I should love Yellow Submarine. I'm a baby boomer (or at least I was born at the very tail end of the baby boom "generation"). I love the Beatles' music. I love surrealism. I love animation. Heck, I'm even an artist who paints primarily cartoonish, surreal works in bright colors. I'm a fan of the dada aesthetic. I like intentional silliness, absurdity and nonsense. In elementary school, I was obsessed with Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense. I'm still obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate factory and so on. When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I can still vividly recall watching Yellow Submarine on broadcast television (I can't imagine NBC, ABC or CBS showing this during a prime time slot now) and being entranced by it. But I'm not sure if I've watched Yellow Submarine since then, and this time, it just didn't click with me.
The story, which initially grew out of the lyrics of Yellow Submarine before incorporating ideas from other Beatles songs, begins in Pepperland, which is supposedly located deep beneath the sea, even though nothing there appears wet or underwater. Everything is fine in Pepperland at first, but it's not long before the neighboring Blue Meanies decide to attack Pepperland (it could have been that they just lived in another section--maybe the "ghetto" of Pepperland), primarily with green apple "bombs", which has the result of "freezing" the Pepperland citizens and most importantly stopping their music. Fred (Lance Percival) manages to avoid the apple bombs--he's one of the only persons who remains unscathed, and upon the advice of the Mayor (Dick Emery), he sets off in Pepperland's Yellow Submarine to search for help in fighting the Blue Meanies. He ends up in Liverpool, and runs into Ringo first. Ringo recruits the rest of the Beatles, and they begin a series of misadventures as they work their way towards Pepperland in the Yellow Submarine to see what they can do.
The animation is interesting conceptually. It's strongly psychedelic, of course, which means that it has a surrealist, dreamlike, hallucinatory logic behind it. The colors are bright and garish (which is a good quality to me). Although the animation is nicely varied stylistically, it often resembles a cross between a Peter Max painting and Joan Miro's work from the late 1920s on, with elements of Roger Dean landscapes thrown in for good measure (the Dean element probably wasn't an influence but an example of synchrony unless Dean happened to work on the film some--he was in London, in art school, in 1967).
Given those characteristics, it's no surprise that I love the conceptual basis. However, the realization isn't quite so successful. The main sticking point for me, technically, was that I couldn't get over the glaringly obvious shortcuts continually taken to lessen the workload. There are segments that are just still pictures with maybe one tiny element animated. A lot of the animation consists of repeating segments. The "Nowhere Man" sequence is half-animated, the other half of the song is the first part run in reverse. Pieces of animation reappear throughout the film. Some scenes are just still pictures on a multi-plane system and motion arises only from the planes and camera moving at different rates and angles. Way too much of the film has the feel of super-low-budget Saturday morning cartoons.
On the other hand, even that wouldn't have to sink the film. I'm a big Scooby-Doo fan and the cut-rate animation style from the early years actually has a kind of quirky charm to me.
The problem was more a combination of factors. In Scooby-Doo, the focus is on characterization and story. The discount animation style plays second banana. Yellow Submarine doesn't have much in the way of characterization or a coherent, gripping story. The dialogue is purposefully nonsensical--often it's just a string of arbitrary puns, and The Beatles (whose dialogue is voiced by others) mostly mumble. Even some of the other characters are relatively unintelligible. Instead, we're asked to engage with the film on the more psychedelic level, based largely on the visuals. But the visuals weren't executed well enough to work for me, so I mostly found myself doing three things: thinking "Hey, this stuff is simple enough that I can figure out some basic animation techniques by watching it", intermittently watching my DVD counter while I wondered how long the film would go on, and waiting for the next Beatles song.
The Beatles songs in the film are great, of course. Without them, I surely would have given the film an "F" (a 4 or below). The animation for the songs can even work occasionally, at least until you get to the laborious 1 64 count on "When I'm 64", which was like watching my DVD player's clock take over the television screen. If Yellow Submarine were just some loosely tied together music video I might have given it a higher score. A majority of the frames work as drawings/paintings for me, and I actually like quite a bit of the Blue Meanies animation, but on the whole, the film just didn't click. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for it. Maybe next time.
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