Yellow Submarine

yellow submarine poster

Yellow Submarine is a 1968 animated feature film based on the music of the Beatles. It is also the title for the soundtrack album to the feature film, released as part of the Beatles’ music catalogue. The film was directed by animation producer George Dunning, and produced by United Artists (UA) and King Features Syndicate. The Beatles themselves appear only in the closing scene of the film, with the Beatles characters in the film voiced by other actors.

Yellow Submarine Plot Summary

At the beginning of the story, Pepperland is introduced by a narrator as a cheerful music-loving paradise under the sea, protected by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which falls under a surprise attack by the music-hating Blue Meanies, who seal the band inside a music-proof bubble, turn the Pepperlanders into statues, and drain the countryside of colour.

In the last minute before his own capture, Pepperland’s elderly Lord Mayor sends Old Fred (whom the mayor calls “Young Fred”) off in a yellow submarine to get help. Old Fred travels to Liverpool, where he follows the depressed and aimless Ringo and persuades him to return to Pepperland with him. Ringo collects his “mates” John, George and finally Paul.

Reunited with Old Fred and the submarine, they imitate Sgt. Pepper’s band, and “rally the land to rebellion”. Jeremy is rescued, colour and flowers rebloom, the original Sgt. Pepper’s band is released (thanks to a hole carried in Ringo’s pocket from the Sea of Holes), and Pepperland is restored. The Blue Meanies are forced to retreat, but John extends an offer of friendship, and the Chief Blue Meanie has a change of heart (partly due to some “transformation magic” performed by Jeremy), and accepts. An enormous party ensues, with everyone living happily ever after.

At the end of Yellow Submarine, the real Beatles, having returned home, playfully show off their souvenirs, whereof George has the submarine’s motor, Paul has “a little love”, and Ringo still has half a hole in his pocket (having supposedly given the other half to Jeremy). John sees “newer and bluer Meanies in the vicinity of the theatre” and announces that there is only one way to go out: “Singing!”. The quartet obliges with a reprise of “All Together Now” which ends with various translations of the song’s title appearing in sequence on the screen.

Yellow Submarine Production

Released at the height of the psychedelic pop culture period of the 1960s, the movie Yellow Submarine was a box-office hit, drawing in crowds both for its lush, wildly creative images, and its soundtrack of Beatles songs. The original story was written by Lee Minoff, based on the song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and the screenplay penned by four collaborators including Erich Segal. The recurring line “It’s all in the mind” is taken from The Goon Show.

As with many motion picture musicals, the music in Yellow Submarine takes precedence over the actual plot, and most of the story is a series of set-pieces designed to present Beatles music set to various images, in a form reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (and foreshadowing the rise of music videos and MTV fifteen years later). Nonetheless, Yellow Submarine still presents a modern-day fairy tale that caters to the ideals of the “love generation”.

The Yellow Submarine dialogue is littered with puns, double entendres, and Beatles in-jokes, many scripted by poet Roger McGough. “Blue Meanies” is sometimes used as a slang term for the police, although many viewers will have missed this (see List of slang terms for police officers). The term “Blue Meanies” is actually a metaphor for bad people in government and corporations, who force their wills on good people (Pepperlanders), and carelessly deplete and ruin the natural environment, resources, colour and landscape. They are carefree about their destructive ways and will do whatever necessary to crush those (the Beatles) who oppose them.

In the Yellow Submarine DVD commentary track, production supervisor John Coates adds an additional perspective, stating that “blue” was a play on “Jew”, not as a reflection of any anti-Semitism on the part of the filmmakers, but rather as a commentary on the stereotypical casting of Jews as villains. There is also a scene where a Blue Meanie questions some disguised Beatles, asking, “Are you Bluish? You don’t look Bluish…” However, this is speculative since the Blue Meanies were originally supposed to be red, or even purple, but when Heinz Edelmann’s assistant accidentally changed the colours, the film’s characters took on a different meaning.

Additionally, the Beatles’ animated persona was based on their appearance in the promotional film for the song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, with the exception of Paul being without his moustache. The film also includes several references to songs not included in the soundtrack, including “A Day in the Life” where the lyrics are referenced in the “Sea of Holes” scene, as well as the orchestral breaks earlier in the movie, also from “A Day in the Life”.

