Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yellow Submarine

(1968) Directed by George Dunning; Written by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal; Original Story by Lee Minoff; Based upon a song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Starring: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes and Lance Percival; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…It is a curiosity that this film went into production without a final script, without a final storyboard, and with a group of people so enthusiastic to do it, inspired by the Beatles’ music (one of the most important factors), and that it got made in 11 months, as far as I’m concerned, remains a total miracle.” – John Coates (from DVD commentary)

A hearty “cheers” to Terry Canote of A Shroud of Thoughts for hosting the 5th Annual Rule, Britannia Film Blogathon, celebrating England’s rich cinematic tradition. I’m honored to be a part of this blogathon, which coincidentally intersects with my latest theme, Animation Month. My selection can’t get more British than the band that was on the front lines of the British invasion in the ‘60s, and it’s an apt reflection of the era.

The Beatles were one of a handful of groups that were so much a part of my formative years, helping to shape my developing brain and subsequent tastes. I can’t imagine life without their music, or by extension, the film Yellow Submarine, which captures the spirit of their psychedelic period. It’s hard to believe 50 years have passed since the film’s debut. I have no idea when I first watched this, but I wasn’t very old, nor was the film. Sure, the ‘60s have come and gone, I’m older and grayer, with significantly less hair, but the movie hasn’t lost its luster – one of the enduring tests of any film.

Yellow Submarine was created within a brief 11-month time frame, and only slightly over its $1 million budget. It was a monumental effort, requiring a team of 200 people working around the clock (the filmmakers recruited students from several art schools around London to fill a night shift). The Beatles themselves were rather ambivalent about the movie, fearing it would be a cutesy Disney-style production, and didn’t provide voices for their animated selves (according to the DVD commentary, they couldn’t find George).* As the production progressed, they had a change of heart, thus resulting in their whimsical appearance at the end.

* Fun Fact: Peter Batten, voice of George Harrison, was discovered in a nearby pub. He was arrested and jailed before the project was complete, due to army desertion. This left Paul Angelis (who also voiced Ringo and the Chief Blue Meanie) to complete some unfinished lines.

We’re introduced to Pepperland, an idyllic place where music and love commingle, until the Blue Meanies come along to spoil everyone’s day. Led by the Chief Blue Meanie, who only takes “no” for an answer, they launch an assault on the countryside, leaving it a lifeless wasteland full of broken dreams and unending sadness. In an act of desperation, the mayor enlists an admiral to take the titular undersea vessel to search for help. Will the Beatles arrive in time to restore Pepperland to its former glory? Do I really have to answer this? On this musical and colorful odyssey, it’s not the quest but the journey that’s the thing.

It’s lazy commentary to suggest the filmmakers were all on drugs when they conceived of the bizarre, hallucinogenic visuals that permeate the film. In his DVD commentary, production supervisor John Coates disputed this assertion; otherwise, the film would never have been completed on schedule. Arguably one of the most noteworthy things about Yellow Submarine is the plethora of nutty characters like the Blue Meanies,* a flying glove, Apple Bonkers and Kinky Boot Beasts. The nonsensical pedantic Jeremy (the “Nowhere Man,”) speaks in rhyme (“If I spoke prose, you’d all find out I don’t know what I talk about.”). The character designs are, particularly in regard to the Beatles, fanciful and quite recognizable. The animators took pains to distinguish each of the Beatles from one another. Ringo** was filmed at 30 frames per second, while the rest of his bandmates were at 24 frames per second, so he has a different, distinctly loping pace. Paul is portrayed as a dandy. George, reflecting his spiritual side, appears clad in a Nehru jacket, and John sports his distinctive round spectacles.

* Another Fun Fact: According to art director Heinz Edelmann’s assistant Millicent McMillan, he wanted the Blue Meanies to be purple.

** My 14-year-old kid (quite the budding artist as well, and never known to mince words), offered an alternate take on the character designs, stating Ringo’s animated counterpart “looks like he climbed out of the pits of hell.” Well, you can’t please everyone. 

In addition to the jaunty title song, the roster of songs was pulled from the Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper albums, along with some “original” material, which didn’t make it into their albums. Although the four added songs weren’t well regarded by the Beatles and some critics at the time, they integrate nicely into the film, and complement the themes and visuals nicely. “Hey Bulldog,”* an original composition from John Lennon, was submitted just prior to the movie’s completion. The sequence with the song was omitted after an early screening but restored on home video. Admittedly, some of the animation was a bit rough around the edges, but I’m glad this underrated song/sequence is back. Rounding out the musical accompaniment to the production is the lush orchestral score by longtime Beatle producer George Martin.

* Lennon commented, “…It’s a good sounding record that means nothing.” (from “Revolution,” by Ian Inglis, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles)

The film’s style captures the gestalt of the era, with its vivid colors, numerous pop culture references, and a pastiche of different techniques, including traditional cell animation, rotoscoping and live action embedded in animation. The impossibly tight deadline called for innovation on the fly. During the song “When I’m 64,” one minute counts off onscreen, with stylized numbers. The amusing sequence was bred out of necessity, as filmmakers were running out of time and money. Thus, this simple but effective illustration about the passage of time, was born.

Yellow Submarine embraces the premise that love and music could save the world. It’s a naïve sentiment perhaps, but not voiced enough in film. The Psychotronic Video Guide missed the point with its cynical assessment of the film, as a family-friendly, anachronistic depiction of a band that had moved on to less innocent territory. To the contrary, this idealized version of the Beatles is exactly what the world needed then as well as now, which fits nicely in the scheme of the nonsense universe of the film (the tagline “Nothing is real” says it all). To best appreciate Yellow Submarine, you’re better off taking advice from another Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (not present in the movie, but it could have been): “Turn off your mind relax and float downstream.”


  1. It's a trippy, wonderful film!
    Now I'm truly impressed after listening to your review, Barry!

    1. Thanks, John! It's childhood comfort food for me. :)

  2. Thank you for taking part in the blogathon, Barry! Yellow Submarine is probably my all time, favourite animated film. I lost count of how many times I have seen it since childhood. And even after the number of things I have watched it, I find something new every time. In many ways it is a much more sophisticated film than some think. Thank you for a wonderful write up on the movie!

    1. And thanks again for hosting such a wonderful blogathon! I'll always have a soft spot for this film. I agree that it has much more depth than some give it credit for. It can be enjoyed on so many levels.