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Ask any vintner and he'll tell you that age can either improve a
wine or destroy it. You don't ever know until you open the bottle.
The Beatles' classic animated feature Yellow Submarine has been aging for thirty years now, and it feels like it. While it's been sleeping, the 60s' struggle for meaning has been reduced to the advertising slogans of the 90s. With a brand new print featuring 6-track digitally enhanced DTS sound, Yellow Submarine looks and sounds better than ever. But whether or not the flavor has been enhanced is questionable. To this reviewer the film went down easier when the world seemed a lot simpler.
Can we critique a film that is in many ways the essence of a generation, without taking those earlier days into consideration? In 1968, when Yellow Submarine was first released, we were a world at war. The idea of escaping into a fantasy and away from Vietnam, racism, and political assassinations, was real and palpable. In a changed world, though, we can't be so sure that everyone who is Blue is a Meanie. Beatle John Lennon, who is the source of most of the seemingly endless supply of great puns in the film ("Is that a cyclops?" "No, it has two eyes." "Oh, then it must be a bicyclops."), did not have a happy ending. When the cartoon was over, Mark David Chapman didn't bop John Lennon on top of the head with a green piece of fruit.
Yellow Submarine is a schoolmarm, displaying the battle lines drawn in an age when they were easy to read. The topic, class, is the quintessential struggle between right and wrong, symbolized by Yes versus No ( John tips the balance at the end by adding first a 'w' to the end of the word 'No' and then a 'K' at the front). Those takers, those nay-sayers, those Blue Meanies, who won't take Yes for an answer, must be thoroughly defeated by the givers, the understanders, the kindly folks of Pepperland whose entire mantra is Just Say Yes. If there was ever a definitive statement for an entire generation, this is it. Say Yes to...Anything. 30 years later and here we are living in the backlash of that concept, in a time where Just Say No has become a catechism drilled into every one of our school children.
The film's cartooning style and the Beatles' music stand up as strongly as ever. How can anyone fault Yellow Submarine, When I'm 64, Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man, All You Need is Love, or the seldom heard but equally wonderful All Together Now? The melodies, as in all Beatles songs, are what counts, and the lyrics are wistful. These are enduring tunes from two of the greatest tunesmiths of the 20th Century. But do we feel, in 1999, the same as we did in 1969, when we hear lyrics like:
There's nothing you can know that isn't known.
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
Nowhere you can be, that isn't where you're meant to be,
We're not so sure anymore. We are sorry to report this film makes us feel
a little bit like that hole in Ringo's pocket, with which he manages to diffuse the last
Blue Meanie. We'd like to believe it's that easy. It may be true that all we need is love,
but even love itself is never that easy. Nothing is.
So Yellow Submarine is now thirty years old, and we're thirty years older. I'm not sure we want to go where it's taking us anymore. But the new digital print is a pleasure to see, and a joy to hear. We are delighted to inhale the bouquet of a lost age, as it pours from this lovingly restored bottle.