A large number of national and foreign animators were assembled by TVC for Yellow Submarine. Bob Balser and Jack Stokes were animation directors. Charlie Jenkins, one of the film’s key creative directors, was responsible for the rotoscope work on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Australian Anne Joliffe was a key animator. The background work was executed by artists under the direction of Alison De Vere. Ted Lewis and Chris Miles were responsible for Animation Clean Up. The movie’s style, created by creative director Heinz Edelmann, contrasts greatly with the efforts of Disney Feature Animation and other animated films previously released by Hollywood up until the time. Yellow Submarine uses a style of limited animation that deliberately defies reality and paints a landscape that could never exist in the real world, something that appealed greatly to the escapists of the 1960s (see also Fantastic Planet). It also paved the way for Terry Gilliam’s animations for Do Not Adjust Your Set and Monty Python.

George Dunning, who also worked on the Beatles cartoon series, was the overall director for Yellow Submarine, supervising over 200 artists for 11 months. He took personal charge of the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence.

The animation of Yellow Submarine has sometimes falsely been attributed to the famous psychedelic pop art artist of the era, Peter Max; but the film’s art director was Heinz Edelmann. Edelmann, along with his contemporary Milton Glaser, pioneered the psychedelic style for which Max would later become famous, but according to Edelmann and producer Al Brodax, as quoted in the book Inside the Yellow Submarine by Hieronimus and Cortner, Max had nothing to do with the production of Yellow Submarine.

Notable animators who worked on the film included Paul Driessen, Cam Ford, Anne Jolliffe, Tony Cuthbert, Geoff Collins, Jim Hiltz, Ron Campbell and Hester Coblenz.

In addition to the existing title song “Yellow Submarine”, five new songs were commissioned for the movie: “All Together Now”, (a football-crowd favourite); “It’s All Too Much”, (a George Harrison composition); “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (the first song recorded specifically for this film, but which made its first appearance as the B-side to the “All You Need Is Love” single); “Only a Northern Song”, a Harrison song originally recorded during sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the partial inspiration for this film); and “Hey Bulldog”, a John Lennon piano romp echoing of “Lady Madonna”, which was recorded at the same time (this song was originally included only in the European theatrical release, but restored for the U.S. theatrical reissue in 1999).

The film’s instrumental music was an orchestral score composed and arranged by George Martin. One of the film’s cues, heard after the main title credits, was originally recorded during sessions for “Good Night” (an album track for The Beatles, aka the “White Album”) and would have been used as the introduction to Ringo’s composition “Don’t Pass Me By”, also on the “White Album”; it was later released as “A Beginning” on the Anthology 3 album.

The Beatles’ live-action cameo at the end of the movie, with John Lennon “looking” for more Blue Meanies in the theater.The Beatles themselves were not enthusiastic about participating in a motion picture at the time. They were displeased with their second feature film Help!, and were further discouraged by the disastrous reception of their self-produced TV special Magical Mystery Tour. They did, however, see an animated film as a favourable way to complete their commitment to United Artists for a third film. (Ultimately, due to their relatively small roles and the fact it was animated, United Artists still considered them to owe another movie; Let It Be would be the third film to complete their contract with the studio.) Voice actors were hired to imitate the musicians’ voices in the film.

The Beatles were impressed after seeing a draft of the film, and agreed to make a live-action cameo appearance in the final scene, which was filmed in early February 1968. The cameo was originally intended to feature a post-production psychedelic background and effects; but due to time and budget constraints, a blank, black background remained in the final film. While Starr and McCartney still looked the same as they did after they modeled for the animated characters, Lennon and Harrison’s physical appearances had changed by the time the cameo was shot. Both Lennon and Harrison were clean-shaven, and Lennon had begun to grow his hair longer.

In The Beatles Anthology video, the surviving Beatles (including Harrison) all admitted that they liked the film. For many years after its release Starr was approached by children and asked “Why did you press the button?”, referring to when his character curiously pressed the panic button ejecting him from the submarine into the sea of monsters.