Some 50 years ago, the animated Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine” was released. The initial signs were unpromising. After the rapturous reception for “A Hard Day’s Night” in ’64 was followed by a mixed greeting for “Help!” in ’65, The Beatles weren’t eager to participate in a third film, contractual obligation or no, resulting in a paucity of participation from the Fab Four, who were in any case developing other interests.
The animated version of the Beatles were all voiced by actors, a “live” appearance after the film was their sole official involvement, and it was made in under a year (light speed for an animated movie). None of that mattered. “Yellow Submarine,” inspired by the group’s 1966 novelty smash, was greeted with rapturous reviews and popular success, showing the group retained its (indirect) magic touch.
Now “Yellow Submarine” is back in theaters for an extremely limited engagement beginning July 8, with its psychedelic milieu restored in the newest 4K high-definition standard, and the soundtrack remixed in 5.1 stereo at Abbey Road Studios. The movie, while not precisely ignored, has been slightly unappreciated in the shadow of “A Hard Day’s Night,” (the best film I saw in a theater in 2014, on its own 50th anniversary).
The opening narration of Submarine, (“Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland. Eighty thousand leagues beneath the sea it lay, or lie. I’m not too sure …”) kicks off the cheeky wordplay to come, which is the movie’s major charm next to the groundbreaking animation by German illustrator Heinz Edelmann.
The serene citizens of Pepperland are enjoying a brass concert in the park by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (who carry an uncanny resemblance to The Beatles) when the music-loathing Blue Meanies launch “anti-music missiles” while the Bonkers deploy green apples (yet another Beatles-related in-joke) to turn the peaceful and loving populace into stone. The band is neutralized in a blue bubble, leaving the Pepperlanders defenseless.
A crusty sailorman, Old Fred, escapes in a yellow submarine and surfaces into Liverpool, where he follows Ringo, a segment apparently inspired by a 3 a.m. phone call from John Lennon to producer Al Brodax — evidently the sum total of the group’s involvement in the production. The Beatles are rounded up to perform an unexplained mission to fight the Blue Meanies. Various far-out episodic adventures follow, until they find the Sea of Green and reach Pepperland, where they meet the Meanies and their ferocious pet, the Dreadful Flying Glove and (Spoiler Al-, oh never mind) save the day, because in the end “All You Need Is Love.”
Besides a few classics from the band’s Revolver-Sgt. Pepper era, The Beatles tossed in four unreleased songs, including the now-ubiquitous singalong “All Together Now,” and the underappreciated “Hey Bulldog.” These are The Beatles, so even this collection of odds and ends would mark an eternal classic album from any other band, brought to life in varying ways by chief animator Edelmann, from his treatment of “Eleanor Rigby,” with its poignant, dour Liverpool scenes, to the joyous rotoscoping accompanying the upbeat psychedelia of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
The individual lines provide Joycean wordplay filtered through a Lennonesque sensibility, quips apparently provided by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough. Some of the japes hold up (“I warned you not to eat on an empty stomach”) better than others (“You don’t look bluish”), but if you groan at one line, there’s another around the bend, accompanied by a different animation style, from pop-art to op-art to rotoscope. There’s always something fascinating to look at through the thousand holes in the plot. Edelmann had hoped to parlay this brilliant and original calling card into a film career. That wasn’t to be (he died in 2009), but his influence can be seen in Terry Gilliam’s animation for “Monty Python.”
Proving critical “wokeness” has always been with us, a contemporaneous review of “Yellow Submarine” in the Atlanta counterculture rag, The Great Speckled Bird, complained “all the good guys are white.” Stanley Kauffman of The New Republic was more generous, while conceding that the plot “might have been invented … by your little nephew Willie.” The proceedings do resemble the stream of consciousness (which could pass for psychedelia) of a five-year-old who has broken into the powdered donuts.
Unfocused, charming, a little sappy, a tad more menacing than one may remember, “Yellow Submarine” is silly and innocent, without being insultingly amateurish (see: “Magical Mystery Tour”) It’s a slap-dash, end-of-the-pier idea that ended up being brilliant. As rock critic Robert Christgau wrote about a Ringo Starr solo album he found to be mediocre, “[the producer] cannot transmute questionable material into magic. And don’t kid yourself — the Beatles could.”
In “Yellow Submarine,” they even managed to do it second-hand.