The plot: 2/20
The plot: An assault by the Blue Meanies on the peace-loving folk of Pepperland forces anxious captain Fred into a Yellow Submarine in search of assistance. Luckily, he happens upon Ringo, John, George and Paul, who take aboard a strange creature called Jeremy on their way to confronting the Meanies with their weapon of choice – music.
Pepperland is a colourful, musical and thoroughly positive place, its happy population living amongst statues of handshakes, love and the word ‘YES’, listening to the music of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. All these things are anathema to the Blue Meanies, whose chief (voiced by Paul Angelis) launches an all-out attack, using bomb-happy clowns, apple-dropping Bonkers, Snapping Turks, dogs and a vicious flying glove. As colour and music drains from the land, ‘Young’ Fred (Lance Percival) flees and, on the advice of the ancient Lord Mayor (Dick Emery), sets off in a Yellow Submarine to seek help. Landing in Liverpool, Fred happens upon lonely wanderer Ringo (Angelis again), and Fred persuades him to round up the rest of The Beatles – John, George and Paul (John Clive, Peter Batten and Geoffrey Hughes) to return to Pepperland and take a stand. However, the way back is fraught with adventure and danger, plus an encounter with eccentric Nowhere Man, Jeremy Hilary Boob Ph.D. (Emery again). Of course, being The Beatles, the group do have a host of nifty tunes on their side.
The phenomenal appeal of The Beatles was based for the most part – of course – on their music, but it was undoubtedly bolstered both by the way they looked and the way they spoke, a kind of freewheeling rapport which often bordered on the surreal. All these had been used to good effect for their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, and George Dunning had already produced a series of cheap and cheerful cartoons using Beatles songs and (poor) impersonations; but Help! had shown that the Fab Four were considerably less fab in a feature film which lacked structure and narrative discipline between the hits.
What, then, to make of Yellow Submarine? In terms of story, it’s a complete dog’s breakfast, because there’s so little to it – Fred finds Beatles, Beatles find Jeremy, the group sing songs to defeat the Meanies. This action takes up a small percentage of the running time, and the rest – rounding up the Fab Four, going on an adventure through time, rescuing Ringo from a land of bizarre beasties – is surreal in the most boringly random sense of the word, clumsily shoehorning songs in as it goes. ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, for example, fits in with the hippy vibe but has no other relevance; and even ‘Eleanor Rigby’ only has the vaguest purpose, representing and introducing Liverpool.
At least the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sequence contains some interesting animation. The rest of the film combines crude and amateurish animation with rather ugly – I can’t think of any other word – design, especially in respect of people’s faces and underwhelming backgrounds. Yellow Submarine has a strange fascination with legs and teeth, and almost nothing about the design works, especially as it all looks so cheap. Take the ‘Nowhere Man’ sequence: Jeremy’s verbosity is faintly annoying, and he looks like an unattractive, big-nosed, prancing koala; but the worst part is that the animators run out of things to do halfway through the song and resort to playing the animation backwards until it finishes. And this is important because while the songs are great – they’re The Beatles, for heaven’s sake (I don’t care for ‘Only a Northern Song’, but ‘Hey Bulldog’, cut from the original theatrical release and restored in 1999, is an overlooked gem) – the animation is so poor that it distracts from the enjoyment of the music.
I feel uncomfortable about being so negative about Yellow Submarine, and not just because I love much of The Beatles’ output. The film is drenched in late-60s positivity, Jeremy literally using Flower Power against the Meanies and the appearance of the ‘YES’ artwork a definite nod to Yoko; and it has an easily-understood message, the Meanies representing people against art, creativity and music – in short, the establishment. However, apart from the 40 seconds in which John, Paul, George and Ringo put in a live appearance, there is nothing of real interest to Beatles fans since neither the characters’ voices, nor what they say, comes from them.
Perhaps it works in an altered state of mind, I wouldn’t know; for me, Yellow Submarine is a wearying series of dull, irritating and badly-drawn cartoons getting in the way of decent songs. I would infinitely prefer to listen to the music without the badly-rendered visuals – in other words, listen to a Beatles album, which is what the boys were actually good at.