sequence in “When I’m Sixty-Four” with the Street’s famous “pinball countdown” sequence), and in the Certified Weird Fantastic Planet (the surreal alien creatures that keep popping up in the foregrounds of the planet’s landscapes evolved out of Submarine‘s “Sea of Monsters” sequence—the similarity was apparent enough that the two movies were sometimes screened together). Further down the road, the fact that Submarine made animation hip for counterculture savvy adults would open doors for Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972), and from that point on, animation was definitely no longer strictly kids’ stuff.
Obviously, it was the gravitational pull of the Beatles—just one year removed from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” they were still the center of the pop culture universe—that drew bodies into the theaters and made Yellow Submarine a guaranteed hit. Besides the title track and several old catalog favorites, four new songs were composed for the film—or, rather, the Beatles, who originally thought little of the project, unloaded some unused tunes they didn’t think were good enough to put on albums or singles. But the Fab Four’s impressionistic catalog, ranging from storybook-ready tunes (the title track) to psychedelic-surrealist trips (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), proved perfectly adaptable to creative visualization. The dry, wordplay-based sense of humor the quartet had cultivated in press conferences, which had been canonized in Richard Lester‘s A Hard Days Night (1964), works here to stabilize the viewer in Submarine‘s weird world. No matter how bizarre things get, the lads blasé attitude reminds us there’s nothing to be frightened of; when grinning undersea Indians riding blue seahorses pierce Ringo with a hail of missiles, he merely reports that the experience was “‘arrowing.” Despite their top billing, the Beatles aren’t really the stars of Yellow Submarine; they are its anchors. We know there’s always another toe-tapping musical number just around the next bend; the lads buoy us back to the familiar when the animated undersea anarchy threatens to drown us.
And this hyperactive rush of animation certainly can be overwhelming; there’s no shortage of strangeness in the seas Submarine sails. Consider the anti-music army assembled by the villainous Blue Meanies: tall men who drop green apples on their enemies. Clowns with painted grins and spinning heads. Turks with fezzes and snapping-turtle torsos. A four-headed bulldog. A flying glove. Did Salvador Dalí‘s kids come up with these adversaries? In Yellow Submarine, the Beatles owe their existence to cartoon logic; in the movie they are not rock stars, or superheroes, they’re merely four guys who happen to live in a mystical mansion with an infinite number of rooms. They have no backstories or vocations; they simply are. The titular submarine, piloted by a refugee from depopulated Pepperland, follows a bored and mopey Ringo through the dull and lonely streets of Liverpool (a stand-in for dreary reality). Frankenstein’s monster rises from a slab and metamorphoses into Beatle John. Paul strides onto the scene wearing an ascot and holding a bunch of flowers. George’s introduction is the weirdest; according to the movie, he lives on top of a mountain of pulsing color made up of film footage of blossoming flowers and oxen plowing fields, statuettes of winged lions, and abstract Hindu designs. He steals Ringo’s convertible and telechromatically changes its colors so that Starr can’t claim his property, and whenever something impossible happens he reminds the others “it’s all in the mind.” Despite their sarcastic asides, Pepperland’s Admiral Fred decides these four are the perfect champions to defeat an army of music-hating Blue Meanies. Perhaps it is their cartoon omnipotence that sells him on their suitability.
The Beatles songs are, of course, the big draw, and they do not disappoint. However crazy things get in the narrative, the animators are free to throw away all connection to reality and go hog wild into abstract psychedelia as soon as the first guitar chord strikes up. “Eleanor Rigby” explores loneliness through hand-tinted photographs of actual people (many of the animation crew members appear here) set in an industrial wasteland. The most memorable image here may be of a man in a motorcycle helmet with goggles crying a single tear. “All Together Now” takes us on a tour of the complicated sub with its baroque panel of levers, buttons and blinking gadgets, and also through the tempestuous sea teeming with impossibly detailed shards of multicolored coral and fish doing the breaststroke. When the gang sails into the Sea of Time, they rapidly age, the perfect excuse to segue into “When I’m Sixty-Four.” “Only A Northern Song” manipulates painted photos of the Fab Four together with oscilloscope readings to create an electrified Andy Warhol portrait. A new character, “polyglot classicist” Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., provides the impetus for another musical digression with “Nowhere Man,” which sees the lads cavorting though more abstract landscapes with the plump, pink-tailed, clown faced rodent intellectual. The hallucinatory lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” inspire one of the movie’s nuttiest episodes. The song begins in the Headlands, a hilly range of noggins made up of transparent heads showing off an infinite range colorful thoughts (one man’s brain is filled with an image of the Union Jack, another with the words “DE SADE,” and many others with multicolored blinking stars and random geometric patterns); it ends up, though its own druggy logic, with pink and green rotoscoped flappers doing the Charleston. After traversing the Sea of Holes (or the Holy See, as George dubs it), the quartet winds up in Pepperland, where they defeat the Meanies in a grand melee/concert consisting of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey Bulldog.” With Dr. Boob twirling atop of an ever-expanding flower before a bubblegum sky, “It’s All Too Much” takes us out on a suitably psychedelic note, before the actual live-action Beatles show up to sing us out with a reprise of “All Together Now.”
