Sometimes you believe you know something just because it saturates the culture around you, even though you have never actually explored it alone. That's pretty much what I went through with the Beatles: being surrounded by people who were Beatles fans in one way or another, as well as being a pop culture junkie, I felt that I had seen it all, when I had really seen nothing, as I had never checked out the Beatles actively and for myself.
However, I had always wanted to check out the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, because weird cartoons were much closer to my heart than the Beatles’ music. When I finally did watch Yellow Submarine a while ago, I enjoyed it with gusto. The film is visually fantastic, and this and other factors manage to elevate its more pedestrian, or potentially disastrous, plot elements.
The plot of Yellow Submarine checks off all the boxes when it comes to the transformation of celebrities into fictional heroes: putting them into the role of saviours without their having done anything heroic before, providing with a simplistic enemy to defeat, and furnishing them with a goofy cartoon sidekick. In this case, the Fab Four are recruited to help save the “earthly paradise” called Pepperland from the wrath of the Blue Meanies, azure creatures who despise music and happiness and are intent on turning the vibrant Pepperland stony and grey. By a mind-blowing coincidence, the Beatles have four alter egos in the imprisoned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Pepperland, and the Beatles also later team up with their alter egos to beat the Meanies back. The scholarly creature Jeremy Hilary Boob, PhD, a.k.a. “The Nowhere Man”, also accompanies them.
On paper, this sounds like any of the other horrible celebrity cartoons from popular culture's dustbin. However, even if it follows that formula, Yellow Submarine is pretty damn good despite. The film's visual invention and its dry sense of humour are the two main things that manage to save it from feeling like a cheap cash-in. There's surreal imagery everywhere, creative and unsettling monsters (more varieties of Blue Meanies than I ever knew about, though the most iconic Blue Meanies are also the most unnerving), and bizarre settings.
In terms of the humour, the toon-Beatles take everything around them in complete stride, offering hilariously deadpan reactions to whatever situation they happen to be in, which makes the film a lot funnier than expected. This kind of thing starts even before the Beatles are introduced, as the sleepy-voiced narrator at the beginning of the film admits that he’s not sure if “lay” or “lie” is the correct way to describe the relative position of Pepperland beneath the sea. This gives the film a strangely mature feel, banal plot or not.
The Nowhere Man, aka Jeremy Hilary Boob PhD, is a lot more lovable and entertaining than he has any right to be. The fuzzy, masked creature should by all rights be annoying like so many others before him, but his quirky eccentricity paired with academic pretentiousness is endearing rather than grating, and he is much stranger, and a slightly richer, character.
Jeremy is first seen trying to engage in a dozen intellectual pursuits at once, and it is tacitly implied that he’s not good at any of them, and is obviously producing his material to no one, in the white void that the Beatles find themselves in. This allows the segue into the “Nowhere Man” musical number, and it’s a hard heart that feels nothing when Jeremy is seen crying at the end of it.
In viewing the film, I also found a new potential interest in Beatles music. Not all of the songs were enjoyable, but some of them were pretty catchy. This was the DVD version, which also meant it included the “Hey Bulldog” number, too (the four-headed Blue Meanie dog is weirdly cute), which is notable for being both catchy and dark, and it’s a shame that it was cut from the original U.S. release.
As their cartoon selves, the Beatles aren’t too engaging as characters. Whatever the real men are, these characters largely speak lines that could have come from each other’s mouths, manifesting few distinguishing traits. Ringo is the most defined, being firmly portrayed as the buttmonkey/softie, and John is the most overtly nerdy, with speeches about alter egos and time travel, but his characterization is less established, though still more than Paul and George. It’s not too much to ask for real people to become interesting characters in their own right when transformed into cartoons, though to be fair the film gets along just fine without much depth of character.
Overall, it’s a shame that this DVD is now out of print (though easy enough to track down online, thankfully). Merchandise for it is still clogging up HMV stores, and Yellow Submarine is certainly a film that deserves to be remembered beyond that.