Here it is, the Beatles movie. The one filled with blue meanies and psychedelic animation. The one featuring (obviously) catchy songs and the voices of one of the most talented bands of the twentieth century. And here is their attempt at creating a delightful fantasy and parable about how love and understanding will overcome.
The result though? An absolute mess, one that no one else would be able to get away with. But when the Beatles’ name is attached to the project, it is automatically considered the thing that everyone else must follow. Not so here. I am glad no other band in history has tried something this terrible.
Part of me is glad that this film came along. I had been giving out positive reviews as though they would be the last I would ever give. Mostly this is just part of the film. If I feel it works, then it deserves a positive review. But surely not all films deserve one, even if they have classic status. Well, here we are. Thank you John, Paul, George, and Richard (alright, Ringo, even thought that name always sounded to me like something you would find under the kitchen sink) for allowing me to show that point.
The plot involves the utopian Pepperland, which has come under attack by the Blue Meanies. One man, Old Friend, from this utopia takes a yellow submarine to find help against the meanies. He eventually lands in some sort of facsimile of Liverpool in which people are doomed to repeat the same simple actions over and over (at least I THINK that’s what is going on…the film never says what it is, that is just what the characters do). We meet some sort of caricature of….Ringo I think, who complains nothing is happening to him and is picked up by the submarine. He goes and picks up John, George, and Paul. They all go on a journey through existence, including the sea of time and “nowhere.”
First off, the animation: it’s atrocious. If it weren’t so evocative of the Beatles’ artwork than it would have been. It more resembles a simple doodle that a high school student made in class rather than a full fledged animated film. Characters often do not follow the laws of perspective, their movement does not look natural, and the film barely even looks three dimensional (simply drawing items in the background does not give a perspective of depth, and one scene even involves a character stepping on a piece of scenery..but nothing is made of it). There were opportunities to use this animation to funny results. It never happens-it just sort of exists.
The dialogue is as bad as the animation. These were the Beatles’ well known for their world play in their music and interviews. Where is it? Strung out on acid somewhere. An example: Upon the lead Blue Meanie attacking Pepperland, he states that it is time for Pepperland to go “Bluey.” That groan you heard was your own. The film is just full of jokes that resemble that gem. Other terrible wordplay involves “being in the foothills of the head land” and “Pepperland-a bit salty around the edges.” The only character that is charming is the “Nowhere Man” himself, who speaks in Lewis Carrol rhymes. He is introduced far too late in the film though to repair the damage caused by the earlier characters. And one bit of charm is not enough to erasing an entire film of mawkish puns.
The only highlight is the music. No, I am not some man who pines for the 1950s or hates the Beatles due to their liberal drug use. Quite the opposite: they had their fingers on the pulse of the time, yet still wished to explore and experiment. They made a lot of the rules, they broke a lot of the rules. But I am not hear to review the Yellow Submarine album. I am here for the film. And I guess I must try and explain how the music fits into the film. Awkwardly is the answer. Yes, it is good, but often it feels tacked on and does nothing to further the plot. In fact, it often slows it down to a halt and absolutely ruins the immersion Would Citizen Kane have been improved by a random music video in the middle? No, and neither is this film, even if it is by the Beatles.
Despite all of the awful things I’ve said, I still find the film strangely compelling. I was determined to stick the film out, just because I couldn’t predict where it would end up. Not that that is a good thing: you can go to a doctor’s office and not expect to find you have a terminal illness. I still wonder how this could have come from the people who originated the charming A Hard Day’s Night. Perhaps the acid that they were taking at the time should be blamed. Just because something resembles a hallucination does not make it good. If you really want to use something in that regard, getting the visual design down is step one. One then has to create interesting characters, a compelling plot, and be a film. I think that’s where Yellow Submarine is at its worst. It barely even resembles a coherent film. Go and watch A Hard Day’s Night or Let It Be. Ignore this as an early experiment in the music video medium that went hideously wrong.