‘Yellow Submarine’ – An Animation Thesis

Fifty years ago, feature animation and popular music came together, and created something glorious.

My next pick for “Animation Thesis” is, unlike the three films before it, something that the House of Mouse was never involved with in any way… Yet, the House of Mouse considering doing a remake of it at one point in time…

Previously, I looked at three films utilizing full, big budget animation. The first of the three films, Walt Disney’s Bambi, married naturalism with abstraction, creating one of the studio’s liveliest films that had such an accurate portrayal of wild animals. The next two films came from animation mastermind Richard Williams. The Canadian-born England-based animator showed what the medium could be in the post-Walt era with his unfinished opus The Thief and the Cobbler and all the work he and his studio did for Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit. These three films are what I call “animation theses” because their existence argues that animation is indeed one heck of an art form, these are films that seek to prove the medium’s worth and strengths…

The next film I’m going to look at is a showcase in what you can do with a smaller budget… Sometimes an animated work doesn’t need all the movement and detail and weight of a Disney animated feature or a Richard Williams extravaganza or a Hayao Miyazaki epic.

Enter a film by George Dunning, who – like Williams – was also born in Canada but worked in England…

Yellow Submarine.


1966. The year Walt Disney died. Animation was in a strange place. The theatrical cartoon short was on life support, and few other houses made feature-length films. When it was discovered that limited animation could produce big bucks, the market was spammed inside and out with very cheap, often childish TV cartoons that would be shown on Saturday mornings. Nearly thirty years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, animation had somewhat fallen. More and more, it was becoming known as a “children’s medium” and not the bold art form it was once considered. With films showcasing more adult-oriented content becoming a growing trend (which lead to the creation of a fair rating system that replaced the outdated and prudish Hayes Code), the once-bold and once general audience cartoons and feature films were being labelled as children’s stuff… Thus began an age where animation struggled with identity issues, problems were planted that persist to this very day.

1966 was also the year The Beatles released their most ambitious album to date: Revolver.

In fact, 1966 was the year rock music had been pushed to the limits. Boundaries were expanded, and new sounds found their way into the popular music. Revolver was released in a year that included The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Inventions’ Freak Out!, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and several psychedelic albums that redefined the scene. The result of the Fab Four getting a few months to themselves and more creative freedom, Revolver was a whirlwind melange of various musical styles and the burgeoning psychedelic sound. Beatlemania, filming, and touring had been wearing the lads out, and they finally had the chance to let their juices flow. Their previous LP Rubber Soul – which was released in late 1965 – explored avenues hitherto unheard of on previous releases, and had some unexpected instruments here and there. (The sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ the harpsichord on ‘In My Life.’) The band were showing that pop and rock ‘n’ roll could very well evolve, and go beyond what people then had thought of it all. If Rubber Soul unlocked the door, Revolver kicked it open. One of the songs on Revolver was ‘Yellow Submarine,’ a jaunty sea-faring tune tucked between the harmonic and ethereal ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and the piercing, deathly acid-rock of ‘She Said She Said.’

Like many of the cuts on Revolver, it sounded unlike any previous Beatles song and was certainly oddball in the contemporary pop music scene. ‘Yellow Submarine’ comes off as this fun, sort of whimsical children’s song, but is thoroughly inviting and made charming by Ringo Starr’s vocal work. Submarine sound effects are used, we hear a dining hall celebration, another band chime in with bombastic brass… Still iconic some 52 years later.

The Beatles

Around this time, a cartoon series based on the band’s likeness was airing on ABC-TV in America. The Beatles, produced by Al Brodax of King Features Syndicate, was not a favorite of the four. It was basically a generic, campy Saturday morning romp that worked in various songs by the band, but it was popular enough, and 39 episodes were produced until its conclusion in late 1967. The cartoon aligned with the dated, mop-top image of the band. By late 1965, The Beatles were trying to bury that look as their musical horizons grew and expanded. They were already far beyond the poppier likes of ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’

That desire to get away from bowl-cut nonsense was also evident in John Lennon’s quick and harsh dismissal of Walt Disney’s proposal for the band to star as the singing vultures in the in-production feature The Jungle Book. Disney was, by that point in time, part of the “establishment.” American in the corny sense, like apple pie and baseball. The last thing the cutting-edge John wanted to be associated with, and the ABC cartoon had probably already gotten on his nerves. That ship sailed, but the vulture characters in what ended up being Walt’s final animated film were still designed to look like British Invasion mop-top lads. Disney did manage to get at least one singer from that movement in the final picture, Chad Stuart of folk duo Chad & Jeremy. Imagine what could’ve been had the band had all said yes…

Brodax then had the idea to do a feature-length animated Beatles project, and soon the concept – an original story by Lee Minoff – revolved around that bubbly Ringo-sung tune from Revolver. The Beatles themselves, expectedly, didn’t want much involvement. But it seemed convenient, because they were contractually obligated to deliver another film for United Artists. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had been successful, but the band were reportedly dissatisfied with the latter picture, and also did what they could to avoid doing another picture like it in early 1966. Bringing in George Dunning, development was underway at the same studio that produced the cartoon series, TVC. Bold artists from all across the globe were brought in to help make an animated feature that didn’t look conventional, chief among them was the late German designer Heinz Edelmann.

