In the interim between the disastrous reception of Magical Mystery Tour film and the upcoming tension that plagued the White Album sessions, the Beatles were hardly the happiest band in the world, and since they'd made MMT on their own, they found that they still owed United Artists a third film to fulfill their contractual obligation. The last thing any of them wanted to do was make another movie, and when they were approached with the idea of an animation film, they saw it as their way to deliver a film without putting forth any effort.
Indeed, the band recorded only four songs that appear exclusively within the film or its soundtrack album. They also neglected to provide their own voices, forcing the filmmakers to cast voice actors and, as was the case in Help!, script the dialogue around public perceptions of the group, albeit this time the filmmakers did so out of necessity. Ergo, it may not be proper to review the film as it features almost no involvement from the group itself.
However, the psychedelic animation and cheeky undertones of George Dunning's Yellow Submarine are some of the most identifiable images of the band. Where Help! made me shake my head, wondering how all the people who made A Hard Day's Night so clever and subversive could essentially parody themselves, Yellow Submarine proves almost as inventive and entertaining as the first picture to feature the band (or, in this case, their likenesses).
Mind you, it makes even less sense than the largely plotless A Hard Day's Night: opening in Pepperland, the residents -- among them, of course, the Lonely Hearts Club Band -- are attacked by the evil, music-hating Blue Meanies (a possible reference to cops). Only Old Fred escapes, and he pilots the Yellow Submarine to London to recruit the Beatles to fight the Meanies and free the denizens of Pepperland. That's about it, but the point of a musical has always been to structure images around the songs.
To their credit, Dunning and writer Al Brodax play up Beatles' stereotypes Ringo, naturally, is the put-upon dope; he first appears in a depression after "Eleanor Rigby" plays, and he darkly mutters, "Compared to my life, Eleanor's was a gay, mad world." Later, he makes the mistake on the submarine of pressing the button he is specifically told not to press, and is promptly injected into a sea of monsters. "Poor Ringo," the rest of the band says as they consider simply leaving him, before at last one says, "No, let's save the poor devil." There are also numerous references to songs within the dialogue, most notably as the band stands in a sea of holes ("How many would it take to fill the Albert Hall," John wonders as countless in-jokes are tossed out per second). When the band reaches Pepperland, the village elder breathlessly remarks their "uncanny resemblance" to the Lonely Hearts Club Band, a name which the Beatles mock for its silliness.
More impressive, though, is how the filmmakers inject the kind of wry double entendre and wordplay that was lacking in Help! John is presented as the cheeky intellectual, remarking as the band sails through a time warp, "We've become involved in Einstein's Time-Space Continuum Theory. Relatively speaking." When a Meanie confronts the band, he asks, "Are you Bluish? You don't look Bluish."
The animation, however, is what immortalizes the film. Though it features a number of obscure pop culture references, it's not what you could exactly call pop art. Dunning and Brodax created the Beatles TV cartoon, a decidedly less impressive production, so much so that it was part of the reason the band neglected to work on the film. But Dunning amassed a team of animators, most notably psychedelic art director Heinz Edelmann and animator/creative director Charlie Jenkins, who craft a unique style that's immediately recognizable from any still image. They use primarily limited animation; that is to say, much of what is drawn on screen doesn't move, creating that odd effect when fully animated, cartoony objects move through more "artistic" still images. But that's by far the least fantastical element of the drawing; Yellow Submarine overflows with loopy visions of warped beasts and bleeding, occasionally fluorescent color.
The Beatles' initial refusal to participate in the film had several notable side-effects. First, they ended up all loving the film, to the point that they got Brodax to write an epilogue in which they'd appear in live action. Had they looked into the project before it was near completion, perhaps they'd have hopped on-board and played even further with their image, or at least written some better original material to complement the hit singles and album tracks. The second, far more unfortunate, result is that United Artists, rightly sensing the band's lack of involvement, decided that the project was more an authorized tribute to the band and declared that the group still owed them a third film. That opened the door to the proposed Get Back sessions, which ultimately tore the band apart once and for all. It still would have happened, mind you, but it's hard not to look at this film and wish that things went as well behind the scenes as they did in the finished product.