The thing to keep in mind about The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” is that it’s not really a Beatles movie.
The iconic band had next to nothing to do with the production of the psychedelic animation classic, which screens in a 50th anniversary 4K restoration this weekend at Speed Cinema. John, Paul, George and Ringo were bored with moviemaking by the late ’60s and turned the project over to a team of animators and writers who had worked on a Beatles Saturday morning cartoon.
They expected more of the same — just take a charming singalong tune from 1966’s “Revolver” and spin up a kids’ movie.
But director George Dunning wanted to push a few artistic boundaries. The allure of traditional animated features was waning in the U.S. and Great Britain — there was a grand total of one U.S. release in 1968, and that was Rankin-Bass’ “The Mouse on the Mayflower.”
So Dunning, who a few years earlier created the title sequence for “A Shot in the Dark” (1964), saw the chance to do something a little, or maybe a lot, different.
Perhaps more importantly, writer Lee Minoff brought a decidedly British sense of childlike humor to the project, embracing the whimsical naiveté of The Summer of Love that The Beatles’ music embodied.
The result is a charming, accessible and still visually stunning film that has aged far more gracefully than other experimental ’60s cinema projects, including one from The Beatles themselves, that just took themselves so damn seriously.
The plot, such as it is, goes like this: The magical underwater world of Pepperland is attacked by the Blue Meanies, who hate music and trap St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in an anti-music bubble. They’ll also bonk you on the head with giant green apples (corny Beatles’ record label pun intended) and send a giant flying glove to give you the finger, as it were.
The Beatles are called on to save the day, and in the titular underwater vessel go on a series of random adventures that serve mostly as setups for we’d now call animated music videos.
And jokes. Lots of corny Beatles in-jokes that can land only when mumbled in a British accent.
When Old Fred (whom the incredibly aged mayor of Pepperland calls “Young Fred”) warns Ringo to not pull a lever, he replies, “Can’t help it. I’m a born Liver-pooler.”
John: “This place reminds me of Blackburn, Lancashire.”
Paul, singing: “Oh, boy!”
You get the idea.
Dunning uses a wide variety of styles in film’s numerous musical sequences, the most powerful being photo-realistic images of a blighted Liverpool as the Yellow Submarine sails along to the string dirge “Eleanor Rigby.” At the other end of the spectrum is the sequence for “It’s All Too Much,” George Harrison’s ode to tripping on LSD before he found the same high with transcendental meditation.
The imagery employs blocks of vivid colors and stylized depictions of the band and their pals that are equal parts disorienting and cute. The animation is two-dimensional, except when Dunning elects to include color-saturated video for effect, and can seem quite simplistic by modern standards. But it’s enormously effective at creating a sense of skewed reality.
Mixed with the gleefully dumb jokes, “Yellow Submarine” has enough fun with itself that its hippie messages of music and love conquering all still come across as endearingly earnest.
That’s not the case with many projects from the era, including The Beatle’s own pet project, a “Magical Mystery Tour” TV movie for the BCC that, while including some interesting visuals, is a total mess.
It does not aspire to having a plot, per se, and instead just tries to blow your mind with a creepy walrus mask and shovels full of spaghetti.
(It also had the ignominy of initially being aired in black-and-white, for some unknown reason.)
In fact, “Mystery Tour” is so disjointed that it may be more accurately described as surrealistic comedy, or at least an attempt at surrealistic comedy.
To help clarify things a bit, Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed Art Museum, defines “psychedelic” as “the expansion of consciousness-altering reality” (often, we’ll add, via drug use). Like a vacuum-cleaner monster sucking up its entire world, including itself, and then spitting the whole mess out into The Sea of Nothing.
Psychedelia is sometimes conflated with surrealism, which Otto defines as “based in reality as it relates to the subconscious.” Think a lot of David Lynch movies, where routine events are depicted through a distorted, dreamlike lens to illustrate a deeper meaning.
At any rate, both can get tedious if they lack humor, and “Yellow Submarine” has that in spades. It’s a delightful experience that can be enjoyed on many levels, including as a kid-friendly cartoon. The Beatles themselves liked the final product so much that they agreed to shoot a live-action bit for the film’s ending before jetting off to India.
The 50th anniversary release includes a new stereo-mix soundtrack, so checking it out in a cinema should be a real treat.
“Yellow Submarine” screens at Speed Cinema on Friday, Aug. 24, at 6 and 8 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 25, at 3, 5 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 26, at 3 p.m. General admission is $9.
If you want to expand your mind a little further, the Speed’s Otto suggested these additional psychedelic classics.
“Fantastic Planet” (1973)
Another landmark of animation from René Laloux and Roland Topor, this film follows the efforts of humans to survive on a planet of giant blue aliens, which is probably the least psychedelic thing in the movie.
As with “Yellow Submarine,” this one has an actual plot, and even a protagonist — a human who escapes life as a pet and uses his knowledge of the alien society to end a genocide and bring about a period of uneasy peace, and maybe even understanding. You can even describe it as an adventure film.
The visual style evokes surrealism in many places, but in the context of the film this stuff is really happening … and it’s pretty nuts.
A reclusive professor indulges in a series of psychedelic fantasies as he spies on his new neighbor, Jane Birkin, the sexual idolon of swinging ’60s London and superluxury bag namesake. He peers at her through holes in their adjoining wall (get it)?
The intended charm of the premise is dated, obviously, and the intended humor is often strained. But the fantasy sequences are excellent, and George Harrison provides the music. So obviously it belongs on this list.
This low-budget flick, originally titled “The Love Children,” is one of Jack Nicholson’s early starring roles, despite the fact that he’s billed behind Dean Stockwell. It features musical acts of the day, including the Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds, and something like an anti-drug message, maybe?
An artist trips out on STP and tries to cut off his own hand, and there’s plenty more of drug-induced shenanigans that usually don’t end up well. Bruce Dern — yeah, he’s here too — burns a shrine around himself.
Much of the film is shot on location, and in some ways the movie feels like a documentary with extra-trippy sequences thrown in. The visuals are great, as is Susan Strasberg as a traumatized deaf runaway just looking for her brother in the Haight.