The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – 50th Anniversary Review


This week marks the 50thanniversary of The Beatle’s animated classic Yellow Submarine (1968). To commemorate the occasions, many cinemas around the country (and in the U.S.) are screening the film’s 2012 Dolby Surround restoration in 4K. For fans and younger newbies alike, it is well worth the effort to seek it out.

Although The Beatles themselves weren’t very involved in the project (it was a way to fulfill their contractual obligations to United Artists) the film does not suffer for it. The voice actors perform reliably decent impressions of John, Paul, George and (especially) Ringo and the frame-by-frame hand-restored animation is gorgeous. The separation on the soundtrack offers a depth and richness that modern audiences are accustomed to but could not be achieved during the period of the film’s original release.

Stylistically, it offers up a rich cornucopia of ‘60s pop-art styles. While this mixture of different types of animation could be criticized as inconsistent, it offers a glimpse into the different movements pioneered by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and in this respect, serves as a sort of time capsule for that period.

There are two sequences worthy of exploring in greater depth.

The first is the submarine’s visit to monster land. This segment of the film shows that the animators not only had a solid foundation in the history of animation but that they were well aware of what the medium was capable of in those pre-computer times. At one point, a vacuum monster sucks up everything within the film frame including the background, leaving only the title’s namesake floating in the vast nothingness of the white space on which the invisible omnipotent animator controls their destiny.

It is reminiscent of the classic Warner Brother’s short Duck Amuck (1953)where Daffy Duck was held hostage, helpless against the manipulation of the unseen animator later to be revealed as Bugs Bunny who then slyly addresses the audience with “Ain’t I a stinker?”

Rather than break the 4thwall as Duck Amuckdid, Yellow Submarinegoes one layer deeper within the drawings themselves, having the monster devour itself until the audience is left with nothing to look at but a blank white frame. Just as we are about to ponder what happened, the submarine inexplicably re-appears. In animation, the standard world rules do not apply and it is a joy to see a film play with this freedom at every opportunity.

The movie’s other great sequence, which accompanies the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the filmmakers aren’t so concerned with stretching the boundaries of the medium as they are concentrating on creating colorful movement within the frame. The images are filled with subliminal (and not so subliminal) messages, featuring Lucy herself dancing as well as all kinds of animals, flowers and rainbows, sometimes residing in the heads of unnamed masses of people lined up geometrically in stark contrast to the colorful worlds inside their heads. The segment merits a repeated viewing at home where the frames can be paused and studied.

As an accompaniment for the song, which is one of the best Lennon-McCartney compositions of all-time, it works perfectly. The editing even changes tempo with the song when it switches between from ¾ verse to 4/4 time chorus. As for the song’s meaning it matters not that the original inspiration was a drawing by then-toddler Julian Lennon. It’s clear here that the audience is meant to take in the images on the screen in a state of altered awareness. Who knows, perhaps the animators themselves were high when they created them.

In terms of story, it is simple albeit still relevant today with the music-hating warlike Blue Meanies invading peace-loving Pepperland because they simply can’t abide by all of their positivity. The Blue Meanies remain a timeless representation of Britain’s conservative party. They even have grenade-launchers that look like clowns who send people into a joyless state of catatonia where all color is removed from the frame. In contrast, the peace-loving residents of Pepperland represent an entire generation of 1960s hippies who just wanted everyone to get along, play music and love each other regardless of age, race or nationality.

Pepperland’s happy ending is a far cry from where real society ended up in the Reagan-Thatcher era and beyond. What a shame that John Lennon didn’t survive to criticize all the hippies who voted for Thatcher and to create more great songs like All You Needs Is Love. Luckily, we still have the music of The Beatles and Yellow Submarine’s message to get us through these continuing dark times of considerable political division. It really is better to live All Together Now, isn’t it?