Judge Erich Asperschlager is a Review Meanie.
"All together now!"
Animated movies sure have changed. Within the last decade or so, three-dimensional computer animated films have all but exterminated traditional 2-D cell animation. Some independent animators still practice the old art, but when it comes to big-budget Hollywood productions, CG is king. The one exception was 2011's Winnie the Pooh, a charming literary throwback that was trampled at the box office by Cars 2. When even a major player like Disney is unable to sell two-dimensional animation to a modern audience, it doesn't bode well for the future of the medium.
It's especially tragic because we finally have the right home video format to showcase the hand-drawn aesthetic. Most people think of Blu-ray as a natural pairing with CGI animation, with nary a pixel lost in the digital translation. But the secret strength of hi-def video is making the old seem new again, bringing out the detail and grain of 35mm films and breathing life into animated classics.
If you want to see how great a 2-D animated film can look and sound on Blu-ray, pick up Yellow Submarine. The trippy Beatles film has been restored frame-by-frame in a new 4K transfer. With a rich 5.1 surround mix and some cool collectibles, it's a gorgeous hi-def package perfect for animation and music fans alike.
Facts of the Case
Pepperland is a place of love, music, and peace—everything the neighboring Blue Meanies hate. When the Meanies attack, they turn Pepperland's citizens to stone and seal resident musicmakers Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in a spherical prison. In the confusion, a sailor named Old Fred (Lance Percival) escapes, taking a Yellow Submarine to search for help. He makes it all the way to Liverpool, where he encounters the Beatles: John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), George (Peter Batten), and Ringo (Paul Angelis). Old Fred convinces them to hop aboard, sailing back through treacherous seas inhabited by fearsome monsters. Along the way, they meet a "nowhere man" intellectual named Jeremy Hilary Boob (Dick Emery), who joins them in their fight to save Pepperland and defeat the Blue Meanies.
Yellow Submarine has very little in common with The Beatles' first two movies. Where A Hard Day's Night and Help! are live action, madcap adventures starring the Fab Four, Yellow Submarine is a cartoon that has Beatles songs but very little of the actual band themselves. John, Paul, George, and Ringo's on-screen avatars might sound a bit like them, but they are all voiced by actors. The Beatles show up at the very end in an awkward live-action tag, but for the most part the film is a spin-off designed to fulfill a contractual obligation with United Artists. It was directed by George Dunning, who worked on The Beatles TV cartoon, but brought a very different sensibility to the animated feature film.
Yellow Submarine is a product of its time, filled with psychedelic imagery and dazzling colors. There's some semblance of a story—the Beatles are recruited to save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies—but it's paper thin. The screenplay is credited to Lee Minoff, producer Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn, and Love Story author Erich Segal. As you might expect from so many cooks, the script is disjointed. The film's surreal story has plenty of punny Beatle banter and heavy-handed metaphor. The screenplay has a jukebox feel, loosely pairing sketches with animated versions of songs like "Eleanor Rigby," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and "All You Need is Love." The entire film is an exercise in creativity, but the music videos in particular give its animators an excuse to try out a variety of techniques, including rotoscoping, standard cell animation, and colorized photo cut-outs reminiscent of the style Terry Gilliam made famous on Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The plot might be flimsy, but Yellow Submarine makes up for it with sumptuous visuals. The film is aimed at Beatles fans, but it can be enjoyed as a work of Pop Art—a gallery installation in the comfort of your living room. Credit for film's distinctive psychedelic look goes largely to illustrator Heinz Edelmann. One of his earliest contributions was the design for The Beatles, who appear as caricatures stylized to capture the essence of each member. Edelmann and his team of artists and animators created the world of Yellow Submarine, filled with killer gloves, snapping turtle turks, and kinky boot beasts, where words come to life and music is a powerful weapon for peace. Even at its weirdest (and it gets weird in a hurry), the movie is a joy to look at and listen to.
Yellow Submarine on Blu-ray replaces the 1999 DVD release, which featured a 5.1 surround mix and restored the "Hey Bulldog" sequence that was cut from the film's American theatrical release. This new disc has the surround mix and the longer cut, with a lossless upgrade to the audio, and a 1.66:1 1080p transfer made from the new frame-by-frame restoration. I'll leave it to smarter people to argue about the virtues of fixing the film by hand instead of using automated tools. I don't care when the results are this stunning. Color is vibrant, the lines have nuance and character, and the image is sharp. On more than one occasion, I paused the film and marveled at the artistry that went into creating each frame. Modern digital films are stunning in their own way, but nothing compares to a beautiful 2-D animated film in high-definition.
That fidelity extends to the audio mix. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a powerhouse. Your surround set-up will be put to work, with directional effects and music that fills the soundscape, including 14 pristine Beatles tracks. The 5.1 mix reveal details that are buried in their original stereo. If you're a fan of the band, it's worth owning this disc just to hear these songs in full, lossless glory. For purists, there's a PCM stereo mix that's just as excellent, if not quite as revelatory. If stereo is too new-fangled for your taste, there's also a lossless version of the original mono mix.
Yellow Submarine comes with a extras that, while limited, still give a good overview of the production. In addition to the on-disc extras listed below, the Blu-ray also comes with a 14-page booklet of essays, with an introduction by John Lasseter, photos, and drawings; four animation cel reproductions, one for each Beatle; and a sheet of stickers.
• Audio commentary with director George Dunning, who looks back on the project, sharing interesting stories and film facts. He's dry, but in the best British way. Near the end of the film, Heinz Edelmann takes over, talking about the design process and the happy accident that turned the Meanies from his original red to their iconic blue.
• "The Beatles: Mod Odyssey" (7:40): This restored period featurette dips into the making of the film, covering its literary inspirations, animation, and themes.
• Three Storyboard Sequences: "Sea of Monsters" (4:31), in split-screen with the finished sequence; "Battle of the Monsters" (10:51), a very early collection of drawings showing a very different style of monsters than Edelmann's later designs; and an alternate version of the Beatles arrival to "Pepperland" (5:41).
• Original Pencil Drawings (8:33): Including line test drawings from "All You Need is Love," dissected heads, and tests for John.
• Behind the Scenes Photos (2:45): This collection of photos taken of the Beatles posing on set and with cardboard cutouts of their animated doppelgangers runs longer than their appearance in the actual film.
• Original Theatrical Trailer (3:45): Restored and in HD.
• Interviews with Paul Angelis (1:41), John Clive (2:07), animator David Livesey (1:13), Edelmann's assistant Millicent McMillan (1:14), animation director Jack Stokes (3:44), and co-writer Erich Segal (1:38).
Yellow Submarine isn't the best Beatles movie. That distinction belongs to A Hard Day's Night, which captured the group's energy, humor, and music at the height of their early fame. By 1968, they were locked away in the studio, writing songs by themselves, and headed towards their inevitable break-up. Their involvement with Yellow Submarine was minimal, a project borne in part out of their desire to get out of a multi-film contract. That it ended up so rich and inventive speaks to the talent that was assembled to bring this slice of psychedelia to life.
Director George Dunning, Heinz Edelmann and a crew of enthusiastic artists created an animated film like nothing before or since. There was talk a couple of years back about Robert Zemeckis remaking Yellow Submarine using motion-capture CGI. The project was, mercifully, scrapped, but the near-miss makes the original film's Blu-ray release more remarkable. Thanks to the work of a different group of artists, Yellow Submarine has been restored to look and sound as fresh as if it had been made today. Sadly, films like this aren't made today. How wonderful then that hi-def digital technology has given animation fans a new way to experience 2-D classics like Yellow Submarine, whose Blu-ray release is the new gold standard.
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