A Hard Day’s Night (1964) positioned The Beatles as four wholly distinct characters, easily identifiable according to their simplified sets of individualized character traits. As Ray Morton discusses in the Introduction to his book, Music on Film: A Hard Day’s Night, the film “created the public face of the The Beatles. […] Because of the film’s great success, these constructed personalities became ingrained in the public’s minds, so John Lennon became forever known as an irreverent, sharp-tongued wit; Paul McCartney as an attractive, dashing romantic; George Harrison as a quiet curmudgeon; and Ringo Starr as a loveable sad sack.” Yellow Submarine (1968), by perpetuating these fictional Beatles in an animated setting, made perhaps the most significant contribution to the Fab Four’s already larger-than-life image next to A Hard Day’s Night. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Yellow Submarine, which doesn’t even star The Beatles as themselves throughout the bulk of the film, constitutes the most consistently culturally-relevant and revelatory of The Beatles’ films precisely because The Beatles do not star. By virtue of their very absence, in fact, Yellow Submarine rightly situates The Beatles as a popular culture text that references a group of conceptualized characters rather than a musical group composed of real-life personages.
Directed by Canadian George Dunning, this highly-stylized animated feature tells an incredibly straightforward story, that of Pepperland’s recruitment of The Beatles in their war against the Blue Meanies, in a most roundabout way, as The Beatles’ trek to Pepperland in the Yellow Submarine finds them exploring one psychedelic landscape after another. The animation style reflects the sort of mixed mode style that would later typify Ralph Bakshi’s work, in which numerous methods of animation are employed alongside one another to various intellectual and emotional ends. And of course there’s music– Beatles music, that is, dropped arbitrarily into the narrative at regular intervals throughout. Only during the musical numbers and a brief, live action appearance at the film’s conclusion do The Beatles actually voice themselves. Voice actors Paul Angelis, John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, and (so I’ve read) Peter Batten provided the voices of the animated Beatles.
Significantly, the animated Beatles live in a mansion featuring a central corridor along which stand countless, identical doors. These doors inevitably lead to animated versions of various popular culture texts, easily recognizable in spite of their having been animated by Dunning and crew. Among these icons of pop culture appear Marilyn Monroe, King Kong, The Phantom, and Frankenstein’s monster (referred to tellingly as “Frankenstein,” in keeping with the popular misconception of the creature’s name). That The Beatles live in such a place critically positions them as just another popular culture text among interchangeable countless others in their presence behind the identical doors. So much a “text” are they, in fact, that it matters not who voices them, for John, Paul, George and Ringo, as Morton points out, are no more The Beatles of popular culture than voice actors John, Paul, Geoffrey and Peter are. This negates the relevance of any real people who might have once been The Beatles, allowing the band to transcend any physical manifestation thereof and become a concept we accept as real, a concept that can remain real even when animated.
Admittedly, a postmodern/Baudrillardian reading of The Beatles such as this might seem outside the scope of a simple film review, but this positioning serves two very important functions within Yellow Submarine. To begin with, it justifies the portrayal of the band mates by voice actors outside of what we might consider the “real” Beatles. And furthermore, given that The Beatles constitute a constructed reality, it doesn’t matter where and how the songs are utilized throughout the film or that the film adheres to any sort of real world logic. The filmmakers had but to allow this construct to construct its own reality, which they did. The result stands as a most incredible entry in the history of the animated feature film, one that’s not only entertained audiences for over 40 years, but obviously offers those same viewers a wealth of intellectual stimulation as well.
The new Blu-ray and DVD releases of Yellow Submarine, now available,feature a gorgeous, 4K digital restoration done by hand, rather than any automated instrumentation, and a 5.1 DTS soundtrack. Special features on the disc include the documentary “Mod Odyssey”; storyboards for the “Sea of Monsters,” “Battle of the Monsters,” and “Pepperland” sequences; interviews with voice actors Paul Angelis and John Clive, key animator David Livesey, Heinz Edelmann’s assistant Millicent McMillan, animation director Jack Stokes, and co-writer Erich Segal; original pencil drawings; behind-the-scenes photos; and the original theatrical trailer.