Intended to take the songs of the Beatles into the medium of animation — and to cash in on the 1960s’ greatest and most profitable pop phenomenon — Yellow Submarine somehow found a sense of humor and sophistication worthy of the Fab Four. To translate the group’s groovy, borderline-psychedelic spirit to pictures, Canadian animator George Dunning assembled a writing team that included Erich Segal, soon to be famous as the author of Love Story, and Roger McGough, Britain’s foremost punster poet. They came up with a free-form, mostly underwater narrative that sent the lads (voiced by soundalikes) swimming backward and forward through the Sea of Time, getting lost in the Sea of Nothing and fighting a vacuum-cleaner beast in the Sea of Monsters, all while fighting off the evil Blue Meanies on their trip to Pepperland.
Some sequences were their own short films (Charles Jenkins created the poignant “Eleanor Rigby” segment), but the thing held together thanks to the hallucinatory opulence of Heinz Edelmann’s design. A G-rated head trip, the movie appealed to kids, their stoned older siblings and their hip parents. As A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had invigorated live-action film a few years before, so Yellow Submarine proved that the Disney style wasn’t the only way for animated features, and the film’s financial success made possible rougher fantasias such as Fantastic Planet (1973) and Heavy Metal (1981). Could the movie, so indelibly a part of its era, speak to ours? Robert Zemeckis thought so: he planned a 3-D version for release in 2012. But after the box-office failure of his animated Mars Needs Moms, his sponsoring studio — Disney — killed the project.