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REVIEW: Two 1960s Animated Classics on Blu-ray

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by Greg Ehrbar
February 19, 2014 1:01 AM
7 Comments
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Disney's The Jungle Book (1967)

Walt Disney and The Beatles, as cultural icons, seem at first to be as distant as the Arctic and Antarctic. Perhaps that is true superficially, when simply viewing one as old school and the other as the new vision. In reality, the two are more intertwined than one might have thought, certainly as creative visionaries. Most notably, each entity released major animated features within one year of each other: The Jungle Book (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968).

Every decade brings change, but in the 1960s, change, in all its light and darkness, seemed on overdrive. As the end of the decade neared, the effect of the youth movement on entertainment was encroaching on the tried-and-true showbiz "establishment."

It was during that time Walt Disney's The Jungle Book was released. The Jungle Book was one of the most pivotal animated features in history for a number of reasons. It was the last animated feature to benefit from the personal supervision of Walt himself. Besides 101 Dalmatians, it was the most successful of Walt’s post-Sleeping Beauty features. And it sat squarely on one edge of a cultural precipice with Yellow Submarine perched on the other side.

Disney's features of the 1960s, which also include the sufficient but not earth shaking The Sword in the Stone, were produced in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty's disappointing box office results. Animation in general was on shaky ground throughout the industry, with most studios shuttering their short subject production and some heading into TV.

"After Sleeping Beauty, things were different," says Disney Legend Floyd Norman (and author of the book, The Animated Life), "there wasn’t as much money budgeted for features." Floyd witnessed this sea change in animation first hand. One of the most noticeable differences in the "new" Disney animation was the striking look of Xeroxed cels, which created a rough, sketchy look rather than the classic look of smooth, hand-inked cels.

Walt was always on board with new technology, but he was dubious about the "scratchy" Xerox look. "He disliked it very much at first, but that changed as we moved on to The Jungle Book," says Norman. "The xeroxed lines weren't as slick as hand-inked ones, but they captured the actual art of the animators' drawings."

The Disney animation team of the '60s was learning to overcome some disadvantages with ingenuity and serendipity. This was also happening across the pond at London's TVC studio, a much smaller company specializing in commercials until the hit ABC Saturday morning Beatles cartoon series became their project.

The Beatles themselves didn’t care for the TV show, which was pretty sparse even by Saturday morning standards. So they were ambivalent when Al Brodax of King Features, also producer of the Beatles cartoon (as well as the '60s Popeye, Snuffy Smith, Krazy Kat and Cool McCool shows) suggested a Beatles feature. TVC didn’t want to create a 90-minute version of the same cartoon, so in their search for a new character design for the fab four, a German art magazine yielded the work of popular European artist Heinz Edelman. It was he who came up with the character designs and became the major influence on the overall film look. The results were so explosive in the world of commercial design, the term "Yellow Submarine" became part of the vernacular, even though such designs had existed before on smaller scales.

Nevertheless, Submarine was very limited, not just in its animation, but in budget. Clever ideas solved problems and then became iconic. The "Eleanor Rigby" sequence makes use of printing and reproduction techniques of its day, but in such a vivid way that dazzled the audiences and critics. The actual sub seen in most scenes was created with linotype prints so it could be inserted on an image and appear to turn. Artistic marvels seemed to materialize from thin air due to a young, enthusiastic artistic team and the pressure of a clock that would not wait.

A young team was also adding their fresh perspective to The Jungle Book. "It was a great time to be there," recalls Floyd. "We were able to work with several of Walt's "Nine Old Men," who were very generous in showing us how they did all the artistic things we had grown up seeing in Disney movies." Budgets being what they were, some animation repeats (a waterfall, Mowgli's strolls through the jungle) but the visuals, music and story are just as strong as ever.

The Jungle Book turned out to be so successful that it rivaled Walt Disney's other recent triumph, Mary Poppins. Kiplings’ fans may have blanched about how the original book was transformed into a jazzy, lighthearted romp, but the general public didn’t care very much. The Jungle Book also hit it big on records, winning the gold for its storyteller album and fat profits for other merchandise, just based on its solid songs by the Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson, whose "Bare Necessities" was Oscar-nominated.

Like the recent hit Frozen, The Jungle Book managed to feature new songs no one had become attached to on stage or radio, yet that were instantly embraced. That’s pretty risky stuff. In this case, the Disney team did not have TVC’s advantage of starting out with pre-sold Beatles hits. It must have bee a pleasure to cherry pick songs from the Sgt. Pepper album and other Beatle records at will. Plus, the group created a few new songs for the film. Of course, simply having Beatles songs in a movie does not guarantee success, as the Bee Gees’ spectacular 1978 misfire Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band proved.

Yellow Submarine is presented by The Beatles and they sing the songs, but they do not do the voices - not because they didn’t want to, but because there schedules were crammed full as they were at their international peak as performers. They also appear briefly at the end of the feature.

The Beatles’ voices also do not appear in The Jungle Book, even though it might have happened in an alternate universe. The four vultures were conceived as Liverpudlian, mop-top types. There was talk of their participating. Depending on the account, the Beatles either said "no," or Walt said their presence would date the film. The vultures kept the hair-dos but, in a strange juxtaposition, instead sang as a barbershop quartet (dubbed by the Mellomen).

Phil Harris dominates The Jungle Book, making it the first true Disney animated "star vehicle" before Aladdin. Even though it was 1967, the "swinging'" music styles of Harris and Louis Prima don’t seem dated, since these artists were still popular at the time of the film's release. It's not Kipling, but it's kickin'.

Walt Disney was not averse to using popular music in his films. Even Snow White was done in the current style of the hit parade of its day. His "package" animated features of the '40s starred A-list recording artists. While the older generation was still getting used to The Beatles overall by the late '60s, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Walt might have eventually toyed with using contemporary music of the new generation, had he learned that it was there to stay and not a passing fad.

