Thursday, October 09, 2008

Finely 'Tooned: Yellow Submarine, Cartoons, and the Fab Four

I don't think I've posted this. It's a paper I wrote in college, about five years ago. It's still one of my favorite things I've ever done. Plus, it's got citations! That means I'm smart!

The Beatles as a group made five films over the course of their career, each of which is different from the others. A Hard Day’s Night is a sort of mock-umentary, presenting and at the same time lampooning the Beatles’ image as superstars. Help! is a screwball chase comedy in the Marx Brothers vein. Magical Mystery Tour is, well, the less said the better, but there’s certainly nothing like it. And Let it Be is the most honest of all five, an actual documentary showing the Beatles as musicians, recording artists, performers, and occasionally regular guys.
Unique among uniquity, however, is the Beatles’ animated film, Yellow Submarine. It is the film the Beatles had the least to do with; the voices for their characters are provided by others, and the group itself only appears in the final two minutes of the film as a pseudo- epilogue. The track consists not of new songs, but of older, repackaged hits (although one new tune, “Hey Bulldog,” was made for the film and then cut from the theatrical version; it has been restored on recent home video releases). Even the background orchestrations are largely classicized versions of their earlier hits rearranged by George Martin. It was seemingly green-lit solely to fulfill part of the Beatles’ four-film contract with United Artists. And yet, perhaps because of its fundamental separation from the other Beatle films, Yellow Submarine holds up today better than its four fellows as a film and as a presentation of their music, lives, and philosophy.
Chief among the reasons for this is the fact that Submarine is animated. The producers were limited only by the music in the Beatles’ oeuvre, the Beatles’ physical appearances, and the imaginations of the animators. No idea was too wild, no scene too impossible. If it could be drawn, it could be done. For a group like the Beatles, whose ideas very often transcended what could be explained in “real life,” the animated format was a perfect fit.

“So little time! So much to know!” - Animation Before the Beatles

The story of the American animated film begins in 1911, with cartoonist Winsor McCay’s short presentation of a film version of his Sunday comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland. Its two follow-ups, starring a mosquito and a brontosaurus, respectively, earned similar success, and other studios began to imitate. Otto Messmer created the popular Felix the Cat for Universal studios, Paul Terry modernized the fables of Aesop, and a pair of brothers named Max and Dave Fleischer brought Ko-Ko the Clown to life through the maverick process of tracing the figure directly from live photographs, which they dubbed Rotoscoping. Meanwhile, Walter Lantz took the same route as McCay, adapting George Harriman’s Krazy Kat, thus giving the new art form one of its most enduring images: the cat and mouse, locked in eternal combat. These and other features continued with great success throughout the Roaring Twenties.
In 1927, film got noisy. The replacement of an in-theater organ score with a recorded soundtrack changed the dynamics of the medium, and this is true for animation as well. In fact, it is especially true for animation, due to the fact that the first “talkie” cartoon was Walt Disney’s “Steamboat Willie,” the inaugural appearance of Mickey Mouse. All of cartoon history from that point forward followed the Mouse and his creator. The failure of Felix the Cat’s first sound short killed the character, and many of his contemporaries followed him into history. The other studios scrambled to make do, coming up with various “bouncing-ball” formulas (“Car-Tunes,” “Merrie Melodies,” “Silly Symphonies,” etc.) and searching for their own Mickeys. The Fleischers introduced animation’s first sexpot, Betty Boop, and the spinach-eating sailor man, Popeye; Warner Brothers struggled with several ideas before striking gold with a stuttering pig named Porky. By the end of the 30’s, the competing studios were ready to challenge Disney’s dominance in the shorts market. Which was fine with him.
For years, Disney had dreamed of creating a feature-length animated film. In 1937, the dream was realized with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film, combining Disney’s talent for character design and sound work with the classic Grimm fairy tale, was a bonafide success. Disney invented and conquered the genre in one fell swoop. None of the competing studios’ attempts at imitation succeeded, and they resigned themselves to shorts. For his part, Disney followed Snow White first with an equally classic adaptation of Pinocchio (1940), and next with the ambitious Fantasia (1941). Here was animation striving to reach the heights of culture on the backs of classical pieces such as The Rite of Spring and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Unappreciated in its time, the film was nonetheless declared a masterpiece after its re-release a decade later.
The shorts continued, and free of the spectre of Disney, they began to flourish. Warner Brothers developed its massive, madcap stable of favorites such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig; MGM studios had Droopy Dog and the new generation’s answer to Krazy Kat, Tom and Jerry. These cartoons, spearheaded by masters like Friz Freling, Fred "Tex" Avery, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson, delighted audiences with their screwball comedy and irreverent characters. The period of the WB and MGM shorts’ popularity is considered a Golden Age of animation, lasting from roughly 1938 until 1962.
In the late ‘50s, sadly, a new mass medium arose that sucked the audiences away from both shorts and feature-length cartoons: television. Animated shows directed at children became the norm, and with few exceptions -- such as Jay Ward’s brilliantly satirical Rocky and Bullwinkle Show -- they were all uniformly bland. Production values bottomed out, and the intricate backgrounds and fluid motion were replaced with stock, curtain-style backdrops and choppy, sometimes ridiculous motion. A series of shows based on the popular Marvel Comics characters of the early ‘60s consisted mostly of still shots of the comics! Even these paeans to the lowest common denominator suffered a final indignity as the ‘60s came to a close, with the formation of Action for Children’s Television, a parents’ group dedicated to “wholesome” children’s programming, which in their language meant stripping the mostly sterile cartoons that remained of whatever life, energy, and comedy they still possessed. Shorts were dead, features were on life support following the death of Walt Disney in 1966, and television, for all its faults, was nonetheless being throttled into nonexistence.
It was into this atmosphere that the Beatles released Yellow Submarine.

