As a child I queued for what seemed an eternity to see the cartoon Yellow Submarine (dir. George Dunning, 1968) featuring The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.) This was the Fab Four in their post mop-top stage in a style that bespoke the more psychedelic 1960s, at a stage where the group were now fashionably attired with long hair in colourful costumes. The days of their Hamlet-style haircuts with suits had gone, and now there was a more progressive image that was a reflection of the post -1966 ‘Swinging Sixties’ – a period of British culture that was generated by the emerging and radical pop culture of the Western world.
The cartoon Yellow Submarine featured the cartoon caricatures of the Beatles but not their voices, though the Beatles did appear at the end of the film as themselves due to their contractual commitment. The film was initially part of a three film contact for United Artists, but the band were initially cautious of the film following the reception to Help! (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967), perhaps explaining their limited involvement. It was to be their fourth film, Let it Be (1970), that represented the completion of the United Artists contract.
Yellow Submarine was directed by animation producer George Dunning, and produced by United Artists (UA) and King Features Syndicate. King Features Syndicate was an American enterprise that was responsible, amongst other things, for the Betty Boop cartoon franchise. This may account for the shape-shifting trend of some of the characters in Yellow Submarine. The film was a cartoon that worked on many levels, chiefly as a beautifully whimsical and comical children’s story, with a screenplay based on The Beatles’ song Yellow Submarine, taken from their 1966 Revolver album. It is significant that although the year 1968 has been viewed by historians as a year of revolution and unrest, it was this modern fairy tale that proved to be a commercial and artistic success.
In the film’s plot, the Beatles are the ‘good guys’, who travel to Pepperland to liberate them from the ‘Blue Meanies’, who have frozen the people and engulfed Sgt. Pepper’s Band in an encapsulating bubble. The Beatles, with their zany humour, confound the Blue Meanies and free the Pepperland residents to return to normal, happily living with Beatles songs of love and delight. It is a beautifully crafted story with some of the most artistic and creative music the Beatles had ever produced in this era.
The cartoon caricature of the Liverpool Fab Four was consistent with the zany humour and quirky dialogue that fans had seen in their previous films and interviews, and the psychedelic colours reflected very much the culture of the Swinging Sixties. Obvious parallels between the cartoon and the trendy fashion of the day were the flared jeans and quasi-hippy style costumes. However, in contrast, for all that the cartoon reflected the second half of the 1960s, there were relevant representations that belonged to an earlier, more constrained phase of British culture. The cartoon, although progressive in its genre, retained a credibility that connected to a bedrock of tradition of an earlier popular phase.
It is of interest that the songs chosen for the soundtrack of this film were not confined to the 1968 revolutionary idiom. By contrast, John Lennon’s Nowhere Man was actually a track from 1965’s Rubber Soul, which was produced during their ‘mop-top’ period. Nowhere Man, with its apt lyrics from John Lennon, evoked a maturity that connected to the audiences of 1968, indicating that music from a previous era still carried a relevance for the future. Consistent with this link to a more conservative pop culture, Eleanor Rigby, with its enhancing string quartet, came from 1966’s Revolver. It was a real first for a modern pop artist to be linked to a more classic genre through orchestral accompaniment, and indeed the song Yellow Submarine itself came from this very same album. Revolver struck a chord with the Swinging Sixties when it was produced in 1966, a year of triumph during which England won the World Cup, and a year that was to be the doorstep of a time of changes in revolutionary values.
Neither was the release of Yellow Submarine in 1968 so far distant as to rule out further connections to the past, with the Beatles at their zany best, and thus it is understandable that the cartoon was an enjoyable children’s feature. The cartoon used the comfortable offbeat moments that were part of the inherent success of the black-and-white A Hard Day’s Night and their second film Help!
To the world of 1968, Yellow Submarine contained tracks that still resonate with today’s audiences, and stands as a tale of the good guys defeating the forces of evil with their cheeky humour. Against this background Yellow Submarine puts its finger on the colour and satire of a changing world ,where the previous class-ridden era was satirised and events were lampooned to suggest that reality may be open to question, and perhaps a measure of humorous response. There are some superbly over-the-top performances that connect with more current satire of the 2010s.The Chief Blue Meanie is superbly played as an unbalanced leader: one moment of quiet and apparent calm, then exploding with fits of rage.
Beautifully directed, with humour and groundbreaking colourful effects, Yellow Submarine is an award-winning cartoon that has stood the test of time; full marks to a delightfully animated film with the Beatles at their best. It not only celebrates the talent of the Beatles, but appealed to all ages, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr providing whimsical tunes that have entered into the folklore of pop music.