Yellow Submarine (dir. George Dunning, 1968)
The way I understand it (and I'm sure some Beatles purists will correct me on this), The Beatles signed a contract to make three feature films, and had to make one more before their contract was up (Magical Mystery Tour didn't count, as it was made for TV). Director George Dunning approached the band about making an animated project, which the band were immediately not interested in. The 1965 animated TV series The Beatles (admittedly kind of awful) was still running at the time, and the band hated everything about it. They figured if they wrote a few new songs and let this animation director do his thing, they would finally be done with their film contract. They wrote “Hey Bulldog,” “All Together Now,” “It's All Too Much,” and “Only a Northern Song,” and let Dunning animate around them. Other actors played the voices of The Beatles, and the band would not contribute to the story, images, or tone of the movie in any way.
When Dunning showed the completed film to The Beatles prior to its release, they fell in love. Indeed, they liked the film so much, they agreed to appear in it in a brief live-action epilogue. By 1968, The Beatles may have felt burnt out by the fame, the Beatlemania, and growing discord between the members. None of that burn-out is evidenced in Yellow Submarine, which is a glorious and childish celebration of The Beatles' music, as well as a gooftastic Saturday Morning freakout. This film is totally okay for little kids, and I think little kids would do well to watch it. And not just to introduce them to The Beatles, which is a fine goal in itself, but because it's just so danged entertaining.
So The Beatles, as well as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (credited separately) star in this film. In the far-away fantasy world of Pepperland, a blissful Eden of parks and music, an army of Blue Meanies has gathered to put an end to all the happiness. The Meanies are psychotic, blue skinned weirdos armed with oddball weapons like clowns, Snapping Turks, evil cats that stomp on things, and the army proceeds to turn the Pepperland denizens into stone, and abscond with their instruments. The Blue Meanies are led by a tittering and screeching psychopath played by Paul Angelis. An enterprising young general named Fred (Lance Percival) has to flee Pepperland and travel in a flying yellow submarine to Liverpool in order to enlist the help of The Beatles to defeat the Blue Meanies. The Beatles live in a bizarre mansion populated by weird unseen creatures. John Lennon (John Clive) turns himself into a Frankenstein monster. George Harrison (Peter Batten) lives in a peaceful dimension of sitar music. Paul McCartney (Geoff Hughes) still has girls screaming after him. Ringo (also Angelis) is the only one who seems to be himself from the git go.
Their trip to Pepperland takes Fred and The Beatles through several bizarre dimensions where they encounter all manner of monsters and temporal anomalies. They sing songs along the way. They accumulate a little brown furry baboon man named Jeremy (Dick Emery) who lives in the void and writes ultra-intellectual reviews of his own books and paintings. He's a real Nowhere Man. There is a sea of holes, a pair of kinky boot beasts, and a monster that vacuums up everything into its snout including the background scenery and itself. The imagination of the images is astonishing and wondrous and funny. Eventually The Beatles make it to Pepperland where they use their music to convert the Blue Meanies. They also encounter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, each with a Beatles counterpart, and the eight of them interact.
The animation style is colorful and odd and unlike any animation you've seen. The characters aren't the bulge-eyed anthropomorphic animals of old, but a kind of flat, quivering, cloth-like conundrum of visual dazzle. There is a thing in animation called a model sheet, which is a character design sheet given to teams of animators to copy. This is done so animators can make a character look the same across hundreds of drawing boards. Model sheets, however, must adhere to a finite number of facial moods or visual models so that continuity can be maintained. A lot of animators dislike model sheets, as they feel the finite moods are limiting to the infinite possibilities of animation, causing animators to go “off model” in order to express what they need to. Yellow Submarine feels like it's almost entirely off model. The characters and moods and visuals (especially when it comes to the Blue Meanies) are so full of odd shimmering life, you can't help but smile.
I first saw Yellow Submarine in 1999 when it was re-released in theaters, and had the “Hey Bulldog” sequence reinstated (I don't know why it was cut from the original version). I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen. I wish more people could have discovered it the way I did, because I fell in love. In terms of actual cinematic classics, A Hard Day's Night definitely surpasses Yellow Submarine, but I think this one is my favorite and is most definitely a classic in its own right.
All good things, sadly, must come to an end. Including The Beatles. Let's take a brief look at…