YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)
Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal; story by Minoff; based on a song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney*
Why It's Here
Given its genesis, Yellow Submarine had no reason, and almost no business, being a great film, one of the wittiest and funniest animated features ever made and a signal piece of 1960s psychedelic art. Taking as inspiration the original John Lennon / Paul McCartney tune, a whimsical pseudo-sea chantey about a banana-colored undersea craft, writer Lee Minoff spun a story that incorporated the Beatles into a phantasmagorical adventure in which the Fab Four liberate a joyous undersea kingdom from the clutches of a gaggle of happiness-and-love-hating "Blue Meanies." But when Minoff and co-screenwriter Al Brodax, who also produced the film, initially took the concept to the Beatles, they were skeptical. Their likenesses had already served as the basis for an American cartoon series which the band had despised, and they were not eager to see the mickey taken out of them in animated form for a second time. But when they realized that the film would provide a quick-and-easy means of fulfilling their contractual obligation with United Artists, they signed off on the project and contributed four original, hastily composed numbers: "All Together Now," "It's All Too Much," "Only a Northern Song," and "Hey Bulldog" (for a sequence that was ultimately cut out of the US release of the film, only to be later restored for the DVD and Blu-ray version). As with the TV series, the Beatles did not even provide their own voices for the production; John, Paul, Ringo and George were voiced, respectively, by John Clive, Geoff Hughes, Paul Angelis and Peter Batten. (In one of animated cinema's more interesting behind-the-scenes stories, Batten did not complete the recording of his vocal parts, as he was a British Army deserter who was arrested mid-way through the production; his voice work was completed by Angelis, and Batten is uncredited for his work on the film.) However, once the Beatles set eyes on the final project, they were so surprised and pleased that they agreed to appear briefly in a silly and endearing epilogue, kicking off a sing-along of "All Together Now" in a myriad of onscreen languages. Watching the film today, it's not hard to see what the Beatles responded to so strongly. Yellow Submarine is an absolutely enchanting fantasy, smart, colorful, consistently funny, and graced with a message of love and forgiveness that definitely packed a punch when the film was released, right on the heels of the Summer of Love, and which resonates no less in today's equally fraught, violent and uncertain world. It's a film very much of its time, but like the best films "of its time," its message and entertainment value is timeless.
Yellow Submarine is not burdened with an excessively complex plot. "Once upon a time...or maybe twice...," an undersea world known as Pepperland thrives in harmony and happiness, its citizens living lives devoted to joy, peace and music, much of it provided by the awfully familiar-looking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (gigantic free-standing words like "Yes" and "Know" dot the landscape, the very seafloor sharing in the citizenry's positive spirit). But the Blue Meanies, who live outside Pepperland in a desolate waste, are having none of it. "Pepperland," declares the Chief Blue Meanie (voiced by Angelis), "is a tickle of joy on the blue belly of the universe. It must be scratched." It's as terrifying a declaration of war as any in cinema, and indeed, the invasion of the Meanies, with snarling dogs on leashes, plutocratic cigar-smokers whose shoes split open to reveal gun-wielding fists, and clown robots whose emergency-siren wails are truly frightening, is an unexpectedly potent moment, reminding us that many of the best children's films are unafraid, when necessary, to get seriously scary (also, the film's period of production, an era when war and race riot footage was regularly staining the world's TV screens, made images like this, if not familiar, at least more commonplace). The citizens of Pepperland are plunged into a shadow life of blue-gray misery, and there's only one hope: Old Fred (Lance Percival), admiral of the Yellow Submarine, who escapes to London, recruits the Beatles, and whisks them through perilous seas (the Seas of Time, Monsters, Holes and others) to face the Blue Meanies and bring music and love back to the people of Pepperland.
