Arguably the greatest band in popular music, the Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr) had quite the Midas touch in many of their endeavors. They were Kings of All Media decades before Howard Stern gave himself that designation, creating landmarks not just in music, but in television (with their appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show') and movies ('A Hard Day's Night') as well.
Although they were disappointed with 'Help!' and the response to the 'Magical Mystery Tour' TV special, they liked the idea of an animated film, which they thought would be easy work to complete their film deal with United Artists. In fact, they didn’t even provide their own voices for their animated selves and only showed up briefly at the very end of the film during a reprise of "All Together Now". This limited involvement led UA to demand another film, which was 'Let It Be.'
Released in 1968 during their psychedelic period, The Beatles 'Yellow Submarine' may have been the best combination of music and animation since Disney's 'Fantasia' (1940), which finally turned a profit for Uncle Walt the following year when it connected with teenagers and college kids for some reason (wink). 'Yellow Submarine' incorporated songs to tell a very bizarre tale where love and music saved the day, an idea that resonated with many during the late '60s. Like 'Fantasia', it also connected with the youth, especially those who were experiencing their own psychedelic period.
Once upon a time, the surreal paradise known as Pepperland, which lay 80,000 leagues beneath the sea, came under attack from the Blue Meanies and their evil army of bonkers, snapping Turks, and a flying glove, which doesn’t appear to like music or color as they turn the people into gray statues. Newly promoted Lord Admiral Fred is sent off to seek help in a yellow submarine, which naturally cues the title track to play.
Once in London, the sub travels past cut out images, similar to the animation style Terry Gilliam used on 'Monty Python's Flying Circus,' as McCartney's melancholic "Eleanor Rigby" plays. Ringo is followed home by the sub and Fred begs, "won't you please, please help me," in one of the many Beatles in-jokes that populate the film's script. In a home that Salvador Dali would love to live in, Ringo assembles the group and off they go. As they travel through different seas, the animators create amazing visuals to accompany the songs. Once in Pepperland, it's the Beatles vs. the Blue Meanies, and only one group will survive.
No doubt helping to draw fans in upon its release, the film contained new songs. They are, in order of appearance: McCartney's "All Together Now" from the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, Harrison's "Only a Northern Song" from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions; an excerpt from Lennon/McCartney's "Baby, You're a Rich Man", which was created for the film, but was first used as a B-side to "All You Need Is Love"; Harrison's "It's All Too Much", originally intended for Magical Mystery Tour; and Lennon's "Hey Bulldog", recorded while they made a promotional film for "Lady Madonna". The last song, a delightful rocker, might be new to some folks as it was only available in European prints until 'Submarine's 1999 restoration. It was omitted from American prints, which featured a longer version of "Baby, You're a Rich Man". The film's score was composed and arranged by Beatles producer George Martin.
For fans of The Beatles and/or animation, "Yellow Submarine" remains a triumph of the medium.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Yellow Submarine' is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a slipcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 14-page booklet containing an introduction by John Lasseter, individual cels of the animated Fab Four, and stickers.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. During the credits, the audience is informed: "Due to the delicate nature of this hand drawn artwork, no automated software was used in the Digital clean up of the restored photochemical elements used for scanning. All Digital clean up was done by hand, frame by frame." And an outstanding job they did, because the image is pristine.
The colors look amazing and are extremely vivid. As they head to Pepperland during the first "All Together Now," the fish alternate colors so fast they create a strobe effect that looks like the fish are vibrating. A similar thing happens when they are in the Sea of Science as "Only a Northern Song" plays. A box alternates red and green at a rapid rate. While traveling through the Sea of Holes, black circles rush across the screen, creating a ripple, which is likely an optical illusion and not a transfer issue.
The lines are very sharp, except during "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" when the art messes with your mind as the colors have no desire to stay contained. Another impressive aspect of the transfer is that the high definition brings a depth to this two-dimensional world when some of the paper cutouts are laid on top of each other.
The one flaw that keeps me from awarding the full score is due to the live-action elements. During a montage of photographs when they first get into the sub and the end sequence with the band, the colors are faded and the images are sharp. The band looks particularly bad when a frame is frozen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track excels. The dialogue is clear and precise. The effects augment the ambiance, creating a real space as they move through the channels. The track is free from hiss of defect.
Now, the most important part: the music. The soundtrack is marvelous as the songs envelop the listener, likely better than most sound systems ever delivered them over the decades. There's great clarity of audio elements so none of the instruments or studio magic gets lost. The subwoofer is active as McCartney's bass and Ringo's drums frequently drive the music. It's unfortunate there's not a "play all songs" option to choose.
English speakers also have LPCM 2.0 and LPCM Mono tracks but in this case the originalists are missing out if they choose to go either of those routes
While it may be too weird for some, The Beatles 'Yellow Submarine' is a classic film. It epitomizes the '60s as it pushes the boundaries of the medium while at the same time the ideas and execution are timeless, giving the film a modern feel even as its 45th anniversary approaches next year.
There's so much going on visually one viewing isn't enough to take it all in. Not only do the songs and animation make it a trip worth retaking, so do the high quality A.V specs of the Blu-ray. I'm anticipating it making some "best of the year" lists.