Yellow Submarine (1968, George Dunning)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Psychedelia and pop-art can be so keyed into their times that they lose all resonance within a matter of years. The incredible gift of screenwriter Lee Minoff and director George Dunning was to reach into the excess of the universe surrounding them and pull out something of sobering beauty. The Beatles-driven animated feature Yellow Submarine is about a band and a time but also about learning from what confronts us — how to challenge the Blue Meanies not with retaliation but with the necessity of all the things they want to deny. The reason it is a film marketed for children is that children are smart enough to see this not as naivete but as wisdom and, hopefully, to carry it with them. This movie sounds like little more than a marketing bonanza — biggest band in the world gets animated, defeats baddies — but is not about rejection or decadence or laziness. It is obsessed with humor, absurdity and warmth.

The Beatles’ contract with United Artists, done up while they were still under Brian Epstein’s management, called for three feature films, only two of which had been completed by 1967. A third, which later evolved into the Who’s Quadrophenia, had been called off, and the miserably bleak TV special Magical Mystery Tour was only sporadically seen outside the UK. During their commercial monopoly in the early ’60s, amid all the toothbrushes and board games and locks of hair, sat a truly off-the-wall TV cartoon turning the Beatles into Three Stooges-like caricatures. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother.) Someone arrived at the solution of filling out the UA contract with an animated film by the animators and key staff from the TV program. Despite what seems like ambivalence toward the whole idea, the Beatles flew along with it and then basically ignored it — they refused to do voiceovers and donated just four new songs — two subpar Sgt. Pepper rejects, one solid Sgt. Pepper reject, one good new song they recorded offhandedly while making a promo clip for another one.

However, this is a project about which the filmmakers — against the odds — cared very deeply, ramping up the stakes of the television operation and fighting hard to render imagination in writing as well as visuals, all very much informed by the Beatles’ rapidly growing mythology. (The film is in some ways so reverent toward the band’s music it’s hard to believe it came into being while they were still a functioning unit, well before they prompted decades of eulogizing.) Sometimes you can hide apathy in a live-action feature, sometimes it can even be faintly charming, but in animation it is impossible. You can feel how bored, for example, the Disney staff was with The Sword in the Stone just by glaring at its lazy backgrounds and choppy movement. (The visual content of Hanna-Barbera’s Saturday morning material requires no comment.)

But Yellow Submarine is, visually, among the most stunning hand-drawn animated films ever, so incisive and blissful is its incorporation of unusual effects and intoxicating visuals. The character animation is no great shakes, but is almost invisible against the intoxicating experience of the film as a whole, which is one of a handful sufficiently dreamlike and absorbing it seems it makes the clock stop ticking. It’s tempting to recall Fantasia with its note-perfect marriage of music and art, and Vince Guaraldi proved a genius at contributing careful accompaniment to lower-key art in the Peanuts specials, but Dunning and his crew inaugurate a visual response to the pop music inspiring them as radical in its fashion as Richard Lester’s treatment was in live action some years earlier. King Features and Apple Films, joint producers of the effort, clearly have more than cash and contract at stake here; this is a labor of love, and their dazzling, joyous interpretation and comprehension of the Beatles continues to impress to this day.

A witty, picture-book story recalls Help! — Lester’s brilliant reaction to his friends’ overwhelming fame — in its insistence of the Beatles as artifact, all hanging around in the same bizarre place, thereby reflecting the sensibility more of their godlike “I Want to Hold Your Hand” state, with the universal and soul-stirring impact of that early music, than the more commonly associated Pepper era. A lonesome, lovingly rendered Ringo is called upon to bring help to the people of Pepperland, rescuing their peaceful society from the clutches of the Blue Meanies, who hate music and dancing and all things lively and good. Simple-minded, of course, but the satire is often incisive and more often just audaciously weird. It never veers into uninvolving silliness.

