Disney and Robert Zemeckis were once set