Yellow Submarine (1968)
From the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1963 would emerge a quartet which would forever change the face of popular music.
What could be said about the Beatles that hasn't already been said millions of times by millions of people in the past few decades? Apart from "about time iTunes put their music up in their online store"? Most influential rock band of all time, put out some of the best music ever recorded, sold millions of records, at least three of them went on to successful solo careers after their breakup in 1970, blah blah blah, yada yada yada.
With a band as successful as the Fab Four, it seemed only natural that they would make a transition into the motion pictures...and they did, with the 1964 Richard Lester film A Hard Day's Night, regarded by moviegoers all over as one of the greatest rock 'n' roll films of all time. This was followed up one year later with Help!, which I can best describe as A Hard Day's Night with a plot...and also in color. The Beatles weren't too pleased with Help!, and coupled with the poor reception of their 1967 made-for-TV effort Magical Mystery Tour, they were kind of turned off on the whole starring-in-movies thing.
So perhaps it came as a great relief to them that their fourth film would be a little more...animated.
Yellow Submarine was NOT the Beatles' first foray into animation. That honor would go to a 39-episode Saturday morning cartoon series of their namesake produced in 1965 by British animation studio TVC. In it, the band traveled the world, played gigs and got into scrapes not uncommon for any 1960s TV show. The actual Beatles hated it. So when the time came to make this film, TVC threw out their original art and character designs and hired artist Heinz Edelmann to give the movie its trademark psychedelic pop art feel. George Dunning, who had produced the TV series, was chosen to direct.
As for the band themselves, they only agreed to the film as a means of finishing out their movie deal with United Artists, and thus their contribution was minimal. They don't voice themselves, but they did contribute four original songs to the soundtrack--"All Together Now", "Only a Northern Song", "Hey Bulldog" and "It's All Too Much". However, they later saw a draft copy of the finished product and were so impressed by it that they chose to appear as themselves in a live-action cameo at the end of the movie.
The film was remastered and re-released in 1999 for the first time on DVD (I remember giving my sister a VHS copy for Christmas that year) but since then it's gone out of print and hadn't seen another DVD release since. In that time, Robert Zemeckis and Disney had threatened to remake the film with ghastly 3-D motion capture animation and release it in time for the London Olympics; luckily those plans were torpedoed by the poor performance of his all-zombie Christmas Carol and the CATASTROPHIC reception of his adaptation of Berkeley Breathed's Mars Needs Moms. Fortunately, the film was re-released last spring, which was more than a net gain for humanity.
Welcome to Pepperland, a paradise of green pastures and blue skies eighty thousand leagues under the sea, where the air is crisp, the scenery is more colorful than normal, and the music is always playing to the delight of its denizens. Everything's happy and peaceful and love and peace are in the air and all the rest of it. It's also the home of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--the original one, mind you. Don't know who those other guys were...posers.
Meanwhile, far out on the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of Pepperland live some contemptible creatures known as Blue Meanies, who hate music and color and all things nice and won't even answer in the affirmative. No really, they answer every question with "no", even when in the affirmative. They have an army, led by the Chief Blue Meanie, a blue fuzzy thing with rabbit ears and a psychotic demeanor, and his subordinate Max. And they have clowns, fat men dressed in fezzes who can eat things with their stomachs, a flying glove, a squadron of cat-like butterfly stompers, and some rather tall blokes who like to drop giant green apples on things.
And they're about to launch an invasion. In fact, they just have. Trapping the house band in a giant bubble, they set about laying waste to Pepperland, destroying the landscape, immobilizing civilians, setting off explosions and...dropping giant green apples on things. The Lord Mayor of Pepperland, who only notices that they're under attack when three members of his quartet are suddenly silenced, takes Old Fred (or Young Fred, whichever you like) the sea captain atop an Aztec-like structure where atop sits the titular vessel, and sends him off to points unknown to get help. The submarine takes off just before the Mayor has some giant green apples dropped on him.