“Once Upon a Time… or Maybe Twice” – The Film in its Context

Although a unique work of film, Yellow Submarine nonetheless owes much to its forebears. Much of its sensibility is drawn from the classic comic shorts, particularly the work of the Warner Brothers studios. There are, however, two very important influences on the film that come from the Disney stable: the aforementioned Fantasia, and 1951’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Wonderland, like most of Disney’s adaptations, is a neutered, family-friendly version of its source material -- in this case, scenes not only from Carroll’s original work, but also its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Nonetheless, Wonderland is the closest feature animation approaches to the bizarre world portrayed in Yellow Submarine. It is filled with ridiculous, seemingly insane characters, and its landscapes and backgrounds are beyond anything seen in the rational universe. Sadly, much of Carroll’s satirical bite is excised from Disney’s film, and the result is reduced to nonsense. Nevertheless, it serves an important template for Yellow Submarine, which itself revives that satirical sensibility. Also, Alice contains one very important visual feature: the character of the Caterpillar, who puffs on a hookah pipe, and then blows smoke which takes the shape of its words. The combined drug reference and physio-verbal manifestation is a very short leap to the animated John Lennon’s performance of “All You Need is Love,” in which the words of the song burst from his mouth and defeat the Blue Glove, linchpin of the Blue Meanies’ arsenal.
As for Fantasia, the similarity is transparent: music of the Beatles receives the same treatment that classical pieces did in Fantasia, as they are set to animation. The best example of this in Submarine is “Eleanor Rigby,” in which the eponymous sub navigates through a pop-art dystopian London in search of the Beatles. The animation style is wholly different, but then, so is the song. In both cases, the juxtaposition of music and image elevates both to a new level, creating a very unique piece of art that transcends medium. In this way, the "Eleanor Rigby" sequence is in fact one of the first music videos, and Fantasia is the first music video presented as a feature, still the only of its kind, as of this writing.
The lion’s share of Submarine’s influence derives from the madcap shorts of the 40’s and 50’s. Of these, it is most important to discuss two, both coming from the WB stable. The first is 1938’s “Porky in Wackyland.” In this cartoon, Porky -- still on his original, beach-ball shaped model -- pilots a plane into the deepest reaches of Africa in search of the last remaining Dodo bird. What he finds is a realm bereft of any sort of logic. Both visually and thematically, this is an important forebear to the world of Yellow Submarine. The backgrounds are pure surrealism, and the various disturbing creatures -- a man who makes jazz sounds when he walks, a three-headed composite of the Three Stooges, the Dodo itself -- are just as bizarre as the creatures encountered in the Sea of Monsters. At one point, Porky encounters “The Man Who Knows Everything;” when asked where the last Dodo can be found, the man produces a multitude of contradictory signs and says “Thataway!” making himself only slightly less helpful than the Nowhere Man.
Nowhere Man and his Nowhere Land are particularly germane to the other classic short Yellow Submarine references, 1953’s “Duck Amuck.” Considered one of director Chuck Jones’ masterpieces, "Amuck" follows the increasingly bewildered Daffy Duck as the world around him is rapidly altered at the sadistic whims of the animator, until at the last there is no world left. Daffy is alone with only a pure white background. The short hits home the precariousness of the cartoon world, and how it depends on fragile, 2-dimensional structures for its existence. Ranting and raving, transformed into a bizarre shape and finally put away behind a hastily-drawn door, Daffy becomes the Nowhere Man… er, Duck. This is echoed and reinforced by the entrance into Nowhere Land, where the vacuum-monster devours its own environment, and then itself, leaving only a blank white space into which the already-eaten submarine pops.