To move toward the aesthetic, nearly every frame of Yellow Submarine is painterly and precise; the complexities of the film made it a task, but those overseeing the film’s art direction fortunately understood the importance of the final product and have turned it into something at which we can marvel. The dialogue has the same goofy sting of A Hard Day’s Night, and it’s a thrill to watch the Beatles defeat all adversity, but inevitably the most memorable sequences — and they truly are incredible — all revolve around music. It’s humbling to watch the animators weave Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” far beyond reach into a phenomenal, jet-black portrait of a decadent, broken London, bringing the indirect trifles of McCartney’s bleak lyrics to humbling life. In Dunning’s hands, every song means more — “Nowhere Man” is suddenly associated with companionship and rejection (with and of the eccentric Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D.) more than self-pity, “All You Need Is Love” actually sounds like the sincere anthem it isn’t, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a pleasant enough Pepper detour of John Lennon’s, becomes ethereal and eloquent in the film’s loveliest moment, a dance that somehow defines the fusion of music and love and maybe love itself. There’s magic in here.

Nearly as important as the Beatles’ flawless pop compositions is George Martin’s vibrant score, fascinating enough to be extremely valuable on its own, but heavenly in tandem with the film — let there be no doubt of Martin as the Beatles’ unlikely musical soulmate, but also let there be no doubt of his own eternal gifts. This is one of the most skillfully subtle and moody film scores I know of, stretching across the animation with shocking grace. Martin’s obvious interest in and dedication to the project foretold the arrival of his companions. Assuming that the movie would be mere product, the Beatles dragged themselves to early screenings and found themselves shocked by the care taken with the feature, moreover embarrassed by their neglect of the project. They needn’t have been; Dunning, Minoff, and their astonishing crew were just giving back some of what the Beatles had given the world, which was and is plenty. The band added a charming live-action coda to release prints; some time after personal rifts had begun to emerge between them, it’s fun to see their camaraderie return for the camera one last time and especially to see Lennon mugging relentlessly in bold-strokes vaudeville. (The cynical motive for Yellow Submarine‘s existence was a bust anyway; UA wouldn’t accept the film as making good on their contract so they ended up being tasked with releasing the dreadful documentary Let It Be in 1970.)

While some say otherwise, Yellow Submarine today doesn’t feel like just a picture of naive innocence. Many an aging boomer has revisited the film on their super-classy 5.1 systems to conclude that there was a kind of childish narrow-mindedness to the popular perspective of the era. Such an argument doesn’t seem to go far beyond the level of “There’s no such thing as a Blue Meanie.” This seems to translate to a belief that it’s somehow naive to express a desire to end oppression and cruelty; life is complicated, yes, but personally I’d go so far as to say that it’s not naive to believe that music can free a person, even momentarily, from such dread. (I still never hear “She Loves You” without sitting up straight in my seat.) So if the target audience finds this to be didactic now, they never believed in their own message in the first place. Which doesn’t surprise me, but they aren’t the target audience now anyway — children understand and respond to the film long before they have any idea who the Beatles are.

For a child this movie can verifiably mean everything; I was eight when I first saw it and already a Beatles convert. It still generates pangs of nostalgia and longing in me I can’t fully articulate, particularly during the “It’s All Too Much” sequence at the finale. My soon-to-be-wife Amber experienced the same feelings when we recently revisited it. But I must tell you a story that will hopefully renew your optimism if you too believe the illuminating things Yellow Submarine has to say — without preaching or condescending — are very much worth knowing and savoring. I have a set of figurines of the Beatle designs from the film sitting on my desk at work; they have been there since I joined as a library assistant in 2006. Just a few years ago, a little girl no more than three or four years old spotted them and asked to see them. Her mom told me she watches Yellow Submarine at least a couple of times a week; she gazed at the four Beatles wide-eyed then looked over at me, very concerned. “Where’s Old Fred?” she demanded. I suddenly felt like we’re all going to be okay.

[Edited down and restructured from an essay posted in 2004, with an obvious new addition at the end. I expanded a bit on the problems with the King Features animation style and the nonsensical nature of the plot when I revisited the film this past October, but I couldn’t comfortably fit any of that material above and I think you get the idea anyway.]

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