Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Yellow Submarine: The Beatles - Special Edition (1968)
Studio Line: MGM - The forces of good! The forces of evil!

Join the greatest band of all time for a mind-blowing voyage you won’t soon forget. Heralded as “a cartoon landmark” (San Francisco Examiner), this visually stunning odyssey turned animation upside-down with its irreverent style and innovative techniques.

Once upon a time…or maybe twice, the unearthly paradise of Pepperland was taken over by the evil Blue Meanies. All looked hopeless…until the Fab Four sailed in to save the day with humor, music and, of course, their yellow submarine.

Now restored with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and featuring classic Beatles tunes including the never-before-seen animated sequence “Hey Bulldog,” this visionary masterpiece is “a funny, fascinating, whiz-bang tour de force” (Los Angeles Times)!

Director: George Dunning
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul Angelis, John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Dick Emery, Lance Percival
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Mono; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 36 chapters; rated G; 90 min.; $29.98; street date 9/14/99.
Supplements: Full Length Audio Commentary by John Coates; Behind The Scenes Featurette; Original Pencil Drawings; Behind The Scenes Photos; Interviews; Storyboards Of Selected Scenes; Original Theatrical Trailer; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - The Beatles

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/A-/B-

Since I've been a Beatles fan for 20 of my 32 years, most people who know me thought I'd be really excited about the release of Yellow Submarine on DVD. After all, this film hasn't been available on home video in many years; I actually don't think I'd seen it at all since the early 1980s. One of my favorite bands, long out of print video - yes, I can see why others thought I'd be worked up over this DVD.

However, the truth was different. To be honest, my excitement level over Yellow Submarine was pretty low. In fact, if the DVD hadn't included a few nice extras and a brand new 5.1 remix, I probably would have passed on the title altogether.

But I didn't - I picked up a copy, and I'm pretty glad I did, but not because I found the film to be particularly interesting.

Although I hadn't seen YS in almost two decades, I actually remembered it surprisingly well. That's probably because there's not a whole lot to the thing. With the exceptions of the Beatles themselves, who appear largely as vague stereotypes of themselves, the characterizations seem weak; all of the characters are either dull or annoying (especially the useless "The Boob" - I really kept hoping the Meanies would squash him!) Its plot barely exists - something about the Beatles saving Pepperland from vaguely Nazi-esque oppression - and the film essentially skips from musical episode to musical episode.

Not that that's a terribly bad thing. I mean, not every movie has to feature a brilliant storyline to succeed. YS makes inventive use of different visual styles within its animation and creates some very interesting little clips to accompany the music. I don't know how many repeated viewings of it I'D like to perform, but I imagine it would be very well-received by kids, especially younger ones who would be entertained by the variety of colors and images.

Hmm... I must admit that last comment sounded suspiciously like a slam on YS. It wasn't meant that way. Clearly, I'm not wild about the movie; in fact, the only Beatle feature I rank below it is Magical Mystery Tour, and the two are actually pretty closely ranked in my opinion. I'd much rather watch A Hard Day's Night, Help! or Let It Be than YS.

However, that doesn't mean it's a bad piece of work and of no interest to anyone other than toddlers who delight in bright colors. There's a fair amount of pretty clever dialogue throughout the picture, and most adults will also enjoy the music. Admittedly, I hate the title song - one of the five crummiest tunes ever recorded by the Beatles - but I'd forgotten how much I liked some of the music that appears exclusively in the film. Of the twelve included songs, only four - "It's All Too Much", "All Together Now", "Only a Northern Song" and "Hey Bulldog" - come from the film; all the others are taken from previous albums and singles. Of that batch, only "All Together Now" stands as a mini-clunker; the other three are terrific, especially John's ripping "Hey Bulldog".

Ironically, that song didn't appear during the film's original release; the "Hey Bulldog" segment has been reinserted for this re-release. The animated piece itself isn't anything special, but the song itself certainly is, so I'm glad it's in there.

To be honest, although many have found the wide range of artistic styles to be spectacular, I have to say that much of it didn't impress me. This may stem largely from the generally weak quality of the animation itself; while the artwork may be fairly good, it moves choppily and unconvincingly. Weak animation can be overcome within largely dialogue-driven productions like The Simpsons, but since YS relies so strongly on its visuals, I felt the stiffness of the movements negatively affected my impression of the film. No, it ain't Pokemon, but it ain't Pinocchio either.

