Once upon a time—or maybe twice—the Beatles released a full-length animated adventure for children of all ages (especially 64). Inspired by their song “Yellow Submarine,” which is the auditory equivalent of a cartoon, the movie depicts a psychedelic voyage through time and space set to a soundtrack of classic Beatles tunes, some of which were written for the film.
So take a musical trip with me to the magical undersea world of Pepperland. Just be careful not to press the wrong button or pull the wrong lever in the submarine. And always watch out for Blue Meanies!
In case you haven’t heard of the Beatles—I suppose it’s possible—they were an English rock band that released thirteen hugely influential studio albums between 1963 and 1970. The band had several different names (including the Black Jacks, the Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, and the Silver Beetles) before finally settling on the Beatles (with its punny spelling). The Fab Four consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
On top of their groundbreaking albums, they released five movies: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), Yellow Submarine (1968), and Let It Be (1970). These films helped define the Beatles as counterculture icons and contributed to Beatlemania.
According to an article by Daniel Finkelstein in The Australian, the Beatles had a contractual obligation to United Artists to make a third film after A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (Magical Mystery Tour was a separate made-for-TV movie), but the band “couldn’t have cared less. In fact, they were actively hostile to the whole thing.”
Finkelstein goes on to write, “When John Lennon heard that the cartoon was being made he shouted across the studio: ‘Ringo, get your crayons, we’ve got a job for you.’” And when “Paul McCartney asked his writing partner, ‘When are we going to find time to write the songs?’ Lennon replied, ‘We’re not.’”
The band further distanced themselves from the project when they discovered it was going to be made by some of the same people who worked on The Beatles, a Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1965 to 1967 on ABC. According to Finkelstein, the band hated the program.
Despite the Beatles’ lack of involvement, the film was released to widespread critical acclaim and is now considered a classic, influencing a whole generation of animators and storytellers.
Yellow Submarine starts with the narration, “Once upon a time—or maybe twice—there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland.” Why is it unearthly? Because it’s 80,000 leagues beneath the sea, of course! Thus begins the tale of the inhabitants of Pepperland, who are soon attacked by the Blue Meanies, haters of music who silence Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
A sailor named Old Fred escapes in the titular Yellow Submarine at the last minute and begins an epic journey to gather the Beatles to help him defeat the Blue Meanies. On the trip back, they pass through several strange seas (the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Nothing, the Foothills of the Headlands, and the Sea of Holes), and when they return to Pepperland, they discover a colorless wasteland that can only be saved by the Beatles’ music.
Most of the episodic set pieces in Yellow Submarine are based on Beatles songs. All of the songs had been previously released except for “All Together Now,” “Only a Northern Song,” “It’s All Too Much,” and “Hey Bulldog.” Additionally, the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, provided an original score. The soundtrack, Yellow Submarine, was released on January 13, 1969.
But the Beatles didn’t put a lot of effort into new songs for the film. Producer Al Brodax recalls, “There was a commitment for the Beatles to do four songs for the film. Apparently, they would say, this is a lousy song, let’s give it to Brodax.” George Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song,” rejected from inclusion on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is particularly experimental.
In her essay on the song “Yellow Submarine” from the book In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, Maria Popova writes, “Paul McCartney wrote the song as a nonsense children’s rhyme to which the Beatles added an irreverent edge.” It was one of only about a dozen Beatles songs on which Ringo sang the lead vocal, and it was written with him in mind.
The recording session was loose. According to Popova, “The gang proceeded to fetch an arsenal of noisemaking tools from the utility closet—chains, whistles, buckets, glasses, wind makers, thunderstorm machines, wartime hand bells, hooters, ship’s bells—which quickly cluttered the studio’s spacious wooden floor as the cacophonous crew set out to create the song’s weird and wonderful aural atmosphere.” Childlike abandon permeates the track that inspired the movie.
Ah, the Fab Four: John, Paul, Geoff, and Peter. Wait—what? That’s right. The Beatles don’t play themselves in Yellow Submarine. Instead, they’re voiced by John Clive, Paul Angelis, Geoffrey Hughes, and Peter Batten, and the Beatles only appear in a short live-action segment at the end.
Three of the men who voiced the Beatles were actors, but Peter Batten was not. According to The Guardian, director George Dunning overheard Batten speaking in a London pub and cast him as George, even though he’d never acted before. Halfway through the production, Batten was arrested as an army deserter, and Paul Angelis played George for the rest of the movie.
George Dunning, who worked on the Saturday-morning cartoon series, directed a team of over 200 international artists for nearly a year based on character designs by Heinz Edelmann, and the animation in Yellow Submarine was as experimental and groundbreaking as the Beatles’ music. According to Edelmann’s obituary in The Independent, “Both Terry Gilliam (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and Alan Aldridge (The Butterfly Ball) drew inspiration from Edelmann’s work.”
Josh Weinstein, whose writing credits include The Simpsons and Futurama, takes the movie’s influence a step further. In a great article for The Guardian, he writes, “I would rather talk about what happened after the yellow sub surfaced in 1968 and shot its torpedoes through traditional animation. Because in my opinion, Yellow Submarine gave birth to modern animation itself.”
Weinstein calls pre-Yellow Submarine animation “a mild, goody-goody world of personality-free gloved mice and cartoon bears stealing picnic baskets.” But after Yellow Submarine, “it was a wholly different world. It wasn’t just for kids. It was satire and art and, most of all, subversion.”
“Without Yellow Submarine,” Weinstein writes, “there would never have been The Simpsons, no Futurama, no South Park, no Toy Story, no Shrek. No animated anything that enables us to laugh at ourselves while being highly entertained.” Whether or not Weinstein is overstating the importance of Yellow Submarine, we can all agree that it’s a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Yellow Submarine can be enjoyed by kids, stoned college students, and hippies enjoying a ’60s flashback, which exemplifies the song’s sense of inclusion: “We all live in a yellow submarine.” There really is something for everyone in this exceptional musical adventure.