These two cartoons are specific examples of how Submarine acknowledges and uses what came before, but there are many more less specific instances as well. The blue globe in which the Meanies encase the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band echoes the glass coffin of Snow White, for until the glass and the spell are lifted, the land is trapped in sadness. The sub’s tracking of Ringo across London, and particularly its practice of hiding behind columns too thin to hide itself, is a trope often seen in chase ‘toons. The doors in the Beatles’ home echo several Warner Brothers gags: the cascade of odd objects in and out; the opening of a door to a completely unrelated bit, followed by the characters nonchalantly closing the door; the incident with the train coming straight at the door which is a frame-for-frame homage to a frequent gag that blended live-action stock footage and animation. All throughout, the Beatles’ dry wordplay evokes both Bugs Bunny and the nonstop punnery of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The Rube Goldbergian nature of the submarine’s interior mirrors several devices used to lampoon the factory setting in documentary-style cartoons by Tex Avery. A sequence wherein the sub passes through one ear of a bust and out the other on its journey is another homage, common in cartoons where the protagonist is menaced by an insect. And, of course, the scene with the boxing monster and the exploding cigar is classic Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam material. George’s electrocutional aura is likewise a popular animated image. Ringo’s bit with the hole in his pocket is taken directly from "The Hole Idea," a 1955 Warner Brothers short about a scientist who invents a portable hole that a crook uses to commit bank robberies. The “Morning” suite from Peer Gynt, played after the Beatles’ night at the band hall, is used universally in cartoons as a backdrop for the sunrise. The gun-flower bit is the Beatles’ own take on the classic “BANG!” flag. And, finally, the end sequence, in which the actual Beatles break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, is another of Avery’s hallmarks.
The characters themselves also clothe themselves in aspects of cartoon archetypes. Ringo, with his good-natured attitude and his compassion towards Jeremy, the Nowhere Man, evokes thoughts of Disney’s Goofy. The scene where Ringo, warned by Acting Admiral Fred not to push a button, pushes it, ejecting himself from the sub and on the back of a galloping thingamajig, is classic Goof behavior. John, of course, with his quick wit and grace under fire, is Bugs Bunny. Paul, foppishly styled and voiced, is Mickey Mouse, the popular but somewhat bland “cool kid.” George defies direct characterization, but his frequent flaunting of the conventional rules of reality aligns him with the trickster archetype defined by Bugs, Woody Woodpecker, and Droopy Dog. When he calmly descends from the Sgt. Pepper’s platform with nothing but thin air beneath his feet, repeating the mantra, “It’s all in the mind,” George takes control of his environment and bends it to his will, making him an anti-Nowhere Man. Had an animator tried to pull the Duck Amuck stunts with him, he would have simply closed his eyes and re-ordered the scene to fit his preference. George is Pepperland’s Nietzche.
Of course, the Blue Meanies themselves are analogues to every cartoon villain one can imagine. Like Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader, they seek to leech all the fun and motion from life, and especially from the heroes. The give-and-take between the Chief Blue Meanie and Max is reminiscent of Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races villains Dirk Dastardly and Muttley. The four-headed dog of “Hey Bulldog” could be any of thousands of hunting mutts stymied by various woodland creatures over the years. The “technology” used by the Meanies in their invasion hearkens back to Marvin the Martian, the inky little fiend who wanted to destroy the Earth because it blocked his view of Venus. The Meanies even influenced the villains that came after them. When the producers of the 1980s G.I. Joe animated series needed a faceless terrorist organization to pit their heroes against in every episode, they came up with COBRA, a group that wore only the color blue, with members virtually indistinguishable from one another, and led by a shrill-voiced, almost feminine individual who routinely gave orders consisting of “Destroy them!” COBRA, for all the ‘80s, late-Cold War frippery, was Meanie-ism reborn. Unfortunately, by then cartoons had gone back to fighting the Meanies’ brand of fire with more fire, instead of the Beatles’ water.

