If you were looking for the Beatles, or some terrific new music, or even something other than flatly featureless cartoon caricatures of the Fab Four, then 1968′s Yellow Submarine was a crashing disappointment.
The storyline itself, a modern-day musical fairy tale painted over with a Summer of Love theme, is tissue thin — really just an excuse to get from one Beatles tune to the next. And the best of those were by then familiar tracks from the past few years, already collected on Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. Heck, the actual Beatles don’t appear to have been involved until a tacked-on ending that sends moviegoers out amidst the empty exhortations of “All Together Now,” one of the film’s four new throwaway songs.
The truth is, at this point, the Beatles were otherwise occupied — preparing to embark on their sprawling self-titled double album of the same year, with a side trip to India to explore transcendental meditation along the way. Meanwhile, Yellow Submarine started as the brainchild of animator Al Brodax — creator of “The Beatles” animated TV series, with similarly wooden representations of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
It’s hard to believe, actually, that this ended up working at all. Yet there was — and, with this stunning new remastering in 4K digital resolution, most certainly is again — some real magic associated with Yellow Submarine: Namely, its eye-poppingly psychedelic animation.
Long out of print, Yellow Submarine has been hand restored, frame by frame, over a period of four months. Officials with Apple Corps Ltd. said they chose this old fashioned, but far more meticulous process over automated software because of the delicate nature of the original hand-drawn artwork. The results, issued earlier this month in high-res DVD and Blu-ray with a selection of interesting bonus features, are so brightly engaging, so explosively inventive that the project’s other missteps can’t help but be forgiven — most notably during the film’s climatic chase scenes.
As the bloated Blue Meanies, the film’s music-hating villains, pursue our mop-topped heroes, they traverse a wonderland of imagination — diving through a pageant of Techno-color scenes, racing past brilliantly weird creatures, through strange worlds and even stranger predicaments. (It is here, too, as the Beatles banter about in the race to help save Pepperland, that this film gets closest to the ageless charm of Hard Day’s Night. English poet Roger McGough, who was brought in to add some zip to the script, occasionally connects with the quartet’s laconic sense of humor during exchanges like this one: “There’s a cyclops!” “He’s got two eyes.” “Must be a bicyclops.” “It’s a whole bicloplopedia!”)
Of course, art director Heinz Edelmann didn’t so much create this kaleidoscopic world, as bring the contemporary hipster ideas of Alan Aldridge, Terry Gilliam and Victor Moscoso to a broader mainstream audience. Still, for many, this threw open the window into a then-unknown topography, and in many ways it’s easy to see how Yellow Submarine helped smash through the logjam that the Disney monolith had long created in major-studio animated films.
If the story arc still feels pedestrian, if you still wish there’d been more of those moments when the Beatles’ own sense of drollery shone through, there still is no denying the film’s staggering visual creativity — in particular within the sharp-edged environment of this terrific remaster.
The new DVD and Blu-ray release of Yellow Submarine also includes a “making of” documentary, audio commentary by producer John Coates and art director Heinz Edelmann, the original theatrical trailer, interviews with several participants involved in making the film, reproductions of pencil drawings and behind-the-scenes photos. The new version also restores Lennon’s “Hey Bulldog,” which was cut in the original U.S. version to meet time constraints — a blessing, since that’s undoubtedly the best of a group of new Beatles songs that also includes Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song,” the last a left-over from Sgt. Pepper.