But the Disney Studios would probably have not done a feature like Yellow Submarine. That was the whole point. On the Submarine DVD/Blu-ray commentary, Production Supervisor John Coates makes it clear that he has the highest regard for Disney, as did his staff. He doubted that his staff could even accomplish a Disney-like feature if they wanted to. But the goal was to do something different.

Whether you like it or loathe it, you can’t deny that Yellow Submarine is still one of the most different films of all time. So is Fantasia. One cannot avoid being overwhelmed by the constant barrage of inventive images, colors and indecipherable shapes. Like Alice in Wonderland, which captured the indescribability of dreams, Yellow Submarine still baffles and astounds. It’s difficult to explain in mere words. (So is Fantasia: just what is that thing waddling down the hallway in Toccata and Fugue, anyway?)

Neither TVC nor Disney probably thought much about any kind of rivalry, but critics at the time reveled in using Submarine to diss Disney, suffering apparently a temporary amnesia about how Walt Disney took such a commanding lead in bringing sound, color, features, stereo sound and depth to the medium with Fantasia and many other films. It was no coincidence that Fantasia was packing theaters with Disney fans like me and college kids. If anything, Yellow Submarine gave a boost to Fantasia.

What made Submarine the darling of the hip and the wanna-be-hip was the music, since no animated feature had Beatles songs before. The other reason was the look, which was the "it" look in Europe that TVC caught as it was ascending the crest of its wave. The film is an art director’s dream. What was irritating about some reviews was the intent to make filmgoers and fans choose sides. Do you have to dismiss Jungle Book to like Yellow Submarine?

The cast of "Yellow Submarine" (1968)

Though Yellow Submarine was completed on time, it went over budget, leading to behind-the-scenes unpleasantness that meant there would never be additional features produced under the same circumstances. In the ensuing years, films like The Point and even Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann & Andy got inspiration from the Edelman/TVC visuals. The overall style of Yellow Submarine manifested itself most in advertising and product design. Suddenly companies like Shasta soda had funky retro looks for their animated ads. Bubbliclious turned gum chewing into an animated voyage through imagination. Perhaps more than any other entity, Sesame Street animated interstitials affectionately recaptured the Submarine feel (and seeing the "When I’m 64" sequence today, one might mistake the numeric graphics for a Sesame Street sequence.)

Coates believes that Yellow Submarine is the least dated of the Beatles’ three features because it’s an animated fantasy. He is correct in that Submarine will never cease to amaze, especially taken out of its '60s context and allowed to exist on its own terms. Its strongest attributes are its never-ending bag of visual tricks, the Beatles songs—and let’s not forget George Martin’s Snowman-like score.

But Jungle Book moves seamlessly from adventure to adventure, keeping a constant narrative thread in place. This is where The Jungle Book shines with the blend of veteran and new Disney talent. In Yellow Submarine, we wait a little too long between set pieces before we meet the beloved Boob. Though John, Paul, George and Ringo were already established as real-life people, they’re not fully fleshed out as animation characters with which the audience can identify. Overall, with its strength as a perpetual parade of staggering visuals, Yellow Submarine as a whole has the flavor of an independent animation film rather than the very mainstream Disney fare.

Both films share the power to draw in viewers no matter how many times they are watched - even decades after The Jungle Book beaming across one end of the cultural canyon and Yellow Submarine strobe-lighting at the opposite end.

So who knows? Maybe when Mowgli left the jungle for the man village, he was really on his way to Pepperland.

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More: Walt Disney

7 Comments

  • William Carroll | February 23, 2014 2:20 AMReply

    1) I believe that's a coffin waddling down the hall.
    2) Does Disney have to put that @#% Rewards star on EVERY dvd package??

  • Floyd Norman | February 21, 2014 9:15 AMReply

    Nic Kramer mentioned the "Sesame Street Countdowns." I animated some of those back in the sixties, but the styling and design work had already been done. It was very much a "Yellow Submarine" look. A cool, bold European styling that was considered very new in animation at the time.

  • Nic Kramer | February 20, 2014 5:30 PMReply

    Speaking of "Sesame Street" is it true that one of the animators of "Yellow Submarine" did the series of animated segments where a guy (Paul Frees, I believe) does the countdown of a rocket being launch which usually doesn't go well?

    It was one of the first animated segments to be made for the show (back when the show was still nameless!), although, I don't recall seeing them as a kid.

  • Tony | February 20, 2014 9:41 AMReply

    I find that both Disney and the Beatles have a similar career trajectory. Both started when their respective mediums (animated cartoons, rock and roll) were seemingly on the wane, then revitalized them with their sudden popularity; both became more artistically ambitious, capitalizing on their success rather than resting on their laurels; and both expermiented with the newest technology to create works of astounding beauty and complexity.

  • Bob Nelson | February 19, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    I got the DVD of Jungle Book 40th anniversary and it has the original Beatle-inspired version of the Vulture Song as an extra--it was great, they should have used it! Also: the British theatrical version of Yellow Submarine was finally put out on DVD and VHS in the US and it includes Hey Bulldog, which wasn't in US theatrical version...it seems of lesser quality and it was said it was done at the last minute, kind of hurried...closer to TV animation.

  • Max C. | February 19, 2014 2:52 PMReply

    I already got the Jungle Book Blu-Ray last year. Honestly, they released it over here first for some reason. Early August, to be precise.

  • RobEB | February 19, 2014 12:05 PMReply

    Nice essay and comparison of the two features, but this really was not a Blu Ray review. Makes we wonder though...Was Walt aware of the upcoming Beatles feature? How much work on Yellow Submarine was completed before Walt died? I wonder what he would have thought of it...

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