Yellow Submarine (1968) – Movie Review

★★★½

Part of what makes The Beatles the first favourite band of so many people – lots of whom maintain that ranking – is their ability to appeal to all demographics. The songs which are more heady or psychedelic are so full of innuendo, crypticness and colour that they can be embraced by a very younger audience for their warm embrace. Although A Hard Day’s Night is my favourite Beatles film in how its represents the band, no film of the Fab Four’s filmography makes that appeal clearer than Yellow Submarine, whose pop art animation can be embraced by kids, aestheticists, Beatles fans, animation fans and stoners alike (between this and 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 was certainly a good year for that group).

This is worth bringing up all the more due to the fact that this is the film of the official Beatles canon in which the band had the least amount of hand in making. That turns to the hand of director George Dunning and art director, whose combination here of rotoscope and cut up animation creates emphasis on the bizarre reality/imagination of the world created. Lots of critics have pointed to Yellow Submarine as paving the wave for Terry Gilliam’s animation styles for the many different Monty Python projects, and between this and George Harrison’s late funding contributions to the group’s movies it has made me me realise how in tandem their careers are. Though I think, either in the abstract or in the literal, both of them are actually taking from the same source, specifically the short film les astronautes by Walerian Borowczyk and Chris Marker, which bares much similarities which Gilliam’s art direction, and much similarities with this film’s central concept. Either way, this means that the Beatles two most acclaimed films, and my personal favourites, are the ones that took from the French New Wave across the pond, though A Hard Day’s Night was much more liberal on this front.

The colours and style of the animation perfectly matches the Beatles music which threads the plot of saving Pepperland together. In these circumstances Yellow Submarine can be classed as one of the best jukebox musicals ever made, certainly better received than their other jukebox musical Across the Universe. This applies both to the George Martin score, with its influences ranging from Bach to Stravinsky, and the songs which the movie will occasionally break from to do animated music videos for. From the “When I’m Sixty Four” section, which reminds me of videos specifically created to teach children numbers, the “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” attack scene which puts a moving, caricature image to that famous album cover, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” being a literal head trip. This break up of the narrative is typical of every Beatles movies lack of a plot, but although the psychedelic and meandering style is perfectly suited to the characters, songs and overall tone of the movie, it can leave the audience’s focus wandering from time to time.

Like every Beatles film up to this point (and everyone except for Let it Be) , this film combines clear comedy with an underlying sense of melancholy. The cartoon/cut-up style represents this divide, and much of the humour is visual, such as the trips to various worlds and visual gags like in the Beatles’ mansion, which I’m convinced would be “liberally borrowed” by Hannah Barbera to both expand their cheaper animation style, and to give Scooby Doo a year later some doors to run through. But a big part of the melancholic humour is conveyed through the band’s dialogue, such as in a highlight scene in which Ringo is lost to the sea and after the captain advises the band to sing trio, George casually responds “nah, let’s save the poor devil”. This nonchalantness typifies the film in a nutshell; there’s conflict, but too much of a casual mood to get worked up about.

The dialogue on its own is pretty quotable, from the cheeky Beatles and Shakespeare references to so many puns about a cyclops. The band’s personalities have also kept consistently from their live action counterparts, right down to Ringo’s obsessions with academic subjects (like temporal psychics) that go against the stereotype of the drummer. The difference here of course is that they are all done by voice actors, which as pointed out by the band themselves – who gave their blessing way late into the project and cameo at end – they blend into the band’s cartoon world much more naturally than the band as voice actors would have done. Though I wish their role had been given more recognition in the film itself; Petter Batten, the man who voiced George, wasn’t even credited.

What is a bigger mark not in this film’s favour is that aside from the central Beatles, whom we are prone to already know through cultural osmosis (and thick Liverpudlian accents), the characters in Yellow Submarine just aren’t that memorable. Their designs certainly are, from the residents of Pepperland to the Blue Meanies, but you’d be hard pressed to think of any specific characteristics. The closest character in this front is Jeremy Hillary Boob, who is like an academic version of an Alice in Wonderland character (a cross between the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter), but that mainly upgrades to “pretty wacky” and “perfectly amiable”.

Which, now that I think about it, is perfect descriptions for the movie itself. It’s an effortlessly charming movie full of pioneering animation and great musical sequences. It’s my favourite Beatles movie after A Hard Day’s Night, and although its friendly tone doesn’t completely distract from the fact that the plot is thin and the other characters are a little two dimensional, with music and 2D animation this good, who cares?

It certainly full of more joy and colour than the band’s final film, one made difficult to find precisely because of those reasons…

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