Animation Never Said It Wanted a Revolution, but It Got One With the Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’

Yellow Submarine has finally surfaced on Blu-ray disc. All together now, let’s celebrate. It’s about time! After being inexplicably out of circulation for years, we can all return to Pepperland. Plus, now it can astound every one of us in high definition.

The most innovative and surprising animated film from the ’60s features the Beatles on an amazing, vibrant journey via some of the most experimental and inventive animation techniques seen at that time. The film encapsulates everything good and lasting about the Beatles and their cultural influence. Watching their trip to Pepperland evokes nostalgia and brilliance.

A Hard Day’s Night and Help! may have starred John, Paul, George and Ringo, but 1968’s Yellow Submarine best captures the essence of the Fab Four: distinct personalities, timely fun, blissful experimentation, flawless musicality, countercultural boundary stretching, and the overarching belief that love really is all you need.

That’s especially worth mentioning since, in the whole scheme of things, the band had very little to do with the film’s production. The Beatles hated Al Brodax’s animated American TV series called The Beatles so much that it hadn’t aired in the UK. They figured Yellow Submarine was going to be more of the same. The lads from Liverpool, who up until that point could do almost nothing wrong, were wrong. Director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine opened the door for maturity and experimentation for feature film animation, a door that has unfortunately been rarely walked through since.

Prior to its release, the film seemed sure to be a quick, shallow cash-grab and an easy way for the band to complete their three-film contract with United Artists. It was neither.

Much like with A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles fans understandably feared simple exploitation yet were given an innovative treat. Even the Beatles, who didn’t record their voices for the film, were ultimately swayed by its animated ambition. Plus, those formerly reluctant Beatles enjoyed the production enough that they decided to film a live-action sing-along piece to “All Together Now”, which concludes the iconic film.

And they weren’t alone in their appreciation. The word “classic” is tossed around much too frequently when it comes to film, yet Yellow Submarine earns its exalted legacy, and not just because of its association with the most successful group in music history. What Dunning and company were able to accomplish is astounding. The result is a feast for the eyes, and a wonderful delight for your ears, with something surreal occurring in just about every scene.

The story concerns the cheerful paradise of Pepperland, a land that’s overflowing with love, color and melody until it’s invaded by creatures called the Blue Meanies. The Blue Meanies hate music, hate love, and well, hate everything. They’re the type to scream, “A thing of beauty; destroy it forever!”

While Meanies attack with their Flying Glove and drain the countryside of color and music, a trusted survivor, Old Fred, escapes in the yellow submarine. Old Fred goes to England to enlist the help of the Beatles. Not unlike Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz, the Fab Four find themselves on an odyssey to Pepperland. They spend most of the film traveling through psychedelic regions like the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science, and the Foothills of the Headlands. After all, it’s about the journey, not about the destination.

Along the way, in the Sea of Nothing, they pick up “Nowhere Man” Jeremy Hillary Boob, who is much less risqué than his name might suggest. The Boob adds intellect and humor after joining their crew. The forces of good do eventually make it to Pepperland to save the day and further prove that the Beatles will never be equaled. And just when you think it’s over, the real John, Paul, George and Ringo appear in the finishing live-action sing-along.

The animated music is a series of loosely connected set pieces set to Beatles songs, more akin to traditional music videos than a typical film. It’s full of trippy imagery, in-jokes and clever cross-references. Think of it as a counterculture Fantasia. The plot is minimal, but that’s just fine. It gives you more time to concentrate on the magical tour’s loopy images and enduring tunes. Besides, it didn’t start with a story; a hit song from 1966 about how we all live in a sunshine-colored submersible watercraft inspired it. What more would you expect?

Like in any odyssey worth remembering, there’s a gaggle of outrageous characters and creatures. The caricatured Beatles are immediately recognizable even if what surrounds them isn’t. Four of the most famous faces in popular culture history are complemented by countless new sights that you might only otherwise see while, well, while hallucinating. The purple tailcoat-wearing Apple Bonkers, gigantic “kinky boot beasts”, the Snapping-Turtle Turks, and a fish with human arms doing the breaststroke are just a few of the zany creatures that appear along the way.

Had the Beatles voiced themselves, the motion picture would have undoubtedly been better. The voice actors provide caricatures of each member, like John’s bold sense of intellectualism and sarcasm. Still, when Lord Mayor tells the four, “You could pass for the originals,” he’s actually referring to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, but you might just agree with him in regard to the Beatles themselves. The voice actors convey the right tone, essence, and spirit of each member the Fab Four, even though there’s no real attempt to precisely imitate their voices.

From the opening narration on, “Eighty thousand leagues beneath the sea it lay…or lie. I’m not too sure,” it’s as pun-heavy as any Monty Python production. Indeed, Yellow Submarine is filled with clever humor, witty wordplay and comical sight gags. During the trip through the Sea of Monsters there’s a great little string of lines about a school of whales looking too old for school. Paul says, “University then,” and Ringo immediately follows with “University of ‘Wales.’” And yes, there are as many terrible jokes as there are terrific ones, but even the bad ones are funny.

The animation itself is wildly imaginative and creative with its varied, inventive styles. Inspired by the pop art of the time, viewers are continually rewarded with stunningly vivid psychedelic colors and new visuals. The style changes every few minutes thanks to art director and production designer Heinz Edelmann which keeps the curiosity stirring. The team of animators and technical artists literally pioneered new techniques on Yellow Submarine.

