Yellow Submarine (1968 UK 90 mins)
Source: Chapel Distribution Prod Co: Apple Films, King Features Prod: Al Brodax Dir: George Dunning Scr: Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn, Erich Segal, from an original story by Minoff based on the song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney Phot: John Williams Ed: Brian J. Bishop Art Dir: Heinz Edelman Mus: The Beatles, George Martin Anim: Robert Balser, Tom Halley, Charkie Jenkins, Paul Driessen, and numerous others
Inspired by the songs of the Beatles, Yellow Submarine is a departure from the Fab Four’s previous films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), both directed by Richard Lester. Although Yellow Submarine shares the freewheeling sensibilities of The Beatles’ two live action films, it feels much more surreal and the animation allows the songs to be ‘visually’ expressed in a variety of ways. The animators, inspired by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, conjure up an imaginative world teeming with endless possibilities, taking the characters and the audience on an Alice in Wonderland-like journey that reflects 1960s-era pop art sensibilities, and captures the mood of the psychedelic, flower power era. The music and images take the film into uncharted territory and you never know where the film will go next.
The story is straightforward enough. The peaceful world of Pepperland is invaded by the music-hating Blue Meanies, a grotesque group of baddies intent on bringing misery to Pepperland and its inhabitants. These invaders attack this world, turning its people into statues and changing the world of colour, movement and music into monochrome, stillness and silence. A resourceful inhabitant of Pepperland named Old Fred manages to escape from the Blue Meanies in a Yellow Submarine and travels to the ‘real world.’ He arrives in 1960s Liverpool, where he enlists the help of the Fab Four to battle the Blue Meanies and free Pepperland. Travelling back to Pepperland is an adventure in itself, as the submarine sails across many ‘seas,’ encounters a variety of monsters and picks up one or two unusual passengers along the way.
Although the film has the barest of plots, this hardly matters. What linger in the mind are the images: to borrow a phrase from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” watching this film will make you feel like you are seeing the world with “kaleidoscope eyes.” Although the film was made by a crew of talented animators, one major factor of the film’s success was the contribution of German graphic designer Heinz Edelman, an artist for a German magazine called Twen, who was brought on board the project by the filmmakers. Edelman’s highly stylised character designs, along with The Beatles’ music, seem to have inspired the filmmakers to experiment with a variety of techniques, resulting in a unique and extraordinary animated adventure.
The film’s use of colour is phenomenal, and the animation is still impressive. Even standard establishing shots are imaginatively executed, as in the sequence where we are introduced to the ‘real world.’ We watch a slow sunrise over the rooftops of Liverpool, followed by a pan down to the streets. The sense of time and place, and the feeling of depth and movement, is incredible. The song that follows this shot is “Eleanor Rigby,” which is accompanied by mostly black and white still photographs. The people in the ‘real world’ are frozen, much like the imprisoned inhabitants of Pepperland. Once we enter The Beatles’ house, however, we are transported into another world, a museum of art and culture from around the world and across the ages.
Yellow Submarine is constantly a feast for the eyes and every frame bursts with invention. We follow the characters as they explore their various environments, including the various ‘seas’ that the submarine navigates on its way back to Pepperland. One of the most memorable is the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence, where the dancers explode into life and colours cascade across the screen. Along with the Beatles, there are many other strikingly designed and memorably etched supporting characters. On the side of good are Old Fred, who captains the submarine, and the Nowhere Man, who helps our heroes on their journey. The Blue Meanies are a bizarre group of villains who enforce their reign of terror on Pepperland using a giant flying glove that zips around the landscape, Apple Bonkers that bash people with giant apples, and Snapping Turtle Turks, whose stomachs open up, and who chomp their way away around Pepperland. There are a host of other imaginatively created creatures, including a monster equipped with a huge snout that sucks up everything in sight, including the film itself.
Interestingly, the Beatles did not provide the voices for themselves in the film, but the actors who were used do sound uncannily like them. However, all the songs are sung by the Beatles and they are all, of course, excellent. As stated, the film is a series of loosely structured sketches, more in the vein of the fantastical Help! than the more realistic style of A Hard Day’s Night. Instead of the film stopping to show the Beatles singing a song on stage or television, the animators of Yellow Submarine are able to weave the songs into the fantasy fabric of the film. The result is not just an excellent film, but also a terrific animated musical experience.
Gavin Millar, “Yellow Submarine (review),” Sight and Sound (Autumn 1968).
David Rider, “A Meanie Called Blue,” Films and Filming (September 1968).
David Rider, “Yellow Submarine (review),” Films and Filming (September 1968).
David Wilson, “Yellow Submarine (review),” Monthly Film Bulletin (September 1968).