A magical, movable feast

The Beatles live again in the eye- and ear-popping new print of "Yellow Submarine."

By Michael Sragow

Published September 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Yellow Submarine" returns to the screen as razzle-dazzle entertainment and the mother of contemporary animation -- as audacious as
"South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," as beautiful and humane as "The Iron
Giant," as witty and inventive as "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life." It comes off as less of a period piece and more of a cartoon masterpiece than it did
in 1968. Back then, as Pauline Kael pointed out, its flower-power theme had gotten out of sync with an increasingly frayed and abrasive culture. Now the call for peace and love through music is as novel and refreshing as the Beatles' hippie-dandy wardrobe.

As always, what director George Dunning and designer Heinz Edelmann
do with the material makes the film an undiluted delight. It isn't the pop
sitar and bell-bottoms and giddy dorm-room graphics that ring an audience's
bells. It's the filmmakers' bottomless well of inspiration. While building
toward a counterculture utopia, the movie offers a psychedelic history of
art in which Magritte co-exists with Milton Glaser. If it once gave off
lulling whiffs of weed and incense, it now works like aromatic smelling salts
to provide a welcome jolt to the system. Today it's hard to know what's more
stimulating: the combination of bravura collage effects and literate
off-the-cuff comedy (like Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons) or the zing
that all-out, trailblazing pop can bring to a full-length animated feature.

We typically talk of movies as "experiences," when they're often
high-tech experiments that reduce us to lab rats. "Yellow Submarine" is an
experience -- an almost indescribable one. The story sounds too whimsical to
stomach: A courtly old salt named Young Fred -- the Lord Admiral of a one-man
fleet, on his maiden voyage -- takes a yellow submarine to Liverpool and
cajoles the Beatles into rescuing the undersea paradise of Pepperland from
the onslaught of the Blue Meanies. But in the "renovated" version opening in
nine cities this month before arriving on home video, the images have an
ecstatic lushness. It's as if the filmmakers print them directly on your
optic nerve -- once they enter your consciousness, they stay there. And as
heard in a gorgeous new digital mix, the songs really do have the power to
soothe savage breasts and turn the chief Blue Meanie into an ambulating
flower garden.

"Yellow Submarine" boasts two of the most majestic sequences ever
animated or filmed. In the "Eleanor Rigby" number, there's an electric
poignancy to the Liverpool folk who spend their humanity in iron-cast habits
and routines. It's nearly as engulfing as the kinetic rapture of the ethereal
yet sensual dancers who cavort to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" while
colors shift and spill beyond their outlines. The moviemakers don't set up
these sequences as high points. They're simply a couple of the extravagant
wonders that spill out of a cornucopia bigger and more bounteous than the
horn in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, Sgt. Pepper and his
men turn up as the Beatles' alter egos in the film's alternative universe:
they're the official group of Pepperland.

The movie's boggling matter-of-factness is a key to its enduring -- no,
its deepening -- charm. "Yellow Submarine" is a cut-up of a movie, in every
sense of the word. Its benign, cheeky attitude extends to its freewheeling
snip-and-paste shape. It's not a conventional fairy tale but a tapestry that
develops its own protean personality as the filmmakers cunningly unroll it.

Most of our best feature animators, like John Lasseter ("Toy Story,"
"A Bug's Life") and Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant"), wed their love of classic
movies to their love of cartoons, giving their work the same impact as
live-action spectacles filmed on creative galaxies far, far away from Planet
Hollywood. "Yellow Submarine" doesn't move or develop like these or other
movies, as Lasseter acknowledged when he picked it for a tribute at the 1997
San Francisco Film Festival and praised it for "telling a story in a striking
graphic way." Sometimes it seems to put us on a moving sidewalk at a World's
Fair art exhibit, with the Beatles' verbal byplay operating like a
commentary beaming into our skulls from individual Walkmans. At other times it
uses the ploys of slapstick or musicals or comic strips to toy with our
expectations before sending us down, or up, another fresh route of fantasy.
And at all times it follows the beat of a different drummer (say, Ringo),
with a pace that encourages gleeful improvisation.

The Blue Meanies, who have the heads of demented Mouseketeers and the
bodies of plump male cheerleaders, propel an extraordinary array of
thingamabobs against Pepperland, including the Snapping Turks, who sport
killer-shark tummies, and the tall, thin, top-hatted Bonkers, who paralyze
victims with big green apples. Best and worst of all is the Dreadful Flying
Glove, which pays homage to exotic poetry -- the Blue Meanie
instructs it to point, and, having pointed, pounce. Even when the Anti-Music
Missiles start flying, the movie can stop for a spot of comedy, like the
leader of Pepperland's classical quartet refusing to acknowledge the attack
until his act is reduced to a solo. Pepperland is like the "Sgt. Pepper"
album cover extended ad infinitum -- a flower child's garden of cultural
influences, with a late-Edwardian ambiance that's both decadent and
wholesome. And it has a boisterous inclusiveness without an inkling of
political correctness. Everybody is invited to play.

