All is well in Pepperland, which is situated eighty thousand leagues under the sea and where love is the order of the day thanks to the musical stylings of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what's this? The Blue Meanies suddenly invade, turning the inhabitants to stone, smashing the statues and draining the colour from the scenery. It looks as if Pepperland is doomed, but what if Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) can get away? Fleeing from the Blue Meanies' Glove which soars after him, he manages to reach the Lord Mayor (Dick Emery) to warn him. He hurriedly takes Fred to the top of a pyramid where the Yellow Submarine floats and tells him he must climb aboard and get help - and that's exactly what Fred does.
Considering this cartoon was a contractual obligation for the Beatles, it turned out surprisingly well under the circumstances. There was already a cheap Beatles cartoon running in America that the band had little to do with and were deeply unimpressed with anyway, but one of the men involved with it, animator George Dunning, saw the promise that a feature film held, but not with the lack of imagination (and poor vocal impersonations) the television series was created with. Dunning brought German artist Heinz Edelmann onto the project to fashion its distinctive look and lo, the first British full length cartoon for fourteen years was produced.
And it looked great, too, mixing striking images with songs the Beatles had donated, including four new ones. The band were so impressed that they filmed a live action cameo for the ending, though for the rest of the film they are voiced by actors who do a fairly good job of approximating their styles - fortunately the music remains performed and sung by the originals. It is they who Fred finds on his quest to get help, and are introduced in charming ways: Ringo, complaining that nothing exciting ever happens to him, is stalked by the sub, John is a Frankenstein's Monster that drinks a Doctor Jekyll-style potion to transform back into himself, George is transcendentally meditating among images of India, and Paul appears after receiving a standing ovation for offscreen acts of high culture.
Everywhere there are visual jokes, clever puns and wild ideas that conjure a peculiar atmosphere that is so of its time it has never been successfully emulated, unless you count the spoof in The Rutles which by no coincidence was crafted by the same team. King Kong reaches through a window to grab a screaming woman, a locomotive rushes towards an open door, and the submarine travels through various lands and "seas" on its way home. Along the way, not only are various lyrics threaded into the (frequently muttered) dialogue, but the songs are illustrated in such a way that it doesn't seem as if the action is grinding to a halt, rather that one sequence is flowing into another, that fluid reality giving rise to accusations that replicating a psychedelic experience may well be too accurate to an actual trip than was healthy.
All of which gained Yellow Submarine an audience bridging a gulf between little kids and their elder generation who would be tuning in and turning on to the wild visuals. On their journey through their nineteen-sixties equivalent of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, the Beatles and Fred travel back and forward through time, cueing "When I'm Sixty-Four" which features a whole minute represented with a count up, they see a land of monsters including one trumpet-faced creature that sucks everything up like a vacuum cleaner, and end up in a landscape of holes that they pop in and out of. They also meet a friend in the rotund shape of Jeremy (the "Nowhere Man" of the song) who fixes their motor for them, manages to lose the submarine of the title but is captured by the Blue Meanies and has to be rescued by the bearing-no-grudge band.
The "All You Need Is Love" message may be corny, but in the context of this cartoon it's believable when married to the beautifully inventive imagery; only the Beatles' personality could have got away with a film that could appeal in this simultaneously quaint and curiously subversive fashion, merging apparently drug fuelled concepts to something more innocent with such uplifting success. Though the Fab Four did not supply the voices, the impersonations are more often than not spot on, not to mention capturing their well-loved sense of humour which is at times laugh out loud funny, but at others containing a sense of wonder at the bizarre predicament their alter-egos have landed in. That there was a not-so-subtle anti-war message in there as the Blue Meanies represented the authorities who wage battle and spread hate in a manner inconceivable by the other, more sympathetic characters would not have been lost on the audiences of the day, demonstrating blooming creativity and sublime pop music are the perfect antidote to the worst the world can offer. Additional music by George Martin.