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Revisiting the Beatles’ Cartoon LSD Utopia Yellow Submarine

Photo: United Artists

Excepting five minutes near the tail end of the film, the Beatles are nowhere to be found in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. The Fab Four make a cameo appearance as their live-action selves to do some light prop comedy and cue up the final sing-along of multilingual toe-tapper “All Together Now,” but for the animated majority of the run time, their two-dimensional avatars are voiced by actors doing extremely convincing impressions of the legends from Liverpool. After the production process on the Help! film left the Beatles with a bad taste in their mouths, they figured the most hassle-free way to fulfill their contract for another picture with United Artists would be a cartoon that they could mostly sit out. One afternoon of riffing in a studio would be sufficient to get them off the hook, and then the increasingly divided men would be free to go their separate ways.

That’s all no matter — the Beatles always had more utility as concepts than people, as repositories for our ideas and feelings and memories about them. The script for the 1968 feature, now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a restoration and rerelease into theaters, is well aware of this, introducing each member of the band in a setting that plays to their popular myth. We meet hapless everyman Ringo kicking a can and muttering “woe is me” in a trash-strewn alley, tormented artiste John is a Frankenstein’s monster who must drink a potion to become human, sitar glissandos announce the arrival of zen philosopher George as he meditates in the wind, and pretty boy Paul pops out of a doorway to the sound of raucous applause, catching a tossed bouquet of flowers without even looking.

More than their own celebrity archetypes, the Beatles bore the weight of their time, both responding to and dictating the course of the flower children’s peace-and-love zeitgeist. While the first act includes a canny artist’s rendering of a dreary industrial London, Yellow Submarine drifts along with the currents of a Vietnam-era United States in which the hippies were finally pushing back against the jackbooted status quo. The fantastical story of the Pepperlanders and the Blue Meanie menace is resistance cinema in the truest sense, albeit in a register so idealistic it barges past the point of naïveté. Some armchair historians pinpoint the horrors of Vietnam as the last gasp of American morality in the 20th century, but in the Beatles’ Elysian strawberry fields, the winning formula of friendship, positivity, and the power of music could still be enough. A children’s film about pacifism winning out over imperialist annihilation might seem an odd combination, but in the cannabis haze after the Summer of Love, nothing made more sense.

Before the lads enter the picture, director George Dunning opens with a prologue setting the scene of Pepperland and defining the beauty at stake. The home of the fictitious Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pepperland is an idyllic paradise hidden beneath the sea where all is kind and harmonious. In a montage splashed with color and accompanied by a legato orchestral selection, birds happily chirp and flora blooms as children frolic around statues of giant hands clasped in cooperation. The influence of happy psychedelia seeps in from the first frames, as two rows of suited men sprout rainbows out of their heads; the words “LOVE” and “YES” dot the landscape like doodles on a Haight concert poster.

No Eden can last, however, and the pristine Pepperland comes under attack by the war-crazed Blue Meanie tribe in a whimsical blitzkrieg. The little blob-shaped aggressors represent everything in life that might harsh a good vibe, fascists mixed with the Man finished off with a dash of the cops forcing the party to turn the noise down. They respond to every inquiry with a default “no,” shoot anti-music missiles leaving the watercolor panoramas a drab grey, and won’t be satisfied until they’ve bashed all that is pure in the world to smithereens. Armed with head-bonking apple projectiles, three-headed hellhounds, landmine-detonating clowns, and a particularly irritable sentient glove, the Meanies launch their offensive and occupy Pepperland like an enemy militia, eventually installing panopticon watchtowers with floodlights evoking wartime prison camps.

We only discover that the Meanies have reshaped the terrain in their own hostile design when refugee Fred brings the Beatles back as reinforcements, having ferried them through logic-bending Seas of Time, Science, and Nothingness. Their plan of attack is simple: infiltrate the stash-house where the Meanies have quarantined all music-making objects, then play their way out. They befriend their doppelgängers in Sgt. Pepper’s, and the combined might of the octet purges the Pepperland countryside of the Meanie influence. As the final song “It’s All Too Much” states in plain terms, a joyful sound can overwhelm in its gorgeousness, mending all that is broken and healing all that is hurt. The day is saved, Pepperland is won, and rock ’n’ roll shall never be vanquished!

Modern sensibilities have come to view the can’t-we-all-just-get-along spirit exemplified by this film with a certain contempt, trapping Yellow Submarine’s sunny ethic in its year like a wasp in amber. Maybe it was just residual uplift from the LSD, but eleven o’clock number “All You Need Is Love” was a potent mantra to the people of 1968. As the strains of the Beatles’ most sentimental song ring out over Pepperland, the head honcho of the Blue Meanies begins sprouting flowers and is instantly transformed into a smiling, beatific version of his former self. (His cousin, he mentions, is the Bluebird of Happiness.) This is the counterculture mentality at its most starry-eyed: that if everyone could just look inside themselves and find the open-mindedness to tune in, turn on, and drop out, the world would be all beer and skittles. The past couple of years have been a degrading object lesson that this is not the way that the world works.

Rather than let the cold realities of the present make us resent an optimism so lofty as to be delusional, an audience in 2018 may instead cherish the utopia too perfect to exist. The submarine shipped out from a world in which people were still innocent enough (or ignorant enough; it’s here that one should note that Pepperland is a peculiarly homogeneous community) to believe that decency rests in every human heart. It returns today’s viewers to a sweeter, gentler time that everyone can access — not the tie-dyed ‘60s, a time beset by violence often tidied up by a romantic posterity, but childhood. The intended viewership of Yellow Submarine would not have seen the Meanies as fascists, but as meanies, as bullies in violation of the Golden Rule. At their best, kids see through the same rose-colored glasses that the Beatles’ late-phase fandom paired with fringe vests and bell bottoms. The easily parroted chorus of this film’s title track emphasizes a childlike unity; we all live on the yellow submarine, everyone getting along and holding hands. All the youngsters really need is love. The rest of us require a little bit more than our friends to get by.

Revisiting the Beatles’ Cartoon LSD Utopia Yellow Submarine