Film Review: ‘Yellow Submarine’: Wherein Liverpudlian Gods Save the Beatle-verse
Everyone knows The Beatles, but what about their cartoon movie “Yellow Submarine”? Not really. Not anymore. So in preparation for this 50th-anniversary re-release of “Yellow Submarine,” here’s a wee history lesson:
“Yellow Submarine” originally came out in 1968, smack dab between the “Summer of Love” and the Yasgur Farm-situated Woodstock ’69. This was when U.S. troops returning from fighting communism in Vietnam were spit upon, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters put LSD in the Kool-Aid at early Grateful Dead parties, and bell-bottoms and psychedelic peace signs ruled the day.
The movie’s got famous songs sprinkled throughout: “Yellow Submarine,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” to name a few. It was lauded as a pop art landmark, and its ripple effect in American culture was prodigious.
The Beatles were the quintessential hippie, spiritual-enlightenment seekers: They meditated, went to India in search of a guru, and espoused peace, love, and (well-intended but misinformed) socialist views. They took too many drugs and got lost.
Meanwhile, Harvard “spiritual guru” Timothy Leary recommended that everyone get high and quit school by tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, and the masses were learning to love weed so much that Appalachian Mountain whiskey stills were abandoned for hidden fields of towering pot plants.
Which is all to say that “Yellow Submarine” was a movie to see while tripping on weed. Or LSD (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). It was a time of Americans naively seeking spiritual enlightenment through drugs. Or at the very minimum, fostering dependencies to escape the pain of karmic burdens; look at our current meth, heroin, and opioid epidemics. Look how far we’ve—ahem—come as a nation.
Kids nowadays play with G.I. Joes, same as 50 years ago (except with much bigger muscles), but toy stores back in the day sold a whole line of “Yellow Submarine” toys—John, Paul, Ringo, George, Sgt. Pepper, and Blue Meanies. In the early ’70s, German artist Peter Max’s trippy imagery was everywhere. On lunchboxes.
“Yellow Submarine” was a big deal back in ’68, and it keeps getting updated, revised, and reworked. Why this tinkering? Why this 2018 upgrade? I have a theory.
But First, a Synopsis
The tutu-and-feather-boa, motorcycle-booted, robber-masked, and Mickey-mouse-hat-wearing, drag-queen-giggling Blue Meanies invade Pepperland and freeze everybody! Why do they do this? Because they hate music! What else?
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (that’s a fictitious band in the movie and the name of the most successful Beatles album) makes happy stuff happen, like causing a giant “Yes!” to grow out of the ground, as well as a big “Love.” They just grow out of the landscape.
But wait—an aside! See, I finally put two and two together: John Lennon, in an interview, famously said that one of the things he loved about his Japanese artist and wife Yoko Ono was that she once made an art installation where you could crawl up a tall ladder to the ceiling, look through a telescope waaaay across the vast gallery, and see a tiny piece of paper at the far end of the room, up near the ceiling. It said (wait for it) “Yes!” John thought this was fantastic. As he said, “Can you imagine if it had said ‘No’?”
So that was the aside where I explained why “Yes!” would grow like a tree in the animated “Yellow Submarine” movie. See, the universe always says “Yes!” Or “Not right now,” or, “I have something even better in mind for you.” It never says “No!” Think about that. That’s exciting, even without being high on weed or magic mushrooms.
So, anyway, where was I? Oh yes—the Blue Meanies hate “Yes!” and “Love!” and they freeze everything with dastardly color-bleaching, anti-music bombs that drain the happy colors and music out of Pepperland! Bah! It’s terrible.
Furthermore, tall, skinny, bowler-hatted men bonk people with green apples and turn the good people of Pepperland (Pepperland is sort of like a paradise) to stone via the blue, index-finger-pointing flying glove, which has teeth and laughs maniacally.
Well, this all is just no good, right? So Captain Fred (who conducts the band) jumps into the Yellow Submarine to go to London (where else?) to find The Beatles and have them save Pepperland. Yay!
There are adventures: John, Paul, George, and Ringo fall through different dimensions, through the Sea of Time, the Sea of Nothing, and the Sea of Holes. They encounter strange creatures on the bottom of the world’s oceans.
Finally arriving in Pepperland, The Beatles launch a rebellion, vanquish the Blue Meanies, and return blissfulness and vibrancy to the land. They do this all via very famous Beatles songs, love, dry and droll Liverpudlian whimsies, musings, and rather bad puns (which can be mostly recognized as the quintessence of John Lennon).
The Fab Four are depicted as exceedingly tall, god-like fellows, with colorful pants, who carry the ability to restore chaotic universes.
Another aside: The Beatles are not actually voiced by themselves; each Beatle thought the other Beatles’ voices sounded pretty good, but they all hated their own voices.
So Why Bring It Back Again?
Would this psychedelic trip into the Beatle psyche be interesting without the Beatle-hit-laden soundtrack? No. Blue Meanies, Apple Bonkers, et al, might be interesting to 5-year-olds these days. Or Beatle-fandom of the most zealous, collected-all-the-vintage-toys-and-T-shirts variety.
It’s a throwback, a peek into the mind of Beatles fans everywhere who would have watched “Yellow Submarine” high on drugs, hoping for some insights into the cosmos. One imagines their experiences were rather like Paul McCartney’s. He famously described enlightening to the meaning of life, while stoned, and quickly wrote it all down, only to wake up a day later to discover a scribble on a scrap of paper that stated: “There are seven levels.”
The Beatles and the Monty Python comedians knew each other well, or at least George Harrison and Eric Idle did. It becomes immediately clear that the cartoon imagery of Peter Max was the blueprint for Terry Gilliam’s animation for the Pythons.
So here’s my theory: “Yellow Submarine” has serendipitously been brought back because, like the fight of the god-like Beatles against the Blue Meanies to restore Pepperland—what with pot smoke rolling down Manhattan avenues as we speak, and, as mentioned, the full-blown American heroin-opioid-meth epidemics—people are seeking meaning more than ever.
Will we find answers in “Yellow Submarine”? Highly unlikely! But witness the drug escalation since 1968, on the one hand, and the number of people taking up spiritual practices, on the other. Maybe we’ll get some kind of answer soon. Because we all want to know what the future will bring. And the universe always says “Yes!”
Director: George Dunning
Starring: The Beatles, Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes, Lance Percival
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Release Date: July 8
Rated 4 stars out of 5 (due to landmark status)