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Inspirational Film: Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine is a film that has been with me since I was a kid. My dad had an old tape of it he recorded from a TV broadcast in Battle Creek when he and my mom still lived there. There were unfortunately some gaps created to shorten the film for TV, but I never knew that until I saw rented tapes with the complete film. And yes, it contained the now obscure “Beatles to Battle” sequence. The point is that years later, when the film came back into print on VHS and DVD after a long period of obscurity, many young people people caught on to what I had been enjoying for years.

Yellow Submarine‘s psychedelic design is one of a kind. There is a temptation to look for a film that may be viewed as heir apparent to its psychedelic greatness, and a few notable followers come up. There’s the French Fantastic Planet, the English The Point, and the oft bowdlerized and sadly out-of-print American Twice Upon a time. And there are the films of Ralph Bakshi and others who continued the legacy of animated films with pop-art aesthetics made for adult audiences. Well-crafted films all, and each has its own special magic, but after all the legions of followers, Yellow Submarine remains unique. It was an instance of catching lightning in a bottle. And yes, we have Heinz Edelmann to thank for much of it. Edelmann was a fantastic craftsman in 1968, and sadly after making Yellow Submarine, he changed his style so as not to be pigeon-holed, so the film represents his swansong as a psychedelic artist.

Here is Edelmann’s poster for 1955’s The Lady Killers, starring Alec Guinness. Look at those eyes and teeth and the way they stand out from the monochrome faces. It’s Edelmann and no one else.

But of course, the music of The Beatles was a huge factor in making the film what it was. The film included four new songs — one left over from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, three recorded for the film concurrently with Magical Mystery Tour — and a whole batch of familiar songs came from recent albums and singles. Roger Ebert commented that it likely had the best soundtrack of any animated film.

But besides the animation and the music, Yellow Submarine had a fantastically freewheeling script, filled with clever wordplay and general playfulness. There was a bit of this in the previous Beatles film, Help!, but in the surreal cartoon realm, writer Erich Segal took it to new heights. Have we got favorite quotes? It’s the best way to illustrate. Note that for the most part, as with the loose, improvised Beatle banter that made its way in to portions of Help!, it hardly matters who said what.

“Hey, look! It’s a cyclops!”
“Can’t be! It’s got two eyes!”
“Must be a bicyclops.”
“There’s another one.”
“Whole cyclopedia.”

“Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo! So little time, so much to know!”

“It’s not a goldfish bowl.”
“Just a big glass bowl then.”
“It’s blue glass.”
“Must be from Kentucky.”

“What do you think it is?”
“Looks like nothing.”
“It’s a local inhabitant.”
“He’s probably one of the nothings.”
“Well at least that’s something.”
“Let’s show him our motor.”
“Steady on. You don’t want to show your motor to just anybody.”
“But this is a nobody.”

“Eminent physicist, polyglot classicist, prize-winning botanist, hard-biting satirist, talented pianist. Good dentist, too, ha ha!”
“Lousy poet.”
“Critic’s voice! Take your choice!

“I could have sworn there was a yellow submarine! But that isn’t logical, is it? It must have been one of them unidentified flying cupcakes! One of them figments of me imagination! But I don’t have an imagination!”

“Maybe time’s gone on strike.”
“What for?”
“Shorter hours.”
“I don’t blame it. It must be very tiring being time, mustn’t it?”
“Well it’s a twenty-four hour day, isn’t it?”
“You surprise me, Ringo.”
“Dealing in abstracts.”

“Hey, must you always talk in rhyme?”
“If I spoke prose, you’d all find out I don’t know what I talk about!”

“Look, it’s a school of whales.”
“They look a little bit old for school.”
“University then.”
“University of Whales.”
“Well they look like drop-outs to me.”

“I’ve got a hole in me pocket.”

“I warned you not to eat on an empty stomach.”

“Hey, fellas, look!”
“The footnotes for my nineteenth book! This is my standard procedure for doing it, and while I compose it, I’m also reviewing it!”

I could mention also the surrealist commentaries placed within the film. Jeremy, the punch at pseudo-intellectuals. Various monsters, caricatures of… but it’s all open-metaphor, isn’t it?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve found a possible insight into the way I view animated films. I think it’s the key to why Pixar frequently disappoints me. Yellow Submarine took full advantage of its animated medium. It created a world that played by its own fantastical rules. Frequently with the animated films of today, especially a lot of Pixar’s films, I feel like the company is creating the world and then not taking advantage of the freedom to play by new rules. So much work goes into creating a fantastic universe, but there is a deficit of imagination. Maybe I read into it too much. After all, I certainly like a lot of anime. But… I guess I feel it more acutely with the films that limit themselves to being not-just-for-kids instead of being, like Yellow Submarine, not-just-for-adults. Maybe I’m reading into it too much. But animation is an inherently surreal medium, which is what gives it a lot of its appeal. It creates a world with a different set of aesthetics from what we experience every day. And I get frustrated when a film gives us a world like that and then tells a tragically ordinary story. I was spoiled by Yellow Submarine.

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