The Beatles were such a dynamic pop-culture phenomenon that I suppose it was inevitable that they would leave their mark on film, too, but it's nonetheless remarkable how influential those pictures have been, particularly "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and this, "Yellow Submarine," and despite the fab four not necessarily having much to do with the significance of them. They especially had little to do with this one, with it being animated, reportedly, a way for them to satisfy their contract with United Artists without doing any work outside of the final live-action scene. Yet, lending their image and songs inspired others to create the landmark visuals here--demonstrating newfound potential for animation and influencing the development of psychedelic art, with its influence seen in the work of, among others, Terry Gilliam. Comparing Gilliam's cut-out animations for Monty Python to the "Eleanor Rigby" sequence here, in particular, demonstrates the obviousness of this debt. Rather than focus on the singular appeal of "Yellow Submarine," however, I'm going to comment a bit on the reason I revisited it, which is because I've been tracking a bunch of varied cinematic transmutations of Lewis Carroll's Alice books since reading them.
No mere nonsense, the Alice books have had a long afterlife in the history of animation, surrealism and, it would seem, in psychedelic art and the music of the Beatles. Quite a bit of attention, wasted it seems to me, has been spent on the supposed psychedelic properties of Disney's 1951 "Alice in Wonderland." That case, however, seems to rest largely on the picture being colorful; otherwise, it's too didactic and logical in being contrariwise to Carroll's moral-less nonsense. Not only is the limited animation in "Yellow Submarine" even more colorful, but it's also far less concerned with plot and characterizations and more consistent with the illogic of dreams and the sort of playful punnery and absurd detours, doppelgängers and juxtapositions befitting Carrollian inspiration and The Beatles music. Indeed, much of the band's songs have an "Alice in Wonderland" quality to them--"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" especially (even more explicitly inspired by the Alice books, "I Am the Walrus" didn't make the cut, though), with lyrics involving a boat on a river (akin to where Charles Dodgson originally told his stories to the Liddell girls, as well as the Humpty Dumpty episode from the second book), towering flowers and colorful nonsense.
What there is of a story, unimportant as it is, involves another world, like Wonderland or Looking-Glass World, which is invaded by music-hating Blue Meanies. As a little-seen YouTube video by the channel Kiss The Tulips points out, the Beatles, then, like Alice, are led by a white-haired man--in the stead of the White Rabbit--down the hatch of the yellow submarine. As they get closer to Pepperland (pepper recalling the "Pig and Pepper" chapter from the first book), there's an actual figure of a white rabbit. There's also the sequence involving doors, which expanding on Alice's growing pains, includes films-within-films with references to "Frankenstein," "King Kong" (1933) and the Lumière brothers' "Arrival of a Train" (1896). Moreover, Time is a person here, as in Wonderland, and there is an extended sequence of clocks and time-travel motifs. Pepperland and its surrounding environs, too, are occupied by curiouser and curiouser transmogrifying and loony creatures and sights--some of which adopt a form recalling specific characters from the books, if only momentarily, such as the Nowhere Man whose ears perk up like rabbit ears as he checks his pocket watch. And even the film's tagline professing, "It's all in the mind, y'know," recalls the dream framing of the Alice books.
Central to all these scattered allusions to Carroll's books combined with the Beatles music in a colorful adventure, of course, is supposedly LSD and the rest of a drug culture--pointing back to Alice consuming mushrooms and other substances to grow bigger and smaller in her adventures and forwards to a potion transforming Frankenstein's monster into John Lennon here. And, while indeed "Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds" is an initialism for LSD, the real inspiration for the song, as Lennon claimed, was his child's drawing. A piece of art inspired by and for kids alike as with Dodgson and Alice Liddell. Of course, an understanding of drugs are fundamental to the psychedelic art, as, say, Oxford was to the Alice books, but it goes beyond that. Less intriguing films, after all, were made of Alice and psychedelic references around the same time as "Yellow Submarine." A self-defeating anti-drug PSA was made from cut-out animation for "Curious Alice" (1968), a ploy mocked for the exploitation of "Alice in Acidland" (1969), and pills and other such consumables have been integral to mind-altering experiences in other such Carrollian pictures, such as "Where the Truth Lies" (2005) and "The Matrix" (1999), but the influence of the animation style along with "Alice in Wonderland" reaches further, from Gilliam to even the corporate art of "Superflat Monogram" (2003). More importantly, "Yellow Submarine" is a clever, lovely and playful picture in the acknowledged vein of "Alice in Wonderland."
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