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Review: “Yellow Submarine”

Directed by: George Dunning
Produced by: Al Brodax, Mary Ellen Stewart
Written by: Lee Minoff (short story), Al Brodax (screenplay), Jack Mendelsohn, Erich Segal
Music by: George Martin, The Beatles (songs, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr)
Art Direction by: Heinz Edelmann
Starring: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes, Lance Percival
Year: 1968

 

I’ve always told people that I was a fan of The Beatles from before birth, with my mother having played music to me since that time. I remember when I was very little about 4 or 5, I had a red Radio Shack-branded kid’s portable cassette player that I would listen to The Beatles’ red and blue greatest hits albums on. I even remember the disappointment in putting these into Teddy Ruxpin, only to discover that, no, he would not sing along with my favorite song at the time, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” And I also remember a long time ago, when I was still quite young and at a party filled with boring adults, the generous host of the party noticed how bored I was, coming up to me, and asking me if I wanted to head into his room and watch this Beatles cartoon he had. “Beatles? Cartoon? Sure!” was likely my thought process at the time. This cartoon, of course, wasn’t the child-centric American TV production, but was, in fact, one of the weirdest but also most fascinating cartoons I had ever seen up to that point (a fact that likely still holds true): Yellow Submarine.

I vaguely remember thinking that something was very weird about some of their music at the time, having complete ignorance of their dabbling in Eastern mysticism and drugs in their later years. I often found myself skipping over some of their “weirder” stuff as I continued to form my musical tastes at the time. More exotic songs like “Within You Without You” and “Because” were frequently skipped over for more fun, child-friendly songs like “Octopus’s Garden” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” but Yellow Submarine stuck with me, and despite my indifference and distaste for some of those songs, it remained, for me, the quintessential full-on Beatles experience.

But if the weirdness was only inferred through their music, Yellow Submarine was the full on revelation for me, even if I didn’t fully get it at the time. As I grew older, I began to look at it with fascination as more and more details about how the film reflected their philosophies and how they helped to shape the culture of the 60s. Now, as a 25-year-old adult, having just recently received and watched the film on the new Blu-Ray release, I can honestly say, the film is even more enjoyable now that I get all the references and have a great deal of appreciation for the film’s ability to distill The Beatles’ later years into a great animated film that, in many ways, also helped to pave the way for music videos.

It kind of actually helps to think of this film as one long extended music video, as the plot, while making a sort of sense, is still complete nonsense, serving only to move the film along from scene to scene and song to song while espousing The Beatles philosophy. If you try to think of this as a plot-driven film, you’ll likely find yourself wondering what the heck you just watched. Try not to over think it or you’ll lose your appreciation for it, much like The Beatles’ film sidekick, Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.d. (a.k.a., the Nowhere Man).

That being said, there is a plot, and it’s kinda fun: A picturesque paradise below several different seas known as Pepperland is attacked by a group of power-mad, music hating (and apparently acid-tripping) villains known as the Blue Meanies. A lone escapee, Young Fred, escapes in a flying yellow submarine to seek out help from the only group of guys able to save Pepperland from a music-free fate: The Beatles. Together with Fred and his stalwart sub, they traverse the five seas (Time, Science, Monsters, Nothing, and Holes) and the Foothills of the Headlands to bring back music to Pepperland and show the Meanies that, yes, all you need is love.

If that sounds weird to you, let me just get it out of the way and emphasize one thing: Yeah, this movie is bizarre. Possibly more so now than it was back in the 60s when this all seemed to probably make even more sense. Yet it also remains completely engaging after all these years (and even for people like me, whose parents barely even lived during the era when this film was produced — my parents were only two at the time this was released, after all). And for those of you who are familiar with The Beatles’ live action films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, a lot of the same silliness continues here, despite the band not actually playing their own voices — they originally didn’t feel like revisiting film after their disappointment with Help! and originally only agreed to appear in this film’s coda to fulfill their contract with United Artists, only to find out that they actually rather enjoyed it.

The script is filled with Beatles references, puns, and other silly wordplays, and each of the band members is caricatured. Ringo remains the friendly clown, John the philosophical wise man, George the mystic, and Paul the narcissist. When you can pick them out, they’re clever little gags that are only marred by the fact that, to my American ears, they’re kind of hard to understand.

Luckily, the music is in full force here and is a pretty good mix of styles. The soundtrack features all the greatest hits like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and the title track, but it also features some great under appreciated songs as well, such as “Hey Bulldog” (or “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” in the American edit, sadly not included in any form on the Blu-Ray, for some reason) and my personal favorite, “Only a Northern Song” — a song which I used in a casual debate with my creative writing high school teacher as an example of how even if a song isn’t fine-tuned, beauty can still be found in it. (She did not disagree.)

Each song is similarly joined by some inventive visual sequences, as well, with even “When I’m Sixty-Four” getting a surprisingly introspective one that illustrates just how long a minute takes in order to get one thinking about the passage of time. It’s all pretty incredible, and some of the designs are freakish but strangely beautiful, too. The Sea of Monsters is a perfect example of this. Heinz Edelmann’s art direction features a colorful, whimsical pop art style that one could be forgiven for saying is “rough,” and at times, sure, the animation can be rough, but overall, the film is filled with moments of innovation, beauty, and outrageous imagination, just like The Beatles’ music.

Yellow Submarine is one of a kind film, the likes of which we will likely not see again for quite some time, as that would require a similar combination of the right band, the right director, the right studio, and the right artists to capture the same qualities that have been captured here. The only equivalents that I can think of are the Fantasia films. But now that I own this film (the DVD has been out of print for a while now), in wonderfully hand-restored HD no less, I know that I’m going to try my best to introduce this film to my friends. If, like me, you loved the Beatles, but, unlike me, have somehow not seen this film, you owe it to yourself to go out and get it while you can. Even if you somehow find the title song to be grating (I know there are plenty of you, you jerks), you’ll undoubtedly find no such fault in this bizarre, wonderful musical adventure.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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  1. August 29, 2014 at 9:01 am

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