Review: Yellow Submarine

is amazed by this animated adventure classic

Image: Apple Corps Ltd

Director: George Dunning
Starring: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes
Length: 1hr 17m
Rating: U

Some fifty years after its initial release, Yellow Submarine – the Beatles’ third feature, and final film project to see release before the Fab Four’s unofficial disintegration in 1969 – has re-emerged in cinemas for a very limited time. This 4K rerelease is the second of its kind, with the film having previously returned to cinemas in 2012 for a similarly limited run, each frame of animation having been painstakingly restored by hand. A critical smash upon its initial release, the surreal animated adventure remains just as innovative and enchanting today as it was all those years ago.

The film begins in Pepperland, an idyllic, musical paradise some 80,000 leagues beneath the sea, as it comes under siege by the Blue Meanies. The Meanies, a rather uncouth bunch, freeze the inhabitants of Pepperland, drowning out any-and-all forms of music, and rob the landscape of its colour. The only escapee is that of Old Fred, who hops aboard the titular sub and journeys to the dreary land of Liverpool, seeking aid from Ringo Starr and his fellow Beatles. Joining Old Fred, the band embark on an odyssey to free Pepperland, traversing vast seas, encountering weird-and-wonderful monsters, and squeezing in a few ditties along the way.

The plot is unabashedly nonsensical, serving as a mere excuse to explore a plethora of surrealist landscapes and, of course, to hear some Beatles tunes. Thankfully the film does not – as so many musicals based upon the works of popular recording artists tend to do – bend over backwards in order to fit the songs into the plot; each track begins more or less at random with only a tangential link to the story. The soundtrack speaks for itself, bolstered by an excellent score courtesy of producer George Martin. Standouts include Lennon’s ‘Hey Bulldog’, a funky piano-driven number, which features one of McCartney’s finest basslines, and ‘It’s All Too Much’, a Wall of Sound acid rock track from Harrison.

Beyond the excellent soundtrack and score, Yellow Submarine’s greatest asset is the film’s incredible animation. Melding together traditional hand-drawn animation with photography, stop motion, rotoscoping, and live-action footage, the film is a gorgeous visual spectacle. One can certainly see the influence that the film has had in the decades since its release, with shows like Futurama and Family Guy owing a clear debt. The animation style bears comparison with the early works of Terry Gilliam, who developed the animated sequences for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The various surreal locales featured throughout are a delight, filled with strange, kaleidoscopic creatures and trippy physics. One sequence sees the band travel through the Sea of Time, wherein the group revert to childhood before rapidly growing old, musing about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as they go. Another sees the band stuck in the Foothills of the Headlands, where giant disembodied heads dot the landscape. The creativity on show is astounding and really cannot be adequately described, nor can one properly convey the amount of colour which is jammed into each frame.

The Beatles themselves had little to do with the project, spurned by their experience on-set of their previous cinematic outing Help!, wherein the band were glorified extras in their own film, as well as their dislike of the ABC Saturday morning cartoon show bearing their name and likenesses. As a result, their characters were voiced by actors, and the band themselves resigned to a short live-action cameo during the film’s conclusion, thus fulfilling their contractual agreements to appear in the film. However, the band were won over by the finished product for an obvious reason; Yellow Submarine is quintessential Beatles. The film is littered with references to the band and to wider pop culture. Moreover, the dialogue is filled with enough double entendre and clever word play to rival that of Lennon himself. It may not be laugh-out-loud hilarious, but the witty dialogue is an audible treat nevertheless. It is a shame that the band did not voice their own characters however. The voice actors do a serviceable job of imitating Ringo and Paul, but George and John are virtually unrecognisable for the most part. Although the voices are a little jarring to begin with, they become far less noticeable over time.

Although the animation may appear rudimentary by today’s standards, and its meandering plot may put some off, Yellow Submarine is a delightfully charming film. Coupled with an excellent soundtrack and score, the film’s visual creativity is unprecedented, and its impact upon modern animation is clearly visible throughout; one can hardly imagine a world where such animated marvels as The Lego Movie exist without the prior influence of this psychedelic fantasy adventure. Yellow Submarine distils the kind of magic that permeated the Beatles’ catalogue of music, maintaining a playfulness and simplicity about its manner which is rather intoxicating. Moreover, there is an unrelenting sense of optimism throughout that perfectly encapsulates the late-sixties mind-set; one which is sorely missed here today.

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