Now, picture the evocative imagery of The Beatles’ most mind-bending lyrics transferred to a silver screen world where imagination and wonder run rampant. The result might be something like the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. Out of print for some time on DVD, Yellow Submarine has just returned to DVD and Blu-Ray (5099962146098) in a painstakingly restored new edition from Apple Corps and EMI/Capitol.
When Yellow Submarine arrived in cinemas, it wasn’t the first animated evocation of the Fab Four, having been preceded by a Saturday morning program on the ABC network which ran from 1965-1967. Although the television show and the film shared the same producer (Al Brodax) and director (George Dunning), the big-screen project was far more ambitious on a stylistic level. It was ready-made not only for children, but for a counterculture that would soon adopt Walt Disney’s ahead-of-its-time Fantasia as a psychedelic experience. The film, written by Brodax, Lee Minoff, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal, centered on the “unearthly paradise of Pepperland,” a world where “nothing is real.” The central conflict was set up directly and simply enough for kids to understand: the evil Blue Meanies wish for the multi-colored Pepperland to “go blue.” (Was it intentional that some of the Blue Meanies wore Mickey-esque mouse ears?) Could The Beatles save the day with the powers of peace, love and music?
The visual style of art director Heinz Edelmann is established early on, with Pepperland populated by colorful trees, giant free-standing hands, and words like “LOVE” as three-dimensional sculptures. Everything comes to life in Pepperland; even comic book-style explosions are rendered visually. Though the animation didn't attempt to compete with the more lush offerings of the Disney studio, the film compensated with its unbridled imagination and off-kilter humor, something it shared with the “limited animation” pioneered by studios such as UPA. All four Beatles are surprisingly well-delineated with their familiar personas, especially sad-sack everyman Ringo. It’s a wonder that the characters are so well-defined, because the film is rather slow and lacking in a conventional plot sense. John Clive (John), Geoffrey Hughes (Paul), Peter Batten (George) and Paul Angelis (Ringo) all vocally capture their respective Beatles, and the real group is, of course, heard in the musical sequences. The animation most resembles a living collage, taking in live-action footage, stills and special effects for a unique look and feel. Nothing is sacred in the Yellow Submarine world; at one point, the entire film image is literally “sucked up” by a fantastic creature, perhaps with a tip of the hat to the pioneering work of Chuck Jones in cartoons like “Duck Amuck.”
There’s plenty for both adults and children. The older crowd must have delighted at the Goons-esque turns of phrase, the references to Guy Lombardo and The Sound of Music, and the sly asides (Ringo’s “It’s my policy never to read my reviews”). For the younger set, there are kooky, amusing new characters like the Nowhere Man himself. The Beatles fly on giant birds, and encounter creatures of every shape and size. And of course the movie embraces peace and love, emphasizing good over evil as well as brotherhood in its finale, even where Blue Meanies are concerned! The live Beatles even make a brief appearance at the film’s conclusion, leading a sing-along of “All Together Now.” In contrast with their animated counterparts, only Ringo is mustachioed in the live footage!
How does the 2012 edition stack up to the 1999 release? Hit the jump for that, and much more!
The center of any Beatles film, of course, is the music. The Beatles supplied just a handful of new songs to supplement selections from their existing catalogue. The songs play like mini-music videos, either literally depicting lyrical images or reflecting a song’s themes in a trippy, hallucinogenic manner! The orchestral climax to “A Day in the Life” cleverly accompanies the journey from England to the eponymous sub that will take the Beatles to Pepperland while “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is illustrated with cultural iconography and phrases filling giant heads! The sequence of an endless “sea of holes” (“enough to fill the Albert Hall,” natch) still impresses. It’s, of course, hard not to smile as the animated Fabs don the familiar Sgt. Pepper attire and use the title song to drive away the baddies who have turned Pepperland into such a drab place. It's all truly eye-popping, especially in the vivid new print restored by Paul Rutan Jr.’s Triage Motion Picture Services team.
In this 4K restoration (an emerging standard for resolution in the digital medium, so named for its 4,000-pixel horizontal resolution), the film’s pop art explosion has never looked sharper, bolder or brighter in Blu-Ray format. It’s exceedingly true to the original; it’s clear that the film was hand-made and hand-painted, which might come as a shock to younger viewers weaned on digital animation. There’s simply no comparison between this lush restoration and the past DVD edition, however crisp that image was.
Just as strong is the new DTS-HD master audio track (available on the Blu-Ray), which utilizes the existing 5.1 mixes. (The mono track, though equally clean, is nowhere near as exciting.) The rear channels frequently are used for sound effects like gunshots or screeching brakes, and all five channels create a wholly immersive world for the songs, including a stunning “It’s Only a Northern Song.” Would that these 5.1 mixes be released in a DVD-Audio or Blu-Ray Audio format! George Martin’s orchestral underscore, prominent in the film, also sounds better than ever.
A number of bonus features populate the new editions. A short, vintage 1968 featurette, Mod Odyssey, employs hyperbolic narration, invoking everyone from Jonathan Swift to Marc Chagall in describing the film’s groundbreaking new style and its “gaggle of grotesqueries.” It’s both fun and revealing as The Beatles’ traits are described for animation: George as a “cowboy,” Ringo as a “screwball Charlie Chaplin,” John as a “showman” and Paul as a “confident young executive.” Another feature allows for storyboard/film comparisons in split-screen, although the storyboards (even on a large television) are too small to fully be appreciated. Six short interviews, ranging from one minute to around four minutes in length, are offered with a breathless Erich Segal, animation director Jack Stokes, voice talents Paul Angelis and John Clive, animator David Livesey and Heinz Edelmann’s assistant, Millicent McMillan. Edelmann himself is heard along with John Coates on a commentary track. You’ll also find galleries of artwork and photographs, and the original trailer. The well-designed package includes a booklet with an introduction from Pixar’s John Lasseter, stickers, and a replica animation cel of each cartoon Beatle.
Most of these features are not new, having been imported from the 1999 DVD. The real attraction here isn’t the bonus material but rather the film’s restoration to cutting-edge standards. Yellow Submarine may be more of a nostalgia trip to those hazy, psychedelic days than a treat for today’s young audiences, but its music has proven timeless and its animation and craftsmanship are still top-notch. At one point in the movie, it’s declared that “nothing is Beatle-proof” as the Fabs attempt to free the "real" Sgt. Pepper’s band from a glass sphere. Indeed, nothing was Beatle-proof, as the one-time mop-tops from Liverpool managed to conquer every medium, from records to film to animation. The sparkling new Yellow Submarine stands as a testament to that.