In the early 1960s, at the height of Beatlemania, The Beatles had signed a three film contract with United Artists which resulted in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). The latter proved to be an unhappy experience for the band who felt like they’d been reduced to extras in their own film and the appeal of film-making very quickly soured. With a final film still owing, The Beatles decided on an unrelated side project, Magical Mystery Tour (1967) which they wrote, directed and produced themselves (it was a critical flop) and to fulfil the contract with United Artists agreed to allow them to use their likenesses and music in an animated film based on their 1966 hit single Yellow Submarine.

When they learned that the film was to be made by director George Dunning who had been involved with the animated television series The Beatles (1965-1967), which the band disliked intensely at the time (they apparently warmed to it in later years) they opted to distance themselves from the project, leading to their animated selves being voiced by actors leaving the band’s only contribution the fine collection of songs. But their contract with United Artists required them to put in some sort of appearance and fortunately, when they saw the finished product they were impressed and filmed a very brief live-action cameo for the very end of the film (in which they play with “props” from the film) and agreed to contribute four new songs before jetting off on their first trip to India.

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The story is a sort of counter-cultural take on Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai/The Seven Samurai (1954). The music-loving underwater paradise of Pepperland is attacked by the music-hating Blue Meanies (a reference to the slang expression for the mushroom more accurately known as panaeolus cyanescens, famed for its psychedelic properties), who live beyond the mountains. With the colour drained from the landscape and the population frozen by bolts of lightning, buried beneath huge green apples (a reference to The Beatles recently formed record label Apple Corp.) or, in the case of Sgt Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, encased in a soundproof bubble, the mayor of Pepperland (Dick Emery) dispatches mariner Old Fred (Lance Percival) to fetch help aboard the eponymous Yellow Submarine. He arrives in Liverpool where he meets Ringo (Paul Angelis) and talks him into returning to Pepperland to help fight the Meanies. Ringo rounds up John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes) and George (Angelis and Peter Batten 1) – the band are never referred to as The Beatles once throughout the film – and together they travel through a series of bizarre seas, picking up meet Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D. (Emery), aka the Nowhere Man along the way. Once in Pepperland the band use the power of love and their music to fend off the Meanies before the real Beatles turn up for a brief epilogue, leading the audience in a singalong on All Together Now to help fight off the “newer and bluer Meanies” that “have been sighted within the vicinity of this theatre.”

Despite the lack of direct input from the Fab Four, Yellow Submarine turned out to be a triumph, a film chock full of extraordinary music, drenched in hallucinatory psychedelia and overflowing with puns, in-jokes and terrible gags. It’s just as plotless as their other films but visually it’s incredible, the beautiful, stylised animation more than making up for the fact that most of the set-pieces that pass for a plot are little more than flimsy excuses to segue into another song. It’s what would probably now be called a “jukebox musical”, a film built entirely around a collection of songs, some of the narrative twists and turns feeling very forced in order to fit the song in.

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It’s not difficult to detect the films influence in the work of Terry Gilliam (especially in the Eleanor Rigby sequence as the submarine arrives in Liverpool) who had been animating for the television series Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-1969) and was about to provide odd interstitials for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). It also paved the way for animated sequences in Sesame Street (1969-) and perhaps even René Laloux’s La planète sauvage/Fantastic Planet (1973). It’s a riot of pop art extravagance, the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence in particular being an extraordinary fusion of rotoscoping and eyeball-searing explosions of colour. It’s a unique film today and at the time must have seemed like the trippiest thing cinema audiences had seen Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which opened in UK cinemas just two months before the Yellow Submarine set sail.

The actors tasked with playing The Beatles do an OK job but they don’t really sound like the band, though they’re clearly having a lot of fun with the playful dialogue written by a host of writers including Lee Minoff, producer Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn, Love Story novelist Erich Segal and an uncredited Roger McGough. The famed Liverpudlian poet was a some time member of comedy pop band The Scaffold alongside John Gorman and Mike McGear, the latter actually Mike McCartney, Paul’s brother. McGough’s humour is evident throughout and the uniquely Scouse cadences are no doubt due to his input, though who thought to include weird references to Frankenstein and King Kong is less clear.

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While the bulk of the music is culled from The Beatles more recent catalogue of hits, the band contributed four new pieces that weren’t deemed to be good enough to grace an actual Beatles album. Sadly, in most cases, it’s not hard to see why. Harrison’s LSD-inflected All Too Much is a worthy addition and Lennon’s Hey Bulldog (used for a sequence that was cut from original US prints) has its admirers. But sadly All Together Now and Harrison’s Only a Northern Song are less impressive and certainly pale alongside the likes of undisputed classics like Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The film’s message, if that’s what it is, that love and music trump meanness, blue or otherwise is perfectly in step with the mood of the time and though it seems a touch naïve today it’s one that’s hard to argue with. When it was released in July 1968 in the UK and November in the States, it wowed the critics but failed to set the box office alight, perhaps because The Beatles were barely in it. But it’s grown in stature over the decades, despite only being available in various shoddy, cropped and otherwise compromised versions for many years (the 2012 restoration is a thing of exquisite beauty, a painstaking job performed frame-by-frame and entirely by hand).

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In 2009, Walt Disney Pictures announced that they were looking into the possibility of a remake, to be directed by Robert Zemeckis using the same 3D motion capture compute animation he’d used on The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009), with a view to having the film completed in time for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Though a cast was assembled, the film never went into production after Disney pulled the plug on Zemeckis’ animation studio ImageMovers Digital when A Christmas Carol flopped at the box office. How a remake would have worked so many years after the hazy, hallucinogen-fuelled days of the late 60s is anyone’s guess. We can though, predict with some confidence that it could never have been as unique or influential as the original.

  1. Batten started work on the film only to be arrested as a deserter from the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany so Angelis had to step in and finish off the recording.