When Yellow Submarine was restored in 1999, film critic Roger Ebert reflected and observed in his review that the film was “…arriving like a time capsule from the flower power era, with a graphic look that fuses Peter Max, Rene Magritte, and M.C. Escher. To borrow another useful cliché from the 1960s, it blossoms like eye candy on the screen, and with 11 songs by the Beatles, it certainly has the best music track of any animated film.”
A perfect summation of this iconic film that has cut across genres and fanbases since its debut in 1968 and celebrates its 55th anniversary this year.
A fantasy of the highest caliber, Yellow Submarine tells the tale of the peaceful people of Pepperland being invaded by the villainous Blue Meanies, who hate music and launch bombs that leave everything frozen and colorless.
Old Fred, conductor of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, manages to flee in the titular submarine, and enlist the help of the Beatles, to defeat the Blue Meanies.
Yellow Submarine came about when the Beatles agreed to the film to satisfy a three-picture deal they had with United Artists. The Fab Four make a live-action appearance at the end of the film, but other than their popular songs that are featured, John, Paul, George, and Ringo did not voice their animated counterparts.
Director George Dunning and his team of artists – many held over from London’s TVC studio, which had produced the Saturday morning Beatles cartoons – created a mesmerizing film filled with a cascade of colors and distinctive art direction by illustrator and designer Heinz Edelmann that has become instantly recognizable and iconic.
Among the highlights: the giant Flying Glove, with its sneering face and smoke billowing behind it; the innocent Boob, with his smiling, mask-like face, short, stumpy body, and rabbit-like tail, who befriends the Beatles, and the Apple Corps, giants who drop oversized apples on their victims.
This bizarre collection of characters exists in a world that blends traditional animation with photography and rotoscoping, such as in the musical sequence “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
It’s one of the many Beatles songs in Yellow Submarine that now serve as a soundtrack for multiple generations.
Some of the others include the title song, “Nowhere Man,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “All Together Now,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “All You Need is Love.” The last is a joyous sequence, where the lyrics and the word “Love” continually appear, hypnotically, in the sky.
Yellow Submarine opened on July 17, 1968, in the United Kingdom and November 13 of the same year in the United States. The film was embraced not just by critics but by audiences, who, as Ebert recalled, were already viewing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the same year) in a unique way where they would “…lay, or lie, flat on their backs on the floor in front of the screen, observing Kubrick’s time-space journey from a skewed perspective – while, as the saying went, they were stoned out of their gourds.”
Yellow Submarine was greeted in the same psychedelic manner, becoming one of the great “head movies” of the era.
The movie has also had a tremendous legacy and inspired many, including director Robert Zemeckis, who planned a remake of Yellow Submarine using the same motion capture technology used in his hit holiday film, The Polar Express. Thankfully, the remake was abandoned after Zemeckis’ studio ImageMovers Digital was closed.
This is probably for the best as Yellow Submarine deserves to, and does, stand on its own.
As Leonard Maltin said of Yellow Submarine in his book, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons: “For the first time since Disney’s earliest hits, grown-ups and young adults paid admission to see a cartoon feature in theatres. Naturally, it was The Beatles’ name that brought most people in, but it was the filmmaker’s imagination that made them stay – and return to see it again.”