Director Dunning and designer Edelmann galvanized an eclectic effects
and animation team and made use of a cadre of credited and uncredited
writers (including "Love Story" author Erich Segal, then an assistant
professor of classics at Yale). The result is steeped in all culture, high
and low, not merely movies. If the story keeps it afloat, a gush of pictorial
creativity gives it momentum, and the antic dialogue has the beguiling
quality of nonsense literature or novelty song lyrics. "It's blue glass,"
John says of a bubble encasing Sgt. Pepper's band. "Must be from Kentucky,
then," quips George.

The blend even tickled the fancy of such a stern defender of High Art
as John Simon, who dubbed it "a vast punorama" and wrote: "Visually, every
conceivable style is thrown in pell-mell: there is Art Nouveau and
psychedelic, op and pop, dada and surrealist, Hieronymous Bosch and just
plain bosh. Why does it work? Because of its reckless generosity. The fact
that Jugendstil is made to rub curlicues with Miro, that expressionism is
obliged to lie down with the Douanier Rousseau, that the outrageous melange
des genres
is served up as demurely as the most ingenuous tossed salad -- in
short, that it is so unselfconscious: that's what makes it click."

He was right -- to an extent. But as the appositely named Dr. Bob
Hieronimus lays out in "Hieronimus & Co.'s Yellow Submarine Journal" (an
excerpt from the forthcoming "It Was All in the Mind: The Co-creation of the
Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine'"), the movie was an astoundingly lucky hybrid of
the unself-conscious and the hyper-conscious. Director Dunning and other
members of his TV Cartoons company, who previously worked on the
Beatles' banal Saturday morning cartoon show, had listened to early tapes of "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." They knew that "Yellow Submarine" would
give them a chance to immortalize the Beatles' metamorphosis from epochal
rockers to avant-garde pop butterflies. That's why they went after designer
Edelmann, who was then known as a cutting-edge graphics whiz for the German
magazine Twen. By all reports a sober and hard-working crew, the filmmakers
employed every ounce of craft and instinct to create a trippy aesthetic. The
movie is usually described as a bath (or, as Simon put it, a sauna), but it
rewards your waking attention. While you make the connections between all the
unexpected activity within each frame and from frame to frame, and between
the pictures and the words and music, underutilized areas of your brain
shake off their dust and open up. Unlike a lot of famous "head" movies, this
expands your mind without drugs.

The last batch of "Yellow Submarine" videos, released a dozen years
ago, were simultaneously bright and thin -- like the TV series animation
Dunning and company were running away from. Since then, legal disputes have
kept the movie from the public eye. Animation specialists aside, the only people who
referred to it at all were rock critics doing Beatles retrospectives -- and they despise the soundtrack album and have put down the film's main
influence, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," as more of an artifact
than a pinnacle.

The Beatles, as George Harrison says, "hadn't really been that
involved" with the movie; they feared a replay of their kid-vid series. They
were even lackadaisical about the album, which put the four new songs and
orchestral tracks next to reissues of "All You Need Is Love" and "Yellow
Submarine" (unlike the forthcoming CD re-release, which promises to contain
every tune in the movie). Indeed, the liner notes for one version of the
record consisted of a rave review -- for "The White Album."

So for rock fans as well as movie fans, this picture may be full of
surprises. The soundtrack is boisterously alive, and not just when greats
like "Eleanor Rigby" arrive: Simple anthems like "All You Need Is Love" or
"All Together Now" soar in context, too. And "Nowhere Man" gains in
tragicomic resonance from being tied to a marvelously irritating character --
a multiple-threat intellectual named Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D. He looks
like a droop-nosed, clean-shaven ewok and speaks in verse because (he says)
"If I spoke prose you'd all find out/I don't know what I talk about."

Despite its druggy aura, the film's ruling sensibility is sharp and
together, whether the moviemakers are using "The Sound of Music" for a Blue
Meanie joke or wresting a blackout vaudeville routine from the sexual
chemistry between Fay Wray and the big ape in the old "King Kong." Even the
characterizations of the Beatles, filled out with motifs from their entire
multimedia oeuvre, are spot on. (John Clive, Geoff Hughes, Peter Batten and
Paul Angelis provide the voices for John, Paul, George and Ringo.) Ringo roams Liverpool with the same sad, sentiment-filled eloquence that he did
London in "A Hard Day's Night." John, Paul and George share a twisty
give-and-take -- a genial sort of one-upmanship -- from the moment we meet
them in an indoor-epic transformation of the trick townhouse in "Help!"
(Indeed, George may have more of a personality here than he does in the
flesh-and-blood Beatles films.)

As an additional treat, the new print restores "Hey Bulldog," the
one original song that was cut from the American release, and the one that
rock critics adore. In the film, the Beatles sing it as they join forces with
their Sgt. Pepper lookalikes to befuddle a four-headed Blue Meanie attack
dog. This wacky, howling piece of Lennon-and-McCartney R&B, with its
half-sincere, half-mocking refrain "You can talk to me," becomes the perfect
aural setting for a slapstick nightmare. Deemed anticlimactic and
cinematically jarring 31 years ago, it now gives gritty traction to the
movie's beatifying finale. "Hey Bulldog" may not be as elegant as the other
numbers, but "Yellow Submarine" is not eye candy anyway. It isn't just
dessert: It's a five-course meal.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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