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Yellow Submarine

at the Beacon Hill

By Tim Hunter

AMIDST the plastic flora and fauna of Disneyland, a small and inconspicuous pavilion called The Art of Animation offers interesting lessons in cartoon esthetics. The literal nature of Disney's imagination extended past content into form, and the realistic movement in his animation enabled him to apply classical film technique to the product of his studio. The Disneyland display, a series of museum pieces and classic film technique to the product of his studio. The Disneyland display, a series of museum pieces and classic frame blow-ups, led to a projected sequence from one of the full-length cartoons--Sleeping Beauty when this reviewer saw it. The Prince was hacking his way through the Enchanted Forest in a sequence edited according to the dictates of formal montage: establishing full shots followed by closer angles, each shot conencted by continuity of movement. The style differed from ordinary live-action narrative only in its being a drawn image and in its evocatve distortions of color. Disney's realism remains a basic standard for the representational cartoon. Without detracting from the simplified stylization of UPA (Mr. Magoo), the Hubleys (Moonbirds), or Derek Lamb (whose unforgettable Great Toy Robbery is a classic of the genre), Disney's merging of animation and classical photographic montage is still, by default, the most completely satisfying esthetic in the field of animated narrative.

Yellow Submarine, a good cartoon not to be confused either with The Road Runner or Joyce's Ulysses, offers nothing in the way of stylistic innovation. Although advance publicity had promised something more inventive, it doesn't much matter. Working against tough obstacles--among them a foreknowledge that the songs would be 11/2-years-old before the movie's opening--director George Dunning, designer Heinz Edelmann, and a gaggle of writers have turned out an opulent, occasionally mind-bending piece of literate whimsy which must be largely reckoned a success.

A simplistic story line, the Beatles' submarine odyssey to Pepperland to musically liberate its inhabitants from the vicious Blue Meanies, serves as an excuse for a collection of visual gags and ideas, and occasionally proves surprisingly moving. The elaborately wrought screenply tends towards puns, but pleasant intellectual exercises on the subject of relativity, time, consumer products, and love are guaranteed to satisfy both your serious Beatlephile and your precocious child. What is good about Yellow Submarine--from the epic literary tradition in which it can be placed, to the immediate impact of the color and the music--is obviously good: you need only sit back and indulge in the sensual gluttony the film invites. But Yellow Submarine doesn't all work and what's wrong is perhaps more elusive.

Yellow Submarine exists in stylistic limbo. Edelmann's designs are too artistically eclectic, his figures too difficult to animate, to enable an attempt at the fluid control of the Disney method. At the same time, a compromise had to be reached since the stark backgrounds and limited movement of UPA or Hanna-Barbera (Yogi Bear) lack power and potential for complete realization of its creator's imaginative ideas. A strange animal resulted: stylistic form is almost non-existent, the movement of the cartoon figures is executed competently but no better, editing is largely unoriginal, and Edelmann's drawings--the frame content--consequently become everything.

HERE YOU have to give Edelmann points: the subtle coloring works consistently well, and most of the malevolents (Blue Meanies and denizens of the Sea of Monsters) are top-notch cartoon creations. An evil-grinning feline called a Butterfly Stomper provides a hysterical 30 seconds of irrelevant wickedness; a flying glove proves a wonderfully Kafkasque weapon, and an anteater-cum-dinosaur happily devours everything in sight (including the frame background) by drawing it into his vacuum-cleaner snout. "So long, sucker," yells a Beatle as they escape. Nonetheless, the eclecticism of Edelmann's drawings disturbs as much as it captivates. The difficulty begins when it becomes hard to reconcile the different effects of Warhol-like silkscreen backgrounds, Vanderbeek photomontage, familiar comic strip characters, and Pepperland's Picasso thorny shrubs.

The overall design effect is not, as the Beatles have implied in interviews, the brilliance of Edelmann's concoctions, but the pervasive atmophere of warmed-over Milton Glaser. His Signet Shakespeare cover figures, Eye Magazine poster art, and advertising lay-out landscapes abound with stifling frequency, serving as the film's only visual leveller. The film purports to be innovative but is in reality a digest of today's kickiest commercial art on sale in various and provocative forms.

Sharing one of Disney's weaker traits, the Beatle cartoon shows a depressing proclivity toward the literal. The scriptwriters' labored commentary is too often illustrated by the artist-animator, rarely complemented; most irritating, some of the Beatles' best songs are taken completely at face value rather than interpreted. Thus, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is accompanied by diamond-studded women standing on stars, Eleanor Rigby juxtaposed with silkscreened photographs of lonely people. Paradoxically, Yellow Submarine's best moments come during the literal Lucy In The Sky number, when Edelmann treats his audience to contour line drawings filled with rapidly changing roughly blocked masses of color. It is as if Charles Dana Gibson's awesome drawings were suddenly--gloriously--psychedelicized, and it works like crazy.

But what you think of Yellow Submarine ultimately depends on how you like your Beatles served up. A Hard Day's Night and Help! succeeded in part because of Richard Lester's careful, if striking, contrasts between the Beatles, the world, and the dramatic action of the plot. The cartoon Beatles--their voices strangely unrecognizable--are, by virtue of being drawn by the artist who drew the backgrounds, homogenized into the whole, unable to impose their familiarly irreverent personalities or make believable the ad-libbed observations the writers have given them to mouth.

And if we take the Beatles seriously, we should at least face a possibility that the kind of animation we want to see accompanying their songs resembles the best of Vanderbeek or Lamb or the pure and magnificent computer art recorded with increasing frequency on film--not necessarily the ravishing Alice in Nighttown that this vast assortment of writers, animators, and artists are offering us currently at the Beacon Hill.

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