A fairly standard odyssey-and-war plot, and indeed, many sequences in Yellow Submarine seem to be there just to showcase the film's colorful pop-art animation style. Though the film spends a fairly limited time in London, the setting is established with a lengthy, Pythonesque cut-and-paste-photo sequence set to the heartbreaking "Eleanor Rigby" (a downer given its right-after-the-opening-credits placement in the film, this sequence almost makes the Beatles' hometown look more miserable than the Meanies-overrun Pepperland). Likewise, the Submarine's trip through the film's various "seas" are largely excuses for musical interludes; the Sea of Science is a bizarre geometric-graphics sequence set to "Only a Northern Song," and the band's sojourn to the "Foothills of the Headlands" exists primarily so John can present a dazzling rotoscope-and-pastel-colored version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." These moments basically bring the story to a dead stop so the film can give the audience what it allegedly really came for: the music of the Beatles, which after all is the film's primary reason for even existing. They also bring to the forefront the difficulties of gauging the writers' contributions to an animated feature. One has to wonder if the dialogue-and-plot-free Sea of Science sequence or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" are even included in the film's screenplay, or if they were just dreamed up by art director Heinz Edelmann and his animators. Does Edelmann deserve a writing credit as well? Without looking at the script, who can say for sure?
The film does, however, include musical numbers of a more plot-oriented nature, as when John defeats the Meanies' dreaded Flying Glove with the lyrics to "All You Need Is Love," which fly from his mouth and pummel the Glove as he sings. Plus, and this is something frequently ignored when one considers Yellow Submarine, this is a film that blessedly has more to offer than just some great pop tunes. Minoff, Brodax, and co-writers Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal (yes, that Erich Segal, the author of Love Story; this was his first feature screenwriting credit) have taken great pains to make this film fun to listen to when the Beatles are not singing, and Yellow Submarine boasts some of the cleverest and flat-out funniest dialogue of any animated feature ever made. The screenplay seems to be influenced by equal parts Lewis Carroll and Norton Juster, author of the mind-bending 1961 children's fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth; like the works of these two authors, Yellow Submarine is a film that delights in puns, non-sequiturs and delirious cheeky-for-the-sake-of-cheekiness wordplay. This is a film in which, spelling out help, Old Fred can exclaim that "E is for urgent." A film in which a typically glum Ringo declares, "Liverpool can be a lonely place on a Saturday night. And this is only Thursday morning." A film in which, when the boys temporarily lose the Submarine, they say in rounds that their craft is "gone for good." "Or for bad." "Or for worse." The film is chock-full of this playful language, delivered in the deadpan-Liverpudlian style that made the Beatles underrated comedians, a marvelous verbal complement to the film's delirious anything-goes visuals. And what visuals they are. From the Beatles' London crash-pad, where cars change color simply by driving by you, to the surreal ticker-tape-arrow heads of the Headlands, to the endless wonders of the Sea of Monsters (my favorites there are the Kinky Boot Beasts, chattering creatures with all-foot bodies, and the madly grinning "university of whales"), Yellow Submarine is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears, one of the psychedelic art movement's greatest, most enduring and least dated works.
The writers also take care to present the individual Beatles in the personae through which they have come to be known and loved by the public. John, the "smart Beatle," is given to frequently long-winded explanations of the utterly illogical circumstances in which the Submarine keeps finding itself. Paul, the heartthrob, remains true to his teen-idol style; he is introduced striding from a doorway in the Beatles' mansion, backed by rapturous cheers while straightening his cravat and catching a thrown bouquet of flowers in one smooth move. He also has a funny moment when the seriously decrepit Lord Mayor of Pepperland (Dick Emery), noting the boys' resemblance to Sgt. Pepper's band, declares, "It's uncanny...your faces!" Paul's put-out reply: "We're quite cute, really!" George is the mystic, introduced on a windswept hillside amidst citar strains and lion-faced griffins and given to declaring that the wild events surrounding the boys are "all in the mind." And Ringo is the lovable sad sack, a persona cultivated in the wistful love song "This Boy" (later to become colloquially known as "Ringo's Theme," even though, interestingly enough, he doesn't sing lead on it) and cemented by the band's Oscar-nominated first feature A Hard Day's Night, in which Ringo wanders the streets of London in a funny / pathos-drenched montage set to this tune. He's introduced here under similar circumstances, sadly trudging the city streets alone; his first line in the film is "Woe...is...me...", and he later laments that "Nothing ever happens to me." Naturally, then, it's he who makes first contact with the Yellow Submarine, and he who develops the strongest bond with Jeremy Hilary Boob, Ph.D (Emery), a bizarre jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none creature who they declare to be, in another plot-advancing song, a real "Nowhere Man." (They meet him, appropriately enough, in the Sea of Nothing.) Ringo, the one who's always underestimated, sees the potential in Jeremy and brings him along for the ride. And indeed, it's this strange being who ultimately defeats the Chief Blue Meanie and teaches him the power of love and possibility.
