Pepperland is a magical place "eighty thousand leagues beneath the sea" dedicated to music, art, and all the positive forces in life. Small wonder that they fall so easily to the music-loathing Blue Meanies, a race of misfits so negative they "only take no for an answer!" Dispatching the Yellow Submarine to find help, the newly appointed Lord Admiral Old Fred returns with the Beatles, who must liberate Pepperland with only the power of their music
A brief synopsis of the plot of Yellow Submarine makes the film sound childish and simplistic, when it is in fact neither. Like any good entertainment, there are aspects that will appeal to all age groups. Children appreciate the colorful adventure story (my own two year-old was held rapt for most of the running time), and older audiences can appreciate the humor and creative wordplay, if not the striking design work by German artist Heinz Edelmann and a dedicated crew of British animators.
This version restores the "Hey Bulldog" segment, which falls between "All You Need Is Love" and the final animated song, "It's All Too Much". The Beatles delivered this new song fairly late in the game, and this sequence shows it: it lacks the energy and creativity of the other song realizations, and a fair amount of it is made up of very limited animation. Production Supervisor John Coates, in his audio commentary (see Extras), expresses bafflement as to why producer Al Broadax chose to do away with the song, as he feels that its exclusion - and Broadax' addition of more crowd scenes chasing the retreating Meanies - extends the ending beyond all reason. I must disagree with Mr. Coates; "Hey Bulldog" weakens the story focus at this point, and its inclusion lengthens the film's climax needlessly.
To be truthful, Yellow Submarine was a very important film to me in my youth, and I am constantly dismayed by people who dismiss it as a mere "drug film" or, even worse, with the idiot Beavisoid critique of "it sucked!", without any instance or reasoning. Yellow Submarine was like a present we gave ourselves at the end of the Sixties, preserving as it does the things that were right about the period - optimism, idealism, irreverence, and an innocent faith that Art could make all things right - and none of the negatives. Even past such philosophical frippery, Yellow Submarine was important historically, proving as it did that an animated film did not have to slavishly ape Disney movies to be successful.
I once counted myself lucky to own the MGM/UA laserdisc of Yellow Submarine (in "Videophonic Stereo"). Almost needless to say, this version surpasses it in every way. The slightly letterboxed transfer restores the original colors to unmatched vibrancy; the only complaint I have is the final live-action sequence, involving the actual Beatles, shows a lot of wear, which is even more surprising given the flawless condition of the animated portion.
The crew that remixed the sound into 5.1 Dolby gets their own, added credits at the end, and they deserved it. The Beatles songs have never sounded better in this context, but the incidental music, overseen by (now) Sir George Martin - in my opinion, the only true fifth Beatle - is the best served, now rising to a richness that allows it to stand unashamed next to the music of the Fab Four. Listening to the strings that open the movie with the "Pepperland" theme is now a sweet, almost transcendent experience.
The disc is generous with its extras, though some of them may concentrate on questionable areas. There are no fewer than three storyboard sequences, two of which never made it to the screen, as well as a plethora of sketchy pencil drawings. A section of Behind the Scenes photos seems mainly composed of pictures of the Beatles, who were only tangentially involved in the making of the film. A series of video interview snippets with various of the production personnel serves the movie better.
A short, contemporary making-of featurette entitled "Mod Odyssey" is sadly showing its age, with muted colors and a lot of damage, but makes for a nice time capsule, in addition to the mandatory (or so we feel) theatrical trailer. There are an extraordinary 36 chapter stops, providing easy access to the film's major sections and each of the Beatles songs. For once, the interactive menus live up to their name and are quite playful - by maneuvering the cursor around the Yellow Submarine, one can play audio clips from the movie.
Audio-wise, one can also choose the original mono sound mix, and a music-only track. An audio commentary track promises line producer "John Coates, with additional contributions by Heinz Edelmann", but if Herr Edelmann's voice appears anywhere on the track, he sounds remarkably like Coates - nor are any of Coates' comments specifically attributed to any of these contributions. Coates is admittedly talking about events thirty years in the past, but his comments are long on the reminisce and short on illuminating facts, several times doubling back on himself and repeating things already mentioned. When the occasional gem does present itself - as in the entire film being completed in a mere eleven months - one aches for a canny co-host, a film historian of some sort, to prod the gentleman to more significant revelations.