Ultimately, Yellow Submarine lives and dies because of its Beatle connection. With weaker songs or a more obscure act, I don't think anyone would have remembered it; my opinion may be contrary to many, but I just don't believe that it's a terribly special piece of animation.

(Despite the beliefs of many, the Beatles did NOT do their own voices in the film; voice actors perform the roles. And not very accurately, at that; the animated "Beatles" sound very little like the real thing. According to John Clive, who performed as John, this was a conscious choice because they thought that the Beatles' REAL voices were too similar for an audience to easily discern which was which; as such, they went more with what they interpreted as the spirit of each member's voice rather than the actual sound. However, during his audio commentary, John Coates states that they DID try to replicate the actual sound of each Beatles' voice, and he thinks they did well. Well, whichever is correct, all I know is that the actors don't sound much like the real thing. For the record, the Fabs themselves only appear on screen during the live-action coda to the piece - which is actually my favorite part of the movie.)

The DVD:

Although I possess fairly mixed feelings about the film itself, MGM have done a very nice job of (finally) reissuing Yellow Submarine on home video. (Not that I blame them for the long gap in availability; as with many things Beatle, it was held up because of rights questions.) Yellow Submarine appears on a single-sided, dual-layered DVD and is shown in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

Ironically, that latter choice has inspired a bit of grousing within internet fan circles because the letterboxing masks some of the original artwork from the top and bottom of the screen. Fans have indicated that they want to see the entire frame as drawn and they've complained that tops of heads occasionally get chopped off because of the framing.

My attitude? Get over it! I find it entertaining that there's been this commotion because it usually works the other way around; people moan because movies that were filmed with the entire frame exposed are shown fullscreen; "We want the original theatrical experience!" they cry. MGM gives it to them with Yellow Submarine but they're still not happy! "We want every bit of filmed animation!" they exclaim. Relax, kids! As far as the excessive cropping claim goes, I honestly can't say that I noticed any problems in that regard. Strangely, I DID think that some shots seemed to lop off bits from the SIDES of the image. For example, one wide shot with Ringo on the left displays only half his face. Also, when the calendar is shown on the sub itself, I couldn't see the final digit on the right. I found these parts much more obtrusive than any top or bottom issues.

Anyway, all cropping debates aside, Yellow Submarine looks pretty good. I found the image to be sharp, though almost excessively so at times; on occasion the image seemed to display some artificial edge enhancements. As one would expect in such a colorful movie, the hues generally looked very strong, though I must admit I thought they would seem a little more bold. Still, I had no real complaints in that department, nor did I discover any significant grain or print flaws; both occur at times, but not to any significant degree. The only substantial problem I found with the picture stemmed from the fact that it seemed to flicker from time to time and it also occasionally seemed jittery. Despite those factors, Yellow Submarine offers a very nice viewing experience.

Where the DVD really shines, however, is in the newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This sucker's terrific! The music is easily the main beneficiary of this work. Songs actively use all five channels, which really allows the various instruments and voices to spread out within the mix. The music is also very clear and clean; these songs have simply never sounded better! Even if I hated the movie itself, this DVD is worth owning for the musical remixes, especially since the disc includes an isolated music track that's also in 5.1; as such, you can listen to all the songs without any interruption from dialogue! Yay!

The music is not the only beneficiary of this new mix. Much of the rest of the soundtrack receives a nice boost from this work. What was originally apparently a mono mix has become a full surround piece, and it spreads out the action very nicely. Sounds pan across all five channels well, with examples such as the sub itself flitting from speaker to speaker as it putters along. The quality of the audio tends to be a little flat, which isn't surprising given the age of the recordings, but it's always completely acceptable. The sound actually packs a pretty decent sonic punch, with a much greater dynamic range than I expected; no, it won't give you subwoofer a workout, but highs and lows receive good treatment. Without question, this is the best 5.1 remix I've yet heard. (For the record, the DVD also includes the original mono mix.)

One final audio note: apparently the 5.1 remix was created in DTS, not Dolby Digital. It's a shame that MGM don't seem to have plans to make a DVD or laserdisc available in that format. Granted, I honestly doubt that it would sound much better than the terrific DD track, but it'd be interesting to hear it. It'd also be wonderful if a DTS compact disc release of the soundtrack occurred, but I shan't hold my breath!

Yellow Submarine doesn't overwhelm the viewer with supplements, but it offers a few tasty extras. Most significant is the already-mentioned isolated music-only track; I know I'll give it much more use than I will the movie itself. This segment also boasts the same 5.1 audio that enlivened the film, and it sounds fantastic!