“Nothing Is Beatleproof!” – The Film on its Own

The above, of course, is not to say that Yellow Submarine is a wholly derivative endeavor. While it does pay right and proper homage to its predecessors, the film also stands on its own. In greatest part, this is due to the animation style. While blends of mobile characters and static backgrounds had been used before, it was never to this degree, or with this much style. For one thing, the backgrounds and foregrounds in Submarine are intricately layered. In the Sea of Monsters, for example, the Monsters and the sub move about in a static environment comprised of both foreground and background. This layering of prop plane on real plane on prop plane on real plane on, at the last, a black prop background, with objects continually darting from one plane to the next, gives a degree of three-dimensionality that conventional two-plane animation cannot achieve. Furthermore, it enriches the reality of the cartoon’s world.
Reality in animation is defined by movement. If it’s moving, it’s a real object; if not, it’s a prop. With objects moving in and out of successive layers of ground, every object is infected with their reality, even the props. The statues and columns and landscape are real because the moving objects can go behind them. This ocular deception rewires the way the brain normally interprets cartoons, and moves the picture further into the audience’s experience. Not until the advent of computer animation, where every object moves in three dimensions, would this effect be trumped. Thirty years before Pixar, Yellow Submarine was the “realest” cartoon ever.
The design of the film is equally as important as the animation in setting it apart from the medium at large. Characters, landscapes, props, and the bizarre settings for several of the musical numbers defy the established logic of previous features; the film looks like nothing else. The Beatles themselves, along with the Pepperlanders and the lone policeman -- the only representative of “normality” in the film -- are more simplified than Disney’s humans, but less caricatured than those of Warner, MGM, or the Fleischers. This simplicity goes a long way into allowing the audience to identify with the Beatles, as Scott McCloud puts forth in his grand opus on the language of cartooning, Understanding Comics (1994). For McCloud, the world is defined by the senses, and most importantly by the eyes. Because humans never see their own faces, our mental image of ourselves is a vague, simplified form of appearance: two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. The Beatles are given their own quirks, of course -- Ringo’s nose and mustache, George’s hair, John’s glasses, and Paul’s unmistakable angularity -- the basic models are very nuts-and-bolts. Indeed, Paul’s face is the most disconcerting of the four because it is made the most distinctive; being “the cute one” is a disadvantage in the animated world. The Pepperlanders are even more stripped down, their design coming from basic everyman-type models made popular during the Victorian era; thus, the audience identifies with them, and by extension their plight, even more. The Meanies, by contrast to all this, are in no way human, and thus much easier to identify as the villains of the piece.
Continuing our analysis of the film’s design, we come upon the use of drawn figures as part of both Pepperland and London in the film. This “pop art” style, as it is called for its resemblance to the static art movement of the same name, is again like nothing seen in conventional animation, and is used to great effect. The various black and grey architectural props of the London skyline make it a cold and dismal place, perfectly echoing the sentiments expressed in Eleanor Rigby’s haunting strings. The jerkily-moving, stylized soccer players further show London’s inhumanity. The presence of pop material inside the Beatles’ home has quite a different effect, though, largely due to the great presence of color within. The grand foyer is a combination of orange and white; John’s lab is decorated with mock-ups of pulp and comics archetypes; George’s bizarre mountaintop is a dazzling host of colors associated with, of course, psychidelia. The Beatles themselves wear gaudy clothes in bright hues, drawing attention to them and, most importantly, making them the most fun to watch. In a cartoon, the character most pleasing to the eye will have that quality transferred by the audience onto his or her actions. The Beatles are the good guys because they look more the role than anyone else in the film. Pepperland is more desirable than either London or the briefly-glimpsed mountain home of the Blue Meanies because it is colorful. Color is life, and the absence of color is death. By fighting for color and music, the Beatles are fighting for life.
And so we come at last to the theme of Yellow Submarine. Like the fairy tales on which both Disney’s features and the film itself are based, the story is at heart a battle of good against evil. The Beatles, Fred, and eventually the Nowhere Man are good, and the Meanies are evil. That the Meanies cannot even communicate in the affirmative makes this clear. But in Disney’s films, and even in the various shorts that expound on the same theme -- Bugs vs. Elmer, Tom vs. Jerry, etc. -- there can be no reconciliation between good and evil. Evil, the wrong kind of thinking, cannot be made into good, the right kind of thinking, and so must be destroyed. The Wicked Witch falls off a cliff, Elmer gets shot with his own gun, and God help poor Wile E. Coyote, because neither the Road Runner nor the audience will. Not so in Yellow Submarine. For the forces of good, final and absolute victory comes not when the enemy is destroyed, but when he is made into a friend. The Nowhere Man does not save the day by killing the Chief Blue Meanie, but rather by making flowers bloom upon him, transforming him into a source of life. The film ends with the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Pepperlanders, and the Blue Meanies joining together in song. For its time, this is a subversive message. The idea that the hippies and the establishment, the Yankees and the Commies, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” could all come together and be just “guys” was a message that few people wanted to hear and fewer wanted to say. But it was most definitely worth saying, and worth hearing, and created a philosophical paradigm that the animation industry showed no interest in.

