Premiering at the London Pavilion on July 17, 1968, director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine represented a landmark achievement in the history of animated feature films. Though influenced by the “Summer of Love” psychedelia of 1967, Yellow Submarine encompassed a rich tapestry of animation styles. Like the Beatles’ music, it has a timeless quality that defies categorization or emulation.
Yellow Submarine was a breakthrough effort. Not only did the film pave the way for more daring works such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), but it also was the first full-length cartoon outside of Disney to become a resounding critical and commercial success. The popularity of Yellow Submarine was due, in part, to the Beatles’ association with the project. Nevertheless, it was the imagination of Dunning, art director Heinz Edelmann, producer/co-writer Al Brodax and numerous animators that propelled the film to remarkable visual heights.
The pre-credit sequence of Yellow Submarine establishes the film’s innovative style and serio-comic tone with its wistful, nostalgic depiction of Pepperland — utilizing vivid colors and offbeat character designs. This tranquil, distinctively British landscape is invaded by the grotesque Blue Meanies, who wish to rid the world of happiness, color and especially music. Interestingly, this plot element of Yellow Submarine was partly derived from the 1935 Ted Eshbaugh/Van Beuren short The Sunshine Makers in which cheerful dwarfs conquer grim-faced gremlins (who wear blue top hats much like the evil Apple Bonkers) with bottles of sunshine.
In brief flashes, Yellow Submarine acknowledges its debt to the Golden Age of Animation, particularly the influential displays of psychedelia in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Even the live-action cameo by the Beatles is somewhat reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series. Apart from animated cartoons, there are throwaway gags in the door-to-door sequence that evoke the art of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Nevertheless, the film’s visual and comedic style remains individualistic.
A classic example of Yellow Submarine‘s dazzling uniqueness is the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence — an inspired fusion of animation and music that captures the song’s haunting melancholia. Set in a decaying pop-art version of Liverpool, England, this segment combines stunning graphic design with imaginative utilization of rotoscoping, cutouts and still photography. In this prototypical music video, the film draws its strength as a visual complement to one of the Beatles’ finest recordings. On its own merits, the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is a mini-masterpiece.
Yellow Submarine has the quality of a surreal children’s story akin to Lewis Carroll on acid. When Old Fred searches for help, he encounters a rather glum Ringo, who rounds up his mates in what appears to be a museum — resulting in a fascinating, free-wheeling tour of popular culture. The remaining three Beatles are lavishly introduced as pop icons not unlike Frankenstein, King Kong and The Phantom. In the minds of Dunning and Edelmann, the Fab Four have become museum pieces (or, perhaps more cynically, merchandised “action figures”). It is apparent that the animators had a great time creating this Carroll-inspired segment, which emerges as the visual equivalent to a Beatle non sequitur.
The film makes inventive use of still photographs when the submarine departs Liverpool at warp speed and passes various British locales, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford and London. Using more than 200 color photos and accompanied by an instrumental excerpt from “A Day in the Life,” this brief travelogue lasts no more than 30 seconds, yet the overall effect is enthralling.
With John, Paul, George and Ringo finally on board, Yellow Submarine sacrifices its thin plot for a surreal, psychedelic odyssey in which the group encounters an endless array of time warps, bizarre creatures and, of course, the highly intellectual “Boob” known as Jeremy — certainly one of the most unusual characters in animation history. Though rather lengthy, this “modyssey” never fails to astonish with its wide spectrum of color and unique creations (once seen, the “vacuum monster” never can be forgotten).
The most imaginative “modyssey” segment is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which combines brightly colored, psychedelic artwork with the imaginative rotoscoping of early movie musicals. The abstract color effects are reminiscent of Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1935), while some of the rotoscoped dancing parallels Norman McLaren’s work in Pas de deux (1967). The “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence is a brilliant example of animation’s spellbinding power.
After reaching Pepperland and using their music to defeat the Blue Meanies (during the “Sgt. Pepper” number, “the one and only Billy Shears” turns out to be John instead of Ringo!), the Fab Four offer a pacifist gesture to the villains. The result is a lavish “Summer of Love” finale highlighted by impressive polarization effects set to George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much.” Happily, Yellow Submarine concludes with a brief appearance by the Beatles in live action. The group’s playful cameo (filmed at the last minute) ends the proceedings with a nudge and a wink.
Yellow Submarine has its faults. Running 90 minutes, the film is overlong (even more so with the 1999 restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” number) and would have benefited from Walt Disney’s strong sense of story structure. Though memorably introduced in the pre-credit sequence, the Blue Meanies are essentially forgotten until the Beatles reach Pepperland; the midsection could have used a cutaway scene that re-established the colorful antagonists, thereby giving the film more urgency in its pacing.
Not all the musical segments work. One number that should have been cut is the uninspired “Only a Northern Song,” a weak Harrison composition that gives the animators virtually nothing to expand upon in terms of visual ideas. The sequence relies mostly on oscilloscope effects and psychedelic-style illustrations of the Beatles that emerge as open-ended boxes.
Regrettably, the Beatles did not provide voices to their animated counterparts, which might have added more energy and humor to the overall film. Instead, the producers hired Liverpool actors (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis) who did a passable job emulating the group’s deadpan wit. However, with the noted exception of Ringo, there was a decided lack of individuality to the Beatle characterizations.
Despite these quibbles, one cannot dismiss Yellow Submarine‘s impact on contemporary animation. Like Fantasia, the film exposed viewers to a new and innovative vision of the medium while revealing limitless artistic potential. By daring to be different, Dunning and Edelmann succeeded in charting unexplored visual territory. A half-century after its release, Yellow Submarine endures as a seminal work of sight and sound.