Next up is an audio commentary from production supervisor John Coates. It's a quite good track. Coates rarely makes scene-specific comments, but that's fine with me. Instead, he offers various tidbits about the production and relates anecdotes about the period and the atmosphere of the time. He manages to cover most of the film, although there are a few gaps at times. Overall, I found this to be one of the most informative and enjoyable commentaries I've heard in a while.

I do have two complaints, however. First, it sounds like they placed the microphone INSIDE Coates' mouth, because this track is NOISY!!! Clicking, clacking, and smacking - it kind of grossed me out at times. However, I did get used to it to a degree. I still didn't like it, though.

My second complaint is actually more of a question. The DVD's menu states that the commentary is from Coates with a contribution from Heinz Edelmann. To which my response is: buh? I listened to the whole thing, but unless Edelmann was the one making the clicking and smacking noises, he's nowhere to be found. Don't know what happened here...

In addition to the commentary, we see a documentary produced around the same time as the film. Mod Odyssey is a brief affair, as it lasts only seven and a half minutes, but it's fun and surprisingly informative. It also grants us a few more glimpses of the Fabs themselves on the set. Obviously a longer, more detailed documentary would be preferable, but for a featurette, Mod Odyssey is very satisfactory.

More video materials are included in the "interview" segment of the DVD. We see brief one to four minute clips from six cast and crew members; all in all, there are about eleven and a half minutes of interviews. These are modern clips and they're all pretty good. As with the period documentary, there's not much here, but the pieces are efficient enough that you gain a surprising amount of information from them in a short period of time.

The DVD features a fair amount of production art. Storyboards are represented in a number of ways. One piece shows the segment in the "Sea of Monsters." It offers a split screen comparison; storyboards are on the top half of the screen while the finished film runs on the bottom half. I'm not a big fan of storyboards, but this segment's not bad.

The next storyboard piece includes 118 of them, each in an individual frame. These are from the Battle of the Monsters segment and they predate the involvement of Heinz Edelmann; apparently they're offered to show the impact he made on the production. They serve that purpose to a degree, although the general crudeness of storyboard art makes it difficult to see THAT much of a difference.

The final storyboard part features art from an alternate ending in Pepperland. It's more interesting to me than were the other two, since it offers scenes we haven't previously witnessed.

In addition to the storyboards, another section of the Yellow Submarine DVD shows some pencil drawings and a few unused cels. I kind of liked this section, because it's fun to see the raw artwork. All in all, 29 different pieces of art are displayed.

The DVD also includes about 30 "behind the scenes" photos. These mainly feature the Beatles during a visit to the animation studios. Very nice!

Finally, the DVD offers some old standbys: a trailer (surprisingly long and interesting) and a very good eight-page booklet. The latter lists a lot of information about the film that isn't detailed elsewhere, fact that I appreciate; too many booklets simply reiterate material that we've already heard.

Ultimately, I have to recommend Yellow Submarine, but it's one of the weirdest recommendations I've ever made because I don't much care for the movie itself. Still, the DVD has a lot to offer. Fans of the picture will be happy with it, and it certainly should be a Godsend to parents tired of having to listen to Barney or Disney tunes all day. Even if they don't like the movie, Beatle fans such as myself will find the DVD to be a "must have" just because of the audio; unless they release a DTS CD of the soundtrack, the remixed 5.1 of this movie makes it a keeper. That stellar soundtrack makes for the most impressive part of this DVD, although both the image quality and the supplements add to its value. Ultimately, Yellow Submarine is a flawed movie but it's a DVD that has something to offer pretty much everyone, so there's probably a good reason why you should own it, too.

Late-breaking update: Remember back a few paragraphs when I said that Heinz Edelmann makes no appearance on the commentary? Looks like that was my typical American chauvinism rearing its ugly head. Alert reader Kenneth Brorsson from Sweden (love the meatballs!) pointed out to me that on the region 2 version, Edelmann indeed offers some comments. Mr. Brorsson relates that Edelmann is introduced at the 79:35 mark and speaks almost until the completion of the film, at which time Coates reappears and thanks us for listening.

Just in case I was flying too high on the virtual psychedelia from the film, I went back and reexamined my Yellow Submarine to ensure that I was originally correct. I was: that commentary is wall-to-wall Coates. Clearly someone at MGM screwed up the DVD and made an error in regard to the mastering of the commentary. We'll update this space if we find out any more about it.

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