After sailing through the title song and opening credits, the submarine finally comes out in Liverpool, England, where after an melancholy inner-city animation sequence to the tune of "Eleanor Rigby", it finds none other than Ringo Starr of the fabulous Beatles, who gets a little nervous as the sub follows him all the way to his house. After docking, Fred makes his situation known to him through the front door via incoherent babbling about submarines and explosions and finishing on Blue Meanies, and Ringo lets him inside their psychedelic TARDIS/cartoon cliche endless hall of doors of a house to gather his friends.
A Frankenstein's monster awakens and drinks a steaming potion to turn itself into John.
George is sitting in a Eastern-style meditation room...but then drives up to Fred and the others from behind.
Paul emerges fresh from an out-of-shot Mozart concert in one of their house's many rooms.
So with all of the Beatles on board, literally and metaphorically, the submarine takes off with the aid of a certain song played to death by those annoying Sprint commercials en route to Pepperland.
Before they get there, however, they must embark on a periolous journey through the many many seas that lie before them. Besides, this is a musical film and we need something to play Beatles songs to.
THE SEA OF TIME
This particular part of the...well, I know there's no water, but let's call it an ocean anyway because I can't imagine a submarine sailing through anything else has the power to alter the passage of time for anyone that passes through it which could be dangerous as there is the risk of death or pre-life and THEN death. Old Fred and the Beatles suddenly become younger (Ringo cries for his mother, very cute) and then age just as rapidly, but a simple sing-song of "When I'm Sixty-Four" and they make it through the area with their present ages.
THE SEA OF SCIENCE
Nothing much happens here--just a set piece for "Only a Northern Song". Most psychedelic moment of the film, though, if you ask me.
THE SEA OF MONSTERS
Whilst observing and occasionally fighting off the local wildlife, and giving the audience some quick visual gags in the process, Ringo accidentally pushes a button which ejects him from the submarine. Fred and the remaining band members must fight off a vacuum monster, a creature with boxing gloves and a swarm of beings made to look like Native Americans to save him.
Eagle-eyed viewers will notice some instruments falling out of the bottom of the sub while the lads are fighting off the boxing monster (plot point), as well as a banner coming out the back with THE ROLLING STONES written on it (not important, just worth mentioning).
The vacuum dude eventually sucks up the submarine, then the background, and then itself, which segues into
THE SEA OF NOTHING
Pretty self-explanatory, this one. Just...nothing. Emptiness. Blankness. Absence of content. Not a good place for the submarine's motor to break down.
Luckily the band finds a local who might help fix it--Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., a little green guy who talks in rhyming couplets and looks a little like a Blue Meanie except for the fact that he's...well, green. And quite polite as well. He's the "Nowhere Man" who spends all day sitting in his nowhere land making all his nowhere plans for nobody.
Hey, that reminds me of a song.
A song that hurts Jeremy's feeling a little afterward, so Ringo makes up for it by inviting him to join them on the sub.
THE SEA OF HEADS
(also known as the Foothills of the Headlands)
When the sub breaks down again after just having left the Sea of Nothing, Jeremy's attempts to fix it with chewing gum sends it flying off to points unknown, leaving him and the Beatles stranded. As they walk around, John manages to amuse himself with one head that shows pictures of rotoscoped dancing girls and plays "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Love that song.
Some friendly heads with allergies sneeze them in the general direction of
THE SEA OF HOLES
Another self-explanatory one. Big black dots you can fall through as far as the eye can see, one of which will lead them to the Sea of Green, and from there it's a straight shot to Pepperland. John says that this place reminds him of Blackburn, Lancashire. Jeremy notes that now they know how many it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Ringo pockets one of the holes ("I've got a hole in my pocket") while a random Blue Meanie rummaging though the holes pockets Jeremy.
Ringo finds the Sea of Green by stepping on a green hole, and just like that, they've arrived in Pepperland. Ahead of the submarine by a minute or two, even, but let's not deny it a grand entrance.