The story was simple and sweet, and very very “Summer of Love.” The Beatles are called in to help the magical world of Pepperland, which has been taken over by the music-hating Blue Meanies, who have trapped Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the land’s renowned musical group. (And of course, they are based on the band the Beatles role-play as on their monumental album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) The four, alongside a Pepperland sailor named Fred and a “Nowhere Man,” take a psychedelic voyage to the utopia beyond the sea.

Produced for a small $1 million, the crew ended up having to get other actors to voice The Beatles’ animated counterparts. The four checked in from time to time, impressed with the visuals and content. At the end of production, they filmed a live-action scene which closes out the film. For the soundtrack, the filmmakers had access to the wide library, and the bulk of the soundtrack was – expectedly – songs from Revolver and the acclaimed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band had recorded at least one song for the filmmakers to use, but many of the “new” songs featured in the movie were leftovers from other sessions. The count-to-ten fun of ‘All Together Now’ and the overlooked psychedelic epic ‘It’s All Too Much’ hail from mid-1967, they were possible candidates for the critically-savaged telefilm Magical Mystery Tour. ‘Only a Northern Song’ was a sprinkled outtake from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and the insanely catchy piano-driven ‘Hey Bulldog’ was a one-off session that the filmmakers seemed to take a real liking to.

Actually, ‘Hey Bulldog’ was recorded in early 1968, when the film was being finished up. The filmmakers liked the song so much that a hastily-made sequence featuring The Beatles squaring off with the four-headed Blue Meanie guard dog was created at the very last minute. After the film premiered in England, Brodax had that whole part cut from the film. Later that year, Americans got a different version of the movie… Thankfully, the original cut with ‘Hey Bulldog’ intact was restored for the 1999 DVD release, and this has been the version that’s been available ever since.

Yellow Submarine was released in the UK in the summer of 1968, and fifty years later, it’s still an innovative work that resonates on a different level. In this day and age, some folks out there seem to want certain things out of their animated features. Is there a complex plot? Are there major character arcs? Is it “adult” enough? Is there enough darkness? Where’s the comedy? Is the animation realistic?

Very much an antithesis to modern animation “law,” Yellow Submarine is really just a collection of psychedelic animated music videos. The story is paper-thin, almost nonexistent. The animated Beatles have no major relationship with the villainous Blue Meanies, and they aren’t the deepest characters you’ll see in the history of the animated medium. But what are they? They’re witty representations of the iconic quartet, their personalities simply pop off the screen! “Can’t help it, I’m a born lever puller!” Perhaps Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph. D. has the most depth, his character being based on the Rubber Soul song ‘Nowhere Man.’ He lives in a land of white nothingness, prattling on and on about his work and achievements, and also speaks in rhymes. Ringo – just a sentimentalist – feels bad for him, and lets him join the crew. The Blue Meanies are ultimately defeated with love, and soon we see that they too aren’t the hateful things they seem to be. No subplots, no hyper-complex deep stuff… The Beatles go to Pepperland and free everyone with music. It’s as straightforward was you can get, and it didn’t need to be any different.

Yellow Submarine defied conventions then, and it defies them now. A good half of the film is the submarine crew going through various different “seas,” each one wildly different from the last. Various amusing scenarios ensue, and are often topped off with visually-arresting musical segments that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fantasia film. The Sea of Science, for example, entirely consists of pop-art portraits of the four with some vaguely scientific imagery here and there…

The Sea of Time puts The Beatles in a predicament, as they age and de-age… And then all of a sudden the whole sequence turns into a psychedelic countdown to the number 64… Because ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’!


Of course, the Sea of Holes… Just look at it!


The Sea of Monsters is relentlessly fun, too… Silly-looking, weirdo creatures every couple of seconds, with lots of fun gags to spare.

Outside of the seas… Rotoscoping and photographs effectively illustrate a dreary Liverpool day…

‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ accompanies a dizzying and colorful moment in the “Foothills of the Headlands”… This particular sequence occurs after John looks into one of the many trippy heads. Essentially the sequence is someone stopping and looking at something. Could you get away with that now in an animated feature without someone pointing it out?





The sequence uses rotoscoping in a tasteful way, too. Rotoscoping often gets the side-eye from animation fans because it is live-action with cartoon coating. I don’t like it when it’s used for entire casts (see Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings), but here, they use it for surreal effect and it really, really works. On top of the rotoscoping, there’s also lots of lovely effects throughout, like a woman’s flowing dress being represented through multiple paint splotches, and squiggling pencil outlines of figures.

Pepperland looks like a place you’d want to visit, too…



I could go on and on, really. The film keeps changing its visual style, too, so the directions it goes are often unpredictable. This really was a departure from feature animation norms in the late 1960s, and harkened back to the experimental early days of Disney (FantasiaDumbo‘s ‘Pink Elephants’ sequence) and others.

