These days anyone wanting to learn about the Beatles or to see endless fascinating film and videotape from their career(s) need only consult the many documentaries available, or just cruise the web. But back in the 1960s we teenaged Beatle fans had access to their records and little more. They showed up infrequently in news blurbs; by the time somebody called you to the TV room, they'd be gone. I suppose that readers of show business magazines and perhaps even pop music fan magazines could learn a lot more about them. I wasn't a hardcore fan but I was just as excited as anyone else when a new album came out; the radio would play its tracks 'round the clock. Girls at school told me that they watched The Monkees on TV because there was no way to see The Beatles, not anywhere.
I did see a few of the Saturday morning Beatle cartoon shows, which were little more than illustrated Beatle songs. Beatle characters, obviously voiced by somebody else, ran around in a lot of repeat-cycle animation. All I really remember is that if "love" was involved in the song (90% of them, then) the object of love in the cartoon was a Teddy Bear or a cute animal from the zoo or something. I can't recall how they stretched a two-minute song to five or six. Maybe there were just that many more commercials. Apparently the Beatles hated the cartoons and wished they could be halted. Perhaps it was a deal that grew out of small print in their record contract...?
The producer and director of those cartoons, Al Brodax and George Duning, also had the option to make a feature animated film with The Beatles, which was probably the last thing the Fab 4 desired. Instead of turning out cheap trash, the filmmakers did their best to create a respectable product, at a time when feature animation was all but extinct. Brodax put together a production that would feature several big Beatles hits and also some "new" songs that had not yet been given an album release. Using one of the most fanciful tunes as its main inspiration, 1968's Yellow Submarine boldly introduced a new look to animated film, for an all-age-bracket audience. The mostly flat 2-D animation reflects Mod Art as well as Op Art trends, placing the Beatle characters at the center of a whimsical fantasy universe. Nothing too demanding, nor straining for effect or significance -- just fun, a few jokes, good music and exciting graphic images.
The story is fairly disposable. The happy domain Pepperland loves to play music and reveres its favorite bandstand group, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the nefarious Blue Meanies invade, as they hate everything musical. Their grotesque army of monsters freezes the population of Pepperland into pop-art statuary. Only Old Fred escapes. He flies the Yellow Submarine to London (it goes just about anywhere), collects all four Beatles, and heads to the rescue. On the way they pick up the fussy, multi-talented Jeremy Hilary Boob Ph.D, the "Nowhere Man" of the popular song. Upon arriving in Pepperland the Beatles are immediately attacked by the minions of the Blue Meanies, but a concerted musical counterattack turns the tide and saves the day.
In 1968 the charming Yellow Submarine was literally an animation road not taken. Although Japanese animes had their own look, by and large most mainstream animation imitated the look of Walt Disney, even Soviet efforts like The Snow Queen. Submarine was developed by English artists steeped in progressive design concepts. English TV shows of the time were noted for their sophisticated graphics, a mix of creative typography and abstract imagery that showed up in the U.S. largely in title sequences by Saul Bass and others. Every minute of Yellow Submarine involves play with artistic styles, out Warhol-ing Warhol and injecting clever nods to great names like Magritte (I'm so woefully undereducated in art traditions that any attempt to be more specific would be ill-advised). The screen is playing constant games with perspective tricks (the submarine slips in and out of scenery like a phantom) and glorious odes to typography. The giant words that form in the song "All You Need is Love" is an obvious example. "Love" forms a literal defensive wall against the Chief Blue Meanie's jet-propelled Flying Glove monster. Far from being a silly flower power fable, Yellow Submarine spells out the messages of Beatle music like the most fantastic Sesame Street animation that never was.
The highlights are quite beautiful. "Eleanor Rigby" is a handsome progression of high contrast photos and bits of manipulated live action. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" leaps into glorious delirium, with splashes of color that refuse to stay within the lines of roto-scoped figures of dancing women. Several shots, including a kaleidoscope of women are definitely sourced from the ancient Joan Crawford movie Dancing Lady. George Harrison's "It's All Too Much" is a transcendent mix of happy imagery and light-show effects. The scene cut for America (and restored here) is the not-bad "Hey Bulldog". The three-headed Cerberus dog is pretty cool, but the too-literal scene that goes with it plays like an extension of the old TV show.
I remember enjoying Yellow Submarine at the age of sixteen, even though my screening wasn't well attended. Not all of us had knockout stereo systems at the time, and just hearing the music so loud and bright (in mono!) was exhilarating. I must admit that at the time I was fairly well brainwashed to the Disney way of seeing the world, so my initial reaction to the flatness of much of the animation was not positive. An appreciation of what was actually great work would come later. Unlike the next year's Let it Be, repeat showings of Yellow Submarine weren't difficult to find. Core fans probably don't count it among their first stops in Beatles nostalgia but it's definitely not a failure. Director Dunning's artists did manage to communicate some of the essence of the Beatles, and didn't distort the values represented by their music. I'm told that the Beatles were pleasantly surprised by the final product, and thus volunteered to make their cameo live appearance for the fade-out. I can definitely report that when the real Beatles suddenly appeared on the screen, the old magic of A Hard Day's Night came back in full force. Who says that a sixteen year-old can't experience pangs of nostalgia?
The new specially restored Blu-ray of Yellow Submarine appears to be directly distributed by Capitol Records, as the rights for the film departed United Artists about a decade ago.
The restoration is marvelous. The Los Angeles-based Triage/Eque company and Paul Rutan did a 4K scan of the photochemical restoration job from 2008, and cleaned up every bit of extraneous schmutz (as opposed to original animation artifacts) by hand, without digital tools. This leaves the images looking incredibly sharp and detailed. Where the original photography had brush strokes, said variations remain, and when we once or twice see slight edges between layers of animation cels (usually when a small area of a cel is being shot) those are left alone. But the whites are pure and the colors are undisturbed. I think this looks better than the original DeLuxe print I saw. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio is very pleasing -- things looked tight when projected at 1:85.
The disc extras are better than I expected. The making of the film is completely covered in a commentary by Joan Coates and art director Heinz Edelman. A promo docu from 1968 sees the animation people kidding the camera and their own plight, having to pretend to be brilliant artists for an advertising film. In addition to an original trailer, we get several examples of concept sketches and storyboard comparisons, production photos and interviews at the voice recording sessions. The colorful packaging contains a souvenir booklet and some amusingly juvenile goodies -- stickers of the submarine and the Beatle figures as drawn for the film, and nice-looking Beatle characters printed on clear celluloid.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Yellow Submarine Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.