Yellow Submarine‘s theme–love, music and puns are good, badness is bad—is hardly the deepest. But there’s no questioning the movie’s childlike sincerity, and the impressive imagination and energy it harnesses in service of its naïve vision. Since it’s like looking at a pop-up book under the influence of LSD, Yellow Submarine suggests an intellectual bond between hippies and preschoolers. That’s not necessarily an insulting proposition. Although in 1968 the under-30 crowd’s belief in the power of love to overcome Vietnam and the KKK proved unpractical, they did at least construct an imaginary, childlike utopia that will stand as an eternal reprimand to more cynical generations. Even the most jaded among us can gaze at Pepperland’s rainbow-striped hills and its flowers that blossom in paisley, hum to ourselves “all you need is love,” and sadly wish that we still had some of what these guys were smoking.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the whole movie, alternately washed and hard edge, art nouveau, and full of flowering shrubs and thistles, is full of enfolded meanings, jokes, puns—some of them lemon-infantile, none of them aggressive, pretentious, or self-indulgent—that would delight a child, or a head, or anybody who loves and admires the Beatles…”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Visually, every conceivable style is thrown in pell-mell: there is Art Nouveau and psychedelic, op and pop, dada and surrealist, Hieronymous Bosch and just plain bosh. Why does it work? Because of its reckless generosity. The fact that Jugendstil is made to rub curlicues with Miro, that expressionism is obliged to lie down with the Douanier Rousseau, that the outrageous melange des genres is served up as demurely as the most ingenuous tossed salad — in short, that it is so unselfconscious: that’s what makes it click.”–John Simon, National Review (contemporaneous)
“…for an auditorium spread with four dozen pre-adolescent boys, ‘Yellow Submarine’ was the last picture show for us, something so mind-alteringly bizarre that all we could do was not move… Watching it again with an older eye, I found what frightened and enthralled me as a kid was precisely what is so ingenious and stunning about it now: Heinz Edelmann’s art direction…”–Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (1999 re-release)
The Official Yellow Submarine Website – Contains the trailer, stills, storyboards, “making of” interviews, a “Save Pepperland” video game, and much more
IMDB LINK: Yellow Submarine (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Yellow Submarine- The Beatles – The Yellow Submarine page at the Beatles official site contains a synopsis, images, film clips, and a shoutbox to interact with Beatles fans
The Hidden Stories Behind Yellow Submarine – Excellent one-page compilation of background and trivia on the film from Dr. Robert Hieronymous, originally published in Billboard magazine
Yellow Submarine :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s essay on Yellow Submarine for his “Great Movies” series
The Fake Four – The Guardian tells the story of the four almost anonymous actors who provided voices for the four most famous men on the planet
Why the Beatles Tried to Sink Yellow Submarine – Background information on the genesis of Yellow Submarine from Daniel Finkelstein of The Australian
Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic – An exhaustive (430 pg.) account of every facet of the making of the movie by Robert Hieronymous
Up Periscope Yellow: The Making of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – Producer Al Bodrax reminisces about making the film
DVD INFO: Yellow Submarine had been out of print since MGM’s 1999 release; in 2012, Capitol released a spectacular DVD (buy) from a new hand-restored print. Ravenous Beatles fans are a demanding demographic, but this release was packed with enough extra features to please the hoariest hippie. The release is anchored by an informative commentary by production supervisor John Coates, with additional comments by art director Heinz Edelmann (not made for this release, as Edelmann died in 2009). The seven minute promotional documentary “The Beatles: Mod Odyssey,” made in 1968, features some behind-the-scenes footage but is basically an advertisement for the completed film (though a good one, to be sure). The original trailer, extensive storyboard sequences, sketches, six short interviews, and contemporaneous photos of the Beatles on set round out disc’s bonus features. The well-stuffed package also includes a 16-page booklet, replica animation cels and collectible stickers of the four main characters.
The Blu-ray release (buy) contains the exact same features as the DVD.