This was a potent message in 1968, a time in the world in which the hippie culture of pure love, free expression and peace was starting to smash headlong into the old-guard philosophy of might making right and My Country Right or Wrong. This turn of events must have been especially disheartening to young people who had heard their parents' stories of defeating the fascists in World War II only to see them, with their kill-them-because-they're-different support of the Vietnam war and racial suppression in America, metamorphosing into the very fascistic thinkers they had defeated twenty years before. It's no accident, I'm sure, that the Blue Meanies of Yellow Submarine are, in a few extra-narrative moments, marked with language and iconography that is explicitly Nazi in its connotations. At one point in the climactic showdown, a Meanie gunman confronts the boys, on each other's shoulders while posing as a towering "Apple Bonker," and asks: "Are you, uh, bluish? You don't look bluish!" If the Meanie had started screaming "Deine Papiere, Blude!" a la Schindler's List, it would have been wholly appropriate to the moment and its meaning. It also can't be an accident that the Chief Meanie's henchman Max (Emery), when asked by his boss where they could go hide out if they lose the war, suggests Argentina, a country that had garnered a notorious reputation in the postwar years for providing sanctuary to alleged Nazi war criminals. These verbal connections to Europe's recently vanquished fascist oppressors are less obvious to viewers today, but in 1968, it must have made it very clear what sort of values the Blue Meanies represented. And by putting the Beatles, mop-topped, head-shaking scourge of decent respectable parents everywhere, in direct musical and ideological opposition to those values, it makes Yellow Submarine's stance as a political text overt and unexpectedly daring for its era.
Indeed, the film's style alone, its explosion of color and movement and imagination, its verbal gymnastics and cornucopia of lyrics about love, connection and togetherness, must have been a powerful tonic to audiences in a troubled world, particularly in the United Kingdom, the land of the Beatles' birth. Great Britain was a country, in the years prior to the Fab Four's ascendancy, in the grip of a serious post-war malaise. The nation was literally digging itself from the rubble of the Blitz, rationing was still in full effect for many years following the conflict, and economic struggles added to the drab, just-getting-by feeling that hung over the whole country as definitively as it does over the residents of Pepperland when the Meanies take over. It was as if, while losing the battle, the Nazis had won the war, plunging the whole of the nation into the torpor and sadness that their actions had created across the European continent. And then, along with a burst of creativity and revolutionary artistic energy that marked the commencement of the 1960s, the Beatles came along and, with their musical message, gave their homeland and the world an invitation as clear as the one that John shouts over the hills of Pepperland near the end of Yellow Submarine: "Hello, blue people! Won't you join us?" Where the Beatles live and play, there's music and color and excitement. There's acceptance and adventure and possibility. There's dancing and friendship and love, which, as the Beatles themselves taught us, is really all you need. The growing pains of the artistic and cultural shifts the Beatles helped to instigate were traumatic, and indeed are still being felt in some circles today, if the histrionic all-is-lost rhetoric of conservative talk radio is any indication. But if even a Blue Meanie can shed a regretful tear and lament the previous error of his ways, can't we all? We are brothers under the (blue) skin, after all; as the Chief Meanie himself declares, "I never told you this, but my cousin was the Bluebird of Happiness!"
I don't think you need to be a Beatles fan to appreciate Yellow Submarine. There's a lot of their music here, to be sure, which may be difficult going for someone who doesn't appreciate it. But the film also boasts splendidly memorable visuals, funny and quotable lines, endearing characters, and a charming and well-worked-out story that, like the best family films, entertains immensely while also imparting an important lesson. But that message, remember, is one of love, life and celebration. And if you're not a Beatles fan? Chances are you aren't much of a fan of those things, either.
AWARD NOMINATIONS: Hugo Award, Best Dramatic Presentation (nomination shared with director George Dunning)
* According to the Internet Movie Database, well-known British TV writer / performer Roger McGough worked on the film's screenplay. He is uncredited on the film, but shared the Hugo nomination with the other writers and Dunning.