“It’s No Longer a Blue World” - Conclusion

Sadly, Yellow Submarine today is a pothole on the road of animation history. The next non-Disney animated film, Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 adaptation of Fritz the Cat, earned the dubious honor of being the only cartoon ever to receive the “X” rating; Bakshi himself followed up with a Rotoscoped version of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings that is remembered by few and loved by fewer. Disney continued to dominate the animated features market with its wholesome-but-repetitive fare, and still does, to a degree. The animation style and irreverence of Submarine was adopted by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but used sparingly, mostly as filler material for their BBC series and in one brief sequence in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which comes to an abrupt end when the animator suffers a fatal heart attack. Today, Submarine is remembered mostly as a Beatles movie, stuck in the special interest/musicals ghetto of the video store. The current generation is more likely to remember it as one of many Simpsons references they didn’t get. Its status is that of “cult,” which, translated, means “enjoyed greatly by a group of people society finds frightening.”
And yet, it’s still a good little film. It has enjoyable songs, wonderful if dated animation, and a welcome message. It doesn’t have the aura of fakery of Hard Day’s Night or Help!, or the bittersweetness of Let it Be, or the… well, the everything of Magical Mystery Tour. Yellow Submarine comes closest out of the five to capturing the essence, not of what it’s like to be a Beatle, or of Beatlemania -- whatever in Sgt. Pepper’s name that is -- but of what the Beatles were trying to say. Music is groovy. Love is all you need. The world is a wonderful, colorful place if you just look. So pay attention, or it will pass you by, at a lot faster than twenty-four frames per second.


Heraldson, Donald. Creators of Life: A History of Animation. New York:
Drake Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Kamfer, Stefan. Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in American from Betty Boop to Toy Story. New York: Scribner, 1997.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York:
Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Peary, Danny and Gerald Peary, eds. The American Animated Cartoon: A
Critical Anthology.
New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980.

The Internet Movie Database. Est. 1990.

Special Thanks to the Men and Women at Cartoon Network, for keeping the magic alive.


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zeniamai said...

*whew* thats one lengthy article... Very informative post you have here... I can particularly relate to the whole cartoons and rotoscoping bit... I have always loved animation and it was fun to know its history and how it evolved over the years. :)

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