When the Beatles-inspired Yellow Submarine was released in 1968, its promoters linked it to classic myths and landmark tales of fantastic voyages such as the Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland. In the intervening decades, the iconic movie has inspired waves of analysis and dreamy philosophizing: Who do the Blue Meanies represent? What does the voyage of the Yellow Submarine symbolize? What drugs were the animators taking?
But Yellow Submarine is also simply what it seems – a free-spirited creative effort by hundreds of people that expresses the joyful, humane spirit of the Beatles’ music. The film, which has been out of print for years, was re-released this week on DVD and Blu-ray in a meticulously hand-restored version, and O Cinema in Wynwood will present a rare big-screen showing June 14-17.
Animation director Robert Balser, now 85, says Yellow Submarine was the result of an uninhibited creative effort that was improbable at the time and would be impossible in today’s corporate entertainment world. (He swears his team was fueled by nothing more than whiskey and imagination.)
“No matter what money you had, you could never get the freedom we had,” Balser says.
The movie tells the story of Pepperland, an “unearthly paradise” that’s invaded by the Blue Meanies, monsters led by a bulbous and sinister falsetto-voiced chief. They turn Pepperland’s people into petrified gray statues and crush all joy and music.
One Pepperlander escapes in the title vehicle to England (a drab place rather like his ruined home) and convinces the Beatles to help. They voyage through a wondrous ocean, where they travel back and forth in time, encounter impossible monsters and meet the Nowhere Man. Together they bring music and life back to Pepperland, even winning over the Meanies. The film ends in a triumphant explosion of color and motion set to All You Need is Love.
Yellow Submarine was the first non-Disney movie I saw as a child, and it blew my little mind. I was awed, exhilarated and dumbfounded that something so extraordinary could even exist. The Blue Meanies were so scary and cruel, the destruction of music so terribly sad, the Sea of Monsters so bizarre and the triumph of love and music over nastiness and repression so glorious. I saved my allowance for a year to get the album, the first I ever bought.
I am not the only one for whom Yellow Submarine was a revelation. Colin Foord, 30, a marine biologist and artist whose Coral Morphologic laboratory and multimedia studio in Overtown produces live coral and surreal-looking aquatic films, says childhood viewings of the movie Yellow Submarine helped fire his imagination and inspire his career.
“I was simply enamored with the idea of living underwater in a Yellow Submarine spending my days discovering magical, colorful creatures,” Foord says. “ ‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’ sounds too far out for adults to believe. For children this is an easy fantasy.”
When Balser and a group that would swell to 40 writers and 200 artists began gathering in London’s tiny TVC animation studios in the summer of 1967, they had no script, only a vague directive to work off the Beatles’ songs.
The band, at the height of its popularity, wanted nothing to do with the movie. The group hated a Beatles cartoon series that TVC and King Features (which produced Yellow Submarine) had done for American television, and signed off on the film only to fulfill a contractual obligation. Actors voiced their parts. The Beatles contributed four new songs, but stayed away from the studios until Submarine was nearly finished, when they dropped in to film a promo for the movie’s ending.