Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ glorious 40-minute musical masterpiece, had been enjoying enormous acclaim and popularity for about a year when the animated Yellow Submarine hit theaters in 1968, acting as a loose extension of the album’s contemplations on fame, identity and ’60s psychedelia. The film’s recent frame-by-frame restoration, and translation onto Blu-ray disc, evokes more nostalgia than brilliance, save for one element: The unbelievable timelessness of the songs included on the soundtrack.
It’s not that designer Heinz Edelmann’s kooky, surrealist animation isn’t entertaining. Edelmann and director George Dunning’s broad palette and freakish creatures will have you reaching for the nearest hallucinogen (or the nearest exit if you’re taking a bad trip, man) and can creep out even the sober. But every time another Beatles classic hits your ears, it lifts the room and injects new life into the film. Whether it was a case of inspiration or coincidence, most of Yellow Submarine’s more creative and graceful visuals are those that complement the songs: “Eleanor Rigby” accompanies an animated Ringo walking through a grim, sad version of Liverpool that Banksy would appreciate. “Nowhere Man” is sung to little Jeremy Boob, a rhyming noodnik who knows everything but does very little.
Speaking of very little, the plot of Yellow Submarine is minimal. (That just means more time to concentrate on the loopy stuff.) Based on a McCartney-written song from 1966 and story by Lee Minoff, it follows the exploits of a captain who travels in a mysterious, magical submarine with the Fab Four to escape the bizarre Blue Meanies, an arrow-launching, gun-toting species who’ve launched a war on the captain’s peaceful home of Pepperland.
The group’s journey doesn’t follow a particular path, but it doesn’t have to. Yellow Submarine simply acts as a device for shocking monsters, wry wordplay, playful philosophy and, of course, Beatles songs. After the boys push one of many buttons on the submarine control panel, time begins reversing and Einstein’s theory of relativity is discussed. As our heroes quickly turn old before our eyes—white hair, long beards—the plaintive opening notes of “When I’m 64” emerge, a sure sign that the Beatles had a wonderful sense of humor, even when it came to their own careful compositions. When the obvious “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” hits the screen, the animators take the Fantasia route, briefly changing the film’s visual style to match the originality of the music.
By the final act—a heroic return to Pepperland—some of Yellow Submarine feels like a broken record. The editing pace is strange and strained, and the pesky Meanies are feeling more annoying than alarming. But you have to appreciate a fantasy world where the playing of “All You Need Is Love” can actually save the day.
The Blu-ray release includes a boatload of special features that really enhance the film for a newcomer, including behind-the-scenes photos and the short “Mod Odyssey,” in which Edelmann explains the thoughts and themes behind each Beatle’s entrance in the film.
But the most engaging Beatles appearance in Yellow Submarine occurs at the movie’s end, when the boys show up on screen in the flesh (voice actors portray them in the rest of the film). They’re lively, happy, swimming in their own innocence and indescribably young. Their breakup is still a couple years away, and John and George’s deaths virtually unimaginable.
Mike Myers tells a story about watching A Hard Day’s Night on TV as a small boy, crying when his Liverpudlian pals depart at the film’s conclusion. Watching the end of Yellow Submarine with my four-year-old daughter, seeing The Beatles at their most vibrant, I understood for the first time why Myers shed a tear.
Director: George Dunning
Writer: Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn, Erich Segal
Starring: The Beatles, Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoff Hughes, Lance Percival
Release Date: June 5, 2012 (Blu-ray release)