MIAMI — When the Beatles-inspired “Yellow Submarine” was released in 1968, its promoters linked it to classic myths and landmark tales of fantastic voyages such as the “Odyssey” and “Alice in Wonderland.” In the intervening decades, the iconic movie has inspired waves of analysis and dreamy philosophizing: Who do the Blue Meanies represent? What does the voyage of the Yellow Submarine symbolize? What drugs were the animators taking?
But “Yellow Submarine” is also simply what it seems — a free-spirited creative effort by hundreds of people that expresses the joyful, humane spirit of the Beatles’ music. The film, which has been out of print for years, was re-released last week on DVD and Blu-ray in a meticulously hand-restored version.
Animation director Robert Balser, now 85, says “Yellow Submarine” was the result of an uninhibited creative effort that was improbable at the time and would be impossible in today’s corporate entertainment world. (He swears his team was fueled by nothing more than whiskey and imagination.)
“No matter what money you had, you could never get the freedom we had,” Balser says.
The movie tells the story of Pepperland, an “unearthly paradise” that’s invaded by the Blue Meanies, monsters led by a bulbous and sinister falsetto-voiced chief. They turn Pepperland’s people into petrified gray statues and crush all joy and music.
One Pepperlander escapes in the title vehicle to England (a drab place rather like his ruined home) and convinces the Beatles to help. They voyage through a wondrous ocean, where they travel back and forth in time, encounter impossible monsters and meet the Nowhere Man. Together they bring music and life back to Pepperland, even winning over the Meanies. The film ends in a triumphant explosion of color and motion set to “All You Need is Love.”
“Yellow Submarine” was the first non-Disney movie I saw as a child, and it blew my little mind. I was awed, exhilarated and dumbfounded that something so extraordinary could even exist. The Blue Meanies were so scary and cruel, the destruction of music so terribly sad, the Sea of Monsters so bizarre and the triumph of love and music over nastiness and repression so glorious. I saved my allowance for a year to get the album, the first I ever bought.
I am not the only one for whom “Yellow Submarine” was a revelation. Colin Foord, 30, a marine biologist and artist whose Coral Morphologic laboratory and multimedia studio in Miami produces live coral and surreal-looking aquatic films, says childhood viewings of the movie “Yellow Submarine” helped fire his imagination and inspire his career.
“I was simply enamored with the idea of living underwater in a Yellow Submarine spending my days discovering magical, colorful creatures,” Foord says. “‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’ sounds too far out for adults to believe. For children this is an easy fantasy.”
When Balser and a group that would swell to 40 writers and 200 artists began gathering in London’s tiny TVC animation studios in the summer of 1967, they had no script, only a vague directive to work off the Beatles’ songs.
The band, at the height of its popularity, wanted nothing to do with the movie. The group hated a Beatles cartoon series that TVC and King Features (which produced “Yellow Submarine”) had done for American television, and signed off on the film only to fulfill a contractual obligation. Actors voiced their parts. The Beatles contributed four new songs, but stayed away from the studios until “Submarine” was nearly finished, when they dropped in to film a promo for the movie’s ending.
“When I came onto the film on the first day I said ‘OK, what do we do?’” Balser recalls. “They didn’t know what to do. I said at least we know we have to use the songs and take a trip on a Yellow Submarine.”
Czechoslovakian artist Heinz Edelman came up with the Blue Meanies and the idea of good battling evil. The writers included Yale classics professor Erich Segal, who would go on to write the blockbuster pop novel “Love Story,” and an uncredited young unknown named Roger McGough, who would become one of England’s most celebrated poets.
They helped produce a movie full of erudite jokes and classical references — as Pepperland explodes, the Chief Blue Meanie chortles, “I haven’t laughed so much since Pompeii,” and a four-headed dog seems modeled on Cerberus, who guards the entrance to Hades.
They produced an unwieldy amount of material as they experimented, Balser says, including nearly an hour of animation for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a sequence of just a few minutes.
Students swelled the team (“We emptied out the art schools of London to work all night painting animation cels”) as they worked frantically to finish in 11 months — a breakneck pace for an animated film, particularly in a pre-computer era when everything was done by hand.
“It was really by the seat of the pants,” says Balser, whose credits include an animated TV series based on the Jackson 5 and an Emmy-winning film of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
“The final script was typed up a week before the premiere. It’s not a way to make a film. And whenever I’ve given lectures and seminars to talk about film planning I make that damn clear. The fact it worked was one in a million.”
But it did work. And the vivid colors, the wildly morphing shapes, the visual expression of mind-bending concepts (the vacuum-mouthed monster that sucks up the world; the dimension-folding Sea of Holes) and the exuberant message of freedom and non-conformity made “Yellow Submarine” unlike any film before or since.
“This was not animation for children, but surreal expressionistic nonlinear ‘Alice in Wonderland’ animation,” says Robert Rosenberg, director of the Coral Gables (Fla.) Cinematheque, who was an ardent Beatle fan when he saw the movie at age 12. “That sense of otherness creeping into a mainstream form was pretty delirious.”
Film historian and retired Miami-Dade film librarian Don Chauncey had just finished college when the movie came out. “I don’t know if transcendent is the right word, but it brought everything to a halt,” says Chauncey, who recalls looking at the projection booth and thinking that “the bands of color shining at me were so intense you could almost walk on them.”
“Yellow Submarine” continues to inspire dreamlike reactions. When O Cinema co-founder and co-director Kareem Tabsch, 32, saw the movie about a decade ago, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he was overwhelmed.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” Tabsch says. “It was like this modern-day ‘Fantasia.’ It felt very contemporary to me — with this odd quality of being old but new.”
He still thinks it’s unique.
“There’s a lot of wonderful animated films now for kids and adults,” Tabsch says. “But I don’t think there’s that artistic braveness we saw in ‘Yellow Submarine.’”
That creative daring may be why the movie has transcended the ‘60s when so many other pop emblems of the era seem dated.
“It’s such a part of our collective consciousness,” Tabsch says.
Yet the film’s creators weren’t aiming to create an icon — only to unleash their imaginations and make something original.
“We didn’t say we’re going to do this because of this or that — it just happened,” Balser says. “I see how it works with little kids, with teenagers, how it’s engraved in the memory of older people. I think it resonates today, but I don’t know why.”
When Balser saw his handiwork years after finishing it, he noticed many things he could have done better. But he also saw that the mistakes didn’t matter.
“I thought, ‘This is a real fun film.’ That’s the thing I think will keep it going for a long time. It’s a really, really fun film.”
// Notes from the Road
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