Yellow Submarine was that much-needed jolt in 1968, and it had given others the incentive to redefine what an animated feature could be. Of course, even in 1968, The Beatles were still a force to be reckoned with. Previous “failures” and controversies didn’t hurt their image, whether it was the Magical Mystery Tour film or Lennon’s taken-wildly-out-of-context “bigger than Jesus” comments from two years earlier. Their albums and singles routinely topped the charts, and Yellow Submarine – both the film and the subsequent soundtrack LP – were no exception. It got raves from US critics, and it attracted an audience beyond the family crowds. Animation could be for adults again.


In fact, the success of the film convinced Disney to take a different approach with the next re-release of Fantasia. Walt’s bold and experimental film, which was nearly 28 years older than Yellow Submarine, was given a psychedelic-themed re-release in late 1969… The film had finally turned a profit at the box office, and this success convinced Disney to promote re-releases of Alice in Wonderland in a similar fashion. Yellow Submarine‘s success possibly also gave Ralph Bakshi what he needed to break into features, and show the public – once again – what animation is capable of doing…

This little artistic renaissance proved to be short-lived in America, however. Few features aligned with the music scene of the early-to-mid 1970s, though some had tried, but none of them really left a mark. As usual, the more interesting films continued to come out of Europe and Asia. Films like Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and the anthology feature Heavy Metal were future stabs at rock music-based animated features, but few similar pictures came about afterward. The 1970s mostly gave us Saturday morning cartoons and the occasional Disney animated features, and the early 1980s was mostly an uneven mess of wildly different forms of animation. Yellow Submarine still reigns supreme after all these years, not just because of the endurance and universality of The Beatles’ music, but because of… Perhaps… Its agreeableness.


Yellow Submarine is unabashedly sweet and freewheeling, very much a straightforward and honest “make love, not war” statement. Not caught up in being full of attitude or edge, it’s just about a bunch of musicians freeing a paradise from a bunch of grumps with the power of music. There’s no serious threat throughout, the villainous Blue Meanies aren’t really scary or anything, nor are there attempts to derail the picture from the tone it’s going for. The closest thing we get to a heated confrontation in the movie is immediately softened. Wry and humorous, it has its occasional upsetting moments, but nothing too crazy. Many of the puns and inside jokes and comic bits are laugh-out-loud hilarious and quotable. It’s so accessible, you could very well show it to young kids, but it doesn’t have elements in it that scare some adults away. It’s one of those rare “just right” kind of all-ages movies, it’s proof that you don’t need to pump an animated movie up with inappropriate content in order to make it “for adults.” Perhaps it being a Beatles movie makes it cool for just about everybody? Either way, the theme resonates nowadays, and it’s an effective peace statement some five decades later. Much like several Beatles songs…

It’s a shame that future animated Beatles projects were never made. Reportedly, a semi-sequel to Yellow Submarine called Strawberry Fields Forever was in development during the 1980s. At another time, Robert Zemeckis and his ImageMovers studio were set to remake the original classic in potentially-terrifying motion capture, which Disney was planning to release in 2012. The company eventually dropped the picture due to ImageMovers’ previous box office failures, Zemeckis ultimately ditched the remake himself in the coming years. Various live-action films, such as I Am Sam and Across the Universe, worked storylines around covers of Beatles songs, but for me, the original music needs to be married with animation again.

In fact, what Yellow Submarine explored would work well with other artists and bands. Right now, there’s a musical feature based on Bob Marley’s discography in the works at Fox Animation, but little beyond that. Why can’t we see really cool animated films based on the music of The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Electric Light Orchestra… Just a few acts off the top of my head. There’s like so much potential there! How come top-rated modern musicians aren’t getting projects like these made? Heck, what’s going on with that long-gestating Paul McCartney animated feature High in the Clouds? In a more open-minded animation industry, maybe we’d see more films like that happen.


Yellow Submarine showed that a small budget could still yield a visual odyssey like no other. Contrary to what some might’ve thought then, and now, animation didn’t always need a huge budget or all the bells and whistles that bring imagery close to real life. This wasn’t the polished look of the later Disney animated features, nor was it even the scratchier Xerography look of the studio’s post-1950s output. The work didn’t resemble what was coming out of Warner Brothers or MGM or Universal. This visual style rung much closer to the bold and more minimalist works of the UPA, but taken to a whole different level. The UPA’s influence on animation was initially neat, but soon minimalism was used as a crutch for budgetary shortcuts. Then Saturday morning cartoons happened, you know the rest… Yellow Submarine came splashing in, reminding the world that you don’t have to make something cheap-looking for a relatively tiny amount of money. The film’s influence rings strong today, in many psychedelic and surreal animated works, and even in more mainstream offerings. As a narrative, it shows that you don’t need to have the most complex plot in the world in order to work, either. Straightforward and to the point, Yellow Submarine is near-perfect the way it is as a story.

If the structure was not based entirely around The Beatles’ music, what exactly would Yellow Submarine even be? Some experimental late 60s head trip film that sort of just came and went that has a cult following? Either way, for defying animation conventions and showing what the medium could do, Yellow Submarine is indeed an animation thesis, a film that successfully argues why the medium is a great art form and just how limitless it can be. Yellow Submarine opened doors for animation, much in the same way The Beatles’ albums opened doors for popular music…


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