The Beatles' Most Beatles-y Film Barely Even Featured the Beatles

Yellow Submarine, which is being re-released this week, encapsulates the band's ethos better than any of their other movies—even though Fab Four were played by voice actors.

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In the pantheon of Beatles movies, 1968's animated Yellow Submarine often gets thought of as barely one at all: The Beatles themselves weren't even in it save for a hammy, half-hearted spot at the end. Instead, Submarine has lived on largely as a politely respected souvenir of the Peace-and-Love era. The kiddies could love it, the stoners could love it, and everyone else could watch in bemusement as the actor-voiced Beatles fought to save Pepperland from the evil Blue Meanies, cuddly monsters whose esteem for negativity was so great that they forbade the use of the word "yes." Throw in trippy imagery, a childlike title tune, a protean if vague message—basically, Love Rocks, Music Rocks, hooray for Love and Music—and you had what amounted to a counterculture Fantasia.

But with Yellow Submarine being restored for this week's Blu-ray release, it's worth reappraising its place in the Beatles canon. Rather than as a tossed-off merchandising play or as a curious relic of the '60s, it should be remembered as the most emblematically Beatle-y of all Beatles films, encapsulating everything good and lasting about the band: their ability to fuse the personal and universal, their penchant for elevating borrowed ideas, and the human empathy powering everything they recorded.

When our titular submersible sails away from the under-siege Pepperland in search of help and comes to the gray husk of Liverpool, where a depressed Ringo wanders the streets, there's a level of intimacy, of looking in on someone else's life, that you get in the best Beatles songs. Think "Strawberry Fields Forever." But that personal element has universal ramifications at the same time, like we're all wandering around those Liverpool streets, looking for meaning. To underscore that duality, "Eleanor Rigby" starts playing on the soundtrack, and we get the complete song. (You always get the complete song in Yellow Submarine. No fade outs.) Against those dolorous, washed out grays—that look grayer than ever in high-def—"Eleanor Rigby" becomes more than a cut on what may well be the best album ever made. It becomes something imagistic and harrowing, and makes you want sail away in the next available floating sub just like cartoon Ringo does.

The music, of course, is what makes it a Beatles film in the most obvious sense. But while the title song might have seemed tailor-made for a movie adaptation, an adaptation apparently wasn't what Lennon and McCartney had in mind when they penned it. So it fell to screenwriter Lee Minoff to do what the Beatles themselves were so good at: taking someone else's nascent idea and blowing it up into something sublime. That level of remove between band and film, ironically, allowed the band's ethos to be rendered in a truer sense than it might otherwise have been. Fans had certain expectations when the Beatles themselves were in their own films. They were supposed to be cheeky but not too cheeky, coming across like this fun-loving gang who was more family than rock band. Four parts of the same organism. But by 1968 the Beatles had become four madcap, sonic renegades, who loved quoting their earlier songs and generally frying minds.

There's a lot of mind-frying in Yellow Submarine. You might think of it as the cinematic version of the White Album—with all of its in-jokes and lyrical cross-references—but in Day-Glo, no shades of pale allowed. Sight gags riff on old Beatles songs, while the jokes tend to be more Joycean than jocular. John Lennon emerges from the form of Frankenstein's monster, given that he was the literary Beatle. The "boob"—who is less mammary than his name suggests—the band encounters is an autodidact, just like, in some ways, the Beatles themselves were. And he even has a gig writing for The New Statesman, despite being a "nowhere man," as Lennon himself had been back on 1965's Rubber Soul.

1964's A Hard Day's Night does remain the Beatles' best film, in large part because it was so raw and alive with the belief that there were no capstones in life, or at least there didn't have to be. You could do anything your talent and imagination could abet you in doing, it said. Which isn't strictly true, of course, but that was the spirit of their first film. That spirit is writ even larger in Yellow Submarine, but in a more grown-up, nuanced fashion. Some of the jokes go absolutely nowhere, which allows three Beatles to make fun of the fourth's lame pun. But that's life for you. Sure enough, there's no dissuading the punner from punning again. You get this sense of being in on something—a joke, a world, a sector of the imagination—which you and you alone are lucky to be traveling, though, naturally, you're but one of millions.

And then there are those Blue Meanies, who have a language all their own, which we're also in on. The Chief Meanie is as sick, in his way, as the guy in "Happiness is a Warm Gun" who puts colored mirrors on the tops of his boots for perverted purposes. Only the Chief Meanie's fetish is stroking the glove-shaped creature—named Glove, fairly enough—who flies around Pepperland, squashing out every vestige of love. That the animated, voiced-over Beatles manage to charm the Meanies is no surprise. But that they do so more convincingly than if the Beatles themselves had been teleported into the film is what makes Yellow Submarine a classic of its kind.