The last time I watched the animated “Beatles” film Yellow Submarine I was . . . chemically impaired in Memphis, TN and a VHS copy of the movie was playing on a broken, color-distorted television. I can’t claim I was quite as enthused about the picture in its recent theatrical run as I was that nonsensical afternoon, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. For its 50th anniversary, the psychedelic animation classic has been restored frame-by-frame for a new 4k digital presentation, a modern spit shine that’s sharpened its line work, brightened its colors, and afforded its musical numbers an immersive surround sound mix worthy of the film’s overwhelming visuals. This modern cleanup effort affords Yellow Submarine an even playing field with recent works it’s obviously had an influence on (even if an indirect one), recalling titles like Adventure Time & My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea in the way it builds otherworldly fantasy-scapes out of complexly-arranged collages of hands-on, rudimentary illustration. What struck me most in this recent viewing, however, was how influential Yellow Submarine must have been in its own time, a whopping half-century ago. Predating werido animated classics of its ilk like Fantastic Planet & Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus shorts by years, Yellow Submarine is an impressively substantial artistic achievement for a “Beatles” film that barely has any Beatles. That historical significance is something I didn’t appreciate as much in my contextless viewing of it as recreational, visual fodder on a color-distorted VHS tape, so it was wonderful to see it get its full due in a proper, legitimized form.
Frustrated with the finished product of 1965’s Help!, but contractually obligated to appear in a third feature for Apple Films, The Beatles almost fully weaseled their way out of participating in Yellow Submarine. They appear in live action at the film’s conclusion for a brief PSA about peace & love, and their music is interspersed throughout the runtime, but for the most part this is a movie inspired by The Beatles more than it is A Beatles Film. The Fab Four have animated avatars that “star” in the movie as a magical, traveling rock band, but those characters are voiced by barely-acceptable Beatles impersonators (two of whom were required for George, as the first was arrested halfway into production for deserting The British Army). Even without The Beatles’ direct involvement, though, the movie captures the irreverence of their young rock n’ roll spirit, packing its runtime with visual non-sequiturs, nonsensical puns, winking sex jokes, and anti-fascist sentiment. The film’s most significant accomplishment, however, is in reaching beyond aping The Beatles’ already established pop culture personae to carve out its own psychedelic visual language & laidback surrealism, something that eventually defined Beatles-inspired visual art (and hippie era animation at large) on its own, original terms. Adopting some of the pop art sensibilities of Warhol’s portrait work and the cover art for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, Yellow Submarine creates a postmodern backdrop for its anything-goes psych fantasy adventure, which explores the physical corners of space & time to discover its own, new corner of the universe (to surprising success).
There isn’t much of a plot here, at least not one that matters. The musical fantasy realm of Pepperland is turned to joyless stone by music-hating, weirdo perverts called Blue Meanies, who long for a uniform, quiet existence. “The Beatles” are recruited from across the universe to put a stop to this blue menace through the power of love & song, traveling to Pepperland in the titular yellow submarine. There’s a clear dichotomy between fascism & art established in that setup, but the Beatles’ clash with the Blue Meanies isn’t detailed much beyond that ideological divide. Most of the film is a psychedelic travel diary through various fantasy spaces seemingly lifted from a child’s nightmare (or a stoner’s sketchbook). Seussian animals with human faces & yellowed teeth gallop & glide through their psychedelic fiefdoms while a tiny yellow submarine carrying the world’s favorite rock band barely slips past their self-generated mayhem. Pop culture figures like King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, The Phantom, and Marilyn Monroe complicate the storybook illustrations that provide these non-worlds a sense of structure. Collages of silkscreen-style photographs often loop in .gif repetitions, layering the screen with an incredible depth of rich, varied imagery. Yellow Submarine barely pretends to be a story about a rock group’s fight against music-hating fascists. It’s more a shamelessly aesthetic-driven string of hand-illustrated music videos, more than a decade before “music video” was household term. Its plot is only a convenient glue that binds its true purpose as a curated collection of rich images & sounds.
The only thing really preventing Yellow Submarine from being a flat-out masterpiece is its laidback, stony-baloney sense of pacing. Even in their music I’ve come to prefer The Beatles when they were young & brimming with energy, which is partly what makes A Hard Day’s Night such a perfect document of the band as culture-significant artists. Yellow Submarine is more a snapshot of exhausted, spaced-out, daytripping Beatles, the band that was so laidback & detached from this planet that they couldn’t be bothered to put in a few hours in a recording booth to voice their own avatars. More importantly, though, it’s a visual feat in hand-constructed, psychedelic animation, one that deserves recognition for its cultural impact beyond the bounds of Beatlemania. This recent restoration is a great start.