The Most Famous Beatles’ Movie Remains a Landmark in Brilliant Animation

You all live where?

Written by Joe Allen
Originally Published: 
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When you consider how long The Beatles were together, the number of incredible songs the band released can begin to feel staggering. Their sheer creative output is part of why they have such a lasting legacy, and it becomes even more overwhelming when you remember they were also movie stars. The quality of those movies varies wildly, but there are several all-time classics among the films The Beatles made together, and none hold up better than Yellow Submarine.

The 1968 film was The Beatles’ only foray into animation, a format that suited them perfectly. Yellow Submarine is the kind of animated movie that’s rare today, one carried far more by the possibilities of the medium than by any storytelling coherence. Make all the jokes about LSD that you want, but Yellow Submarine is an artistic triumph, largely because it’s beautiful, silly nonsense.

As with all the Beatles’ films, Yellow Submarine features plenty of Beatles tunes, as well as the band playing versions of themselves. But the animation allowed the Liverpudlians to tell a far more fantastical story without needing to worry too much about special effects. Yellow Submarine understands that animation is a medium that flattens reality and fantasy. Why tie yourself down when it’s just as easy not to?

The actual plot of Yellow Submarine is simple, and not really the point of the film. It opens in a paradise under the sea where Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band is serenading a party. That party is rudely interrupted by the Blue Meanies, who freeze the citizens of Pepperland and drain the land of color. Pepperland’s leader sends for help at the last moment, and who do they wind up calling? You can probably guess.

The Beatles spend most of the movie on the journey to Pepperland, but things rarely progress in a linear or even logical fashion. Instead, the band is flung this way and that, finding themselves in a world where the ground is made of pepper, and another where black holes are scattered across the floor. Yellow Submarine moves by intuition, creating new visual ideas with every step it takes.

Why is the sub on a pyramid? That will soon be the least of your concerns.

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These visual ideas don’t really have any deeper meaning. They’re presumably just things The Beatles and director George Dunning thought looked cool. Often, they’re also vehicles for The Beatles’ signature, wordplay-ridden sense of humor. But you never know quite what’s around the corner, which makes all these diversions amusing despite their pointlessness.

When the plot finally does resolve, it proceeds in a straightforward fashion. The Beatles finally arrive in Pepperland, and they save Sgt. Pepper and the frozen citizens by extending an offer of friendship to the head of the Blue Meanies. It’s sweet, simple, and filled with smart visual ideas. There’s a flying hand, Ringo pulls a black hole from his pocket, and a man named Jeremy performs some “transformation magic” that makes roses grow out of the Meanies.

With a budget of just £250,000 (roughly $4.5 million today), Yellow Submarine’s animation style is undoubtedly jagged, and the motion often feels jerky. Thanks to the movie’s rich visual palette, and the distinctive way that The Beatles are rendered, none of these budgetary pitfalls doom the film. Instead, they enhance the overall impression that the movie is not playing by the rules of conventional animation.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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There are few modern musical acts that could dedicate themselves to this kind of animated artistry, but more importantly, there are few modern animated studios as deeply invested in the medium’s possibilities. Yellow Submarine is bizarre, yet accessible; it has great songs and a story that’s easy to understand on a basic level. Unlike most Disney movies, though, Yellow Submarine is bursting with visual ideas, even before The Beatles head to Pepperland.

With its story relegated to the back seat, Yellow Submarine is defined by the glee its creators have about all the possibilities of the medium they’re toying with. The movie is playful, inventive, and almost disinterested in its characters. There are plenty of great animated movies that offer rich portraits of the people they’re depicting, but every once in a while we should also get a movie like Yellow Submarine, which is just as entertaining for entirely different reasons.

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