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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Yellow Submarine (review)

Peace, Man

Remember flower power? Remember when love and rock ‘n’ roll were gonna save the world? Me neither. It’s been more than a generation since the heyday of the hippies, and there are kids on the verge of college graduation right now for whom Lennon is as much an historical figure as Lenin. So much has changed in the 32 years since Yellow Submarine was released that while the film remains fascinating when viewed as an animated eye-candy experiment in long-form music video, its peacenik spirit, however laudable, is nothing so much as quaint.

Eighty thousand leagues under the sea, the Blue Meanies have attacked the music-loving inhabitants of Pepperland, shooting anti-music missiles at them and battering them with exploding clown bombs and enormous green apples. A giant flying glove — a pet of the head Blue Meanie — transforms Pepperland’s citizens into statues with the tap of its huge index finger. An escapee, the Lord Admiral of Pepperland, hops into his yellow submarine in search of help, and lands in London, where he follows Ringo home. Just for a laugh, Ringo and his pals John, Paul, and George decide to return to Pepperland with him, having all sorts of adventures and encountering all manner of bizarre creatures on the journey. And it’s even weirder than it sounds.
The Beatles didn’t have much to do with Yellow Submarine — they don’t even supply the speaking voices for the animated versions of themselves — which must be connected to the fact that this psychedelic cartoon doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the even older Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. A few terrible puns notwithstanding, there’s not much of the timelessly laddish Fab Four to be found here, unless you count the Beatles’ songs woven, not too subtly, into the flimsy story.

Yellow Submarine is less a movie, in fact, than a series of connected music videos, animated in a dazzling variety of styles. Presaging Terry Gilliam’s cutout cartoons for Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the gray and dreary London the Lord Admiral arrives in, sheeplike pedestrians mobbing around posterized photos of the city’s famous buildings, accompanied by “Eleanor Rigby.” Colorfully surreal imagery styled after the artist Peter Max’s work is underscored by tunes like “All You Need Is Love” and “Nowhere Man.” Time and space get tinkered with throughout it all — we watch the lads age to white-bearded old men and back to youngsters during “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and Ringo gets rescued from strange undersea monsters to the strains of “With a Little Help from My Friends” — and you’d be forgiven for wondering how much of Yellow Submarine was, er, pharmaceutically inspired. Aha, and here’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” I can’t help but imagine that the intended affect of Yellow Submarine cannot be fully appreciated unless you’re high.

The newly remastered version of Yellow Submarine recently released on video and DVD was touted as great fun for the whole family, but I don’t know if I’d let a small child watch this. For all the goofy stuff that abounds — like the veritable funhouse John, Paul, George, and Ringo inhabit before their trip to Pepperland, which reminded me of some of the more kaleidoscopic animated segments I grew with on Sesame Street — there’s a lot of nightmarish imagery to be found here, too. The “kinky boot beasts” that attack the submarine on its return to Pepperland are scary enough, but it’s Jeremy, the brown blobby “nowhere man” who philosophizes in rhyme whom the boys encounter who really gives me the willies.

Music saves the day in the end, of course, repelling the Blue Meanies from Pepperland and restoring its peaceful tranquillity. It may have been a naïve fantasy to imagine that such a simple thing could turn the world around, but it makes the stream of consciousness that is Yellow Submarine feel even more dreamlike than it must have felt three decades ago, and an even bigger jolt to wake up from in our more pragmatic era.

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MPAA: rated G

viewed at home on a small screen

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