THE SEA OF...
oh wait, this is Pepperland, we've arrived, sorry
It seems Pepperland has fallen into further decay while Fred was gone. The crowd just stands there totally lifeless, everything is drained of color, Blue Meanies are running around bullying people...sounds like military school without the gun practice. After the Lord Mayor revived with a bit of singing and pulled out of the green apple pile, he notices that the help Fred has brought in bears a striking resemblance to the Lonely Hearts Club Band--hey! The could impersonate them and play the music to rally the populace to revolt!
Only one problem--they lost all their instruments in the Sea of Monsters (go back and watch it again--seriously, blink and you'd miss it) and they'll have to infiltrate the Meanie forces to get to the gazebo where they've stashed every music-making device in Pepperland!
Which they do.
The next day, after running away from Meanies, armed with contraband musical ammunition and dressed as the locals' hometown favorites, the Beatles launch the first wave of their campaign to take back Pepperland--a performance of the intro track of their Sgt. Pepper's album--not only do they look just like them, but they also know their songs, what are the odds of that?--which awakens the people to take their freedoms back from the blue menace.
The Meanies retaliate by sending in their flying glove, which momentarily worries the populace, but a defiant John takes him on mano-a-mano (pun intended, Spanish speakers) and with the power of the sudden physical materialization of his words as he sings "All You Need is Love", makes a quick job of him. And with the music bringing the color back to the flora and fauna of Pepperland and the audience digging the vibes, the Meanies are sent packing.
Using Ringo's souvenir from the Sea of Holes, the Beatles dissipate the bubble thing silencing the Lonely Hearts Club Band and together, with the help of a old-timey piano, they confound the Meanies' four-headed bulldog into submission while singing "Hey Bulldog" in a musical moment which was never seen in America until the 1999 remastering.
Ringo finds and frees Jeremy, and raring to join in the fight he stumbles upon the Chief Blue Meanie, distressed at the sight of his once-menacing forces running away in droves and desperate to get something out of this battle. He attempts to kill Jeremy, but as a last request Jeremy recites some poetry which has the power to sprout roses all over the Meanie's body, sending him away too.
With the Pepperlanders victorious and the Meanies contemplating moving to Argentina, John shows that they are gracious in victory by inviting the Meanies to join them in their never-ending reverie. Max says no--whether he's in the affirmative or the negative is uncertain--but the Chief Blue Meanie corrects him and accepts his oral peace accord as he's finally seen the error of his authoritarian buzz-killing ways and now wants to join his enemies in an act of peaceful co-existence. Either that or it's a side effect of the roses growing out of his torso, I dunno. Either way, we get a nice and trippy ending montage to the tune of "It's All Too Much" as Meanie and Pepperlander unite in a glorious cacophany of peace and love and music and pop art and stuff like that.
Then the actual flesh-and-blood Beatles appear on screen and lead us all in a final reprise of "All Together Now" to ward off the newer and Bluer Meanies that the actual flesh-and-blood John sees approaching the theater. And there's your movie.
Basic? Yes. Trippy? Mos def. But the art design is unique, the animation is pretty good and it contains some of the best Beatles songs in their catalog (and this was pre-White Album) as well as a fantastic background score by musical director George Martin. The dialogue is pretty fun too--witticisms, musical references, non sequiturs, the occasional pun, and just watching the Beatles bounce lines off each other and everyone else makes it that much more enjoyable. It also has a very anti-establishment message--the oppressive Blue Meanies are described as simply "all the bad people in the world", so they could represent practically anyone--policemen, politicians, Nazis maybe ("Are you bluish? You don't look bluish"), some of them even smoke cigars and drink martinis, so they could represent Wall Street as far as I'd know.
Interpretations and debates of possible influences aside, Yellow Submarine easily ranks right up there as one of the most fun experiences you could ever have watching a movie. It's easily one of the best animated films ever made, at least among the ones I've seen, and fans of the Beatles and/or classic animated movies will love it.
Adam Lafferty also likes to talk about movies, among other things, on his other blog, popculturevomitbag.blogspot.com.