With all the wizardry, it embodies the pure organic spirit of transcendent innocence. Integrating the freestyle approach of the era, it ranges from storybook simplicity to pop art masterpieces, and from to psychedelic shimmer to experimental mixed media. The mind-bending sounds are consistently meshed with mind-expanding visuals.

The “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is the most rewarding to watch, with its synthesis of whimsical animation and drab still photography. It melds realistic newsreel footage, photographs of Liverpool, cut out figures, and the lively submarine. This mixed media process even somehow achieved a unique three-dimensional effect with the change in perspective shifts from an aerial view to a street-level shot of Liverpool.

Equally vivacious during “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the film’s ingenious use of rotoscoping, the process where live action film is traced and converted to animation. While the process had been used in classics like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons, a wild simultaneous kaleidoscope effect with flickering hues transforms realistic drawings of ballroom dancers, chorus girls, and carousel horses into stylized glowing masterpieces.

Innovations are actually throughout the film. There are plenty of other wonderful, colorful turns like during “Nowhere Man”. Plus, accompanying multi-colored, square portrait paintings of the Beatles during “Only a Northern Song”, there’s a creative use of an oscillator picking out the sound waves of the track. Overall, the many unique individual segments work almost like music videos vaguely connected by the yellow vessel’s travels, but the whimsy and music help it all come together with dazzling set pieces.

To say that the musical cartoon is an acquired taste would be erroneous. It’s plenty enjoyable the first time though it’s perplexing if you actually try to make full sense what’s of going on. What it does manage to do is get better with each viewing because you discover there’s always more to appreciate. I don’t have to tell you that most films, especially animated fare, do the opposite, losing some luster with repeated viewings.

The casual viewer of cartoons could not imagine how revolutionary Yellow Submarine was for the genre. Prior to its 1968 release, only Disney had found success with full-length animated films. All other attempts at features were forgettable failures. Then, along came the fellows who revitalized pop music to revitalize animation too. Not only do they win the battle for Pepperland, they win the battle for animation’s potential. Yellow Submarine proved that just like pop music, animated movies can be made for grown-ups.

Further, Yellow Submarine showed the world that feature animation doesn’t have to look like Disney or to be sentimentally sweet like Disney. Though their styles couldn’t be more different, Henry Sellick, Ralph Bakshi, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, and many other noteworthy animators, are indebted to the makers of Yellow Submarine for smashing all of the genre’s expectations.

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein or Jeremy Hillary Boob to know that the music is the key ingredient to the film’s popularity and longevity. It’s full of Beatles classics and a small handful of new winning songs that first appeared in the movie. The Beatles contributed four songs, all of which are improved by their presence in the film. About 12 minutes pass early on without a single Beatle appearing, but the catchy tracks start almost instantaneously. The landscapes and the entire storyline are painted with Beatles’ sounds.

It should be said that Yellow Submarine continues to have equal appeal to the young and old. It’s a rare film you could enjoy equally when you’re four — or 64. A sporadic, pungent mix of whimsy, brainpower, wonder, edge and innocence provides just enough pleasure to meet everyone’s needs.

The 1999 standard DVD reissue of the animated film, remarkable as it was at the time, has been thoroughly trumped. For the Blu-ray, the film underwent a complete frame-by-frame restoration that has yielded jaw-dropping results. The digital cleanup was done by hand, frame by frame. No automated software was used because of the delicate nature of the hand drawn artwork. The animated Fab Four look better than ever.

Many special features are present on the disc, which is important considering the avid followers of all things Beatles. There’s the original trailer that actually does the film’s inventive artistic value justice. There’s a glib eight-minute “making of feature” that dates back to 1968 that focuses on the groundbreaking animation styles, the use of satire and the intentional characterization of each Beatles. There are other snippets for die-hard fans like storyboard sequences and photos from the Beatles visit to the TVC animation studio.

Also included are brief archive interviews, most of them less than two minutes, with a few voice actors, animators, and co-writer Erich Segal that cover an odd range of topics like crafting the Beatles’ voices, Lennon’s death, and the film’s premiere. An explanatory, mature and structured audio commentary with production supervisor John Coates is present. Coates is insightful and shares a hodgepodge of specifics including a claim that Yellow Submarine is one of the Queen’s favorite films.

For the most part, the insights provided in the extras are things Beatles fanatics would already know about and that more casual fans wouldn’t care about. What is especially splendid is the inclusion of printed materials like a 16-page booklet, sheet of stickers, and four animation cel reproductions (one for each Beatle) which makes for a wonderful package of printed materials.

The same features that were on the 1999 DVD are present in the new edition, save for the “soundtrack only” viewing option (which removed the dialogue), which is strangely absent. Nothing’s been added to the Blu-ray edition as far as bonus features go, but the film itself is dazzling, charming, and extraordinary enough to be all you need.

The lack of new materials is unlikely to rally the land to rebellion, but still, it’s surprising that there’s nothing extra in the extras this time around. There’s so much more that could be said about the film’s skillful execution or its impact. In spite of this, the appeal of the film is enduring, and over 40 years after its release, it somehow still shows audiences a fresh idea of what animation can be like. Animation never said it wanted a revolution, but it got one with Yellow Submarine.

RATING 9 / 10