The Beatles stand as a cultural phenomenon, a band famous not only for their music but also for their dynamic as group. They starred in several films of various escapades (A Hard Day’s Night and Help! being their most well-known), but none were more wacky than the animated Yellow Submarine, despite the limited involvement by any of the Beatles themselves.
In the distant dimension of Pepperland, music is an important part of the community – but not everyone thinks so. The grumpy Blue Meanies want to end the music for good, launching an ambush that turns most of Pepperland citizens to stoney grey versions; they also trap Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to keep them from mounting any musical defense. Naval man Fred escapes in the yellow submarine, per the mayor’s instructions, and finds his way to England, following the Beatles to beg their help (“Won’t you please, please, help me?”). What follows is an amusing pop psychedelic romp through the Beatles music and shenanigans.
George Dunning takes the director’s chair, coming from work on the animated Beatles television series; the film’s limited animation process, however, does not resemble the series. An international team of animators was assembled for the film, bringing together multiple variations and styles through the project. In addition to unique character styles, some song sequences have their own different animation styles entirely, such as the “Eleanor Rigby” and the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequences. In fact, the film was a pioneer with a surreal visual style that contrasted majorly with dominant animation of the time, mostly Disney. As such it paved the way for more unique animation, like Terry Gilliam’s animations (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and Schoolhouse Rock.
The surreal animation amazingly fits perfectly with the Beatles brand of nonsense, and still matches the story as it flows. The story is fairly simple, as the film is clearly more situated as a vehicle for Beatles music, but it’s also strong. The Beatles are called to the quest of saving Pepperland from the music-hating Blue Meanies, as part of the message that music is part of peace & love, and it doesn’t get much deeper than that. Yet there are very few plot holes – even in the Sea of Holes – and the various nonsensical moments don’t seem wrong anyway, because if it doesn’t make sense with the story then it makes sense with the song sequence. And even though “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” comes out of nowhere, it’s still a must-have song and therefore acceptable in the long run.
The film includes an astonishing 18 songs, including excerpts and four previously unreleased songs. Two – “Only a Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much” – were George Harrison creations, resulting in a unique sound that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the songs, but still are a couple of the best songs included. “All Together Now” was created for the film, and “Hey Bulldog” was included in the film originally but cut for US releases; it was re-included for the 1999 re-release. The film also includes various score pieces composed by longtime Beatles producer, George Martin. The songs are the only use of the Beatles’ real voices through the film. The animated band is actually voiced by actors: John Clive as John; Geoffrey Hughes as Paul; Peter Batten/Paul Angelis as George; and Paul Angelis again as Ringo.
The Beatles’ only real appearance in the film is in the live-action epilogue, which was included largely to complete the contractual obligation of appearing in the film. Nonetheless, the voice actors held their own representing the beloved band and their silly humor, even if the accents did slip occasionally. The voice-acting overall is strong if fairly ornamental; the focus is the Beatles and their music, and that’s clear. The Blue Meanies are humorous antagonists, Fred is an amusing bumbler, and Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D. (Dick Emery) is the nowhere-man oddball that assists the band on the fringes of the plot.
The Beatles may have grudgingly agreed to the film, but it became an excellent extension of their creativity, their cultural impact, and their audience. Yellow Submarine also stands as an expansion of animation expectations – it was something different and it wasn’t marketed for little kids; instead it was something for all ages, with classic music and great hippie vibes.
Have you seen Yellow Submarine? What did you think?
Yellow Submarine celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as a 4k restoration returning to theaters, starting July 8th. Excitingly, the film was restored by hand, frame by frame, rather than using automated software. Check out the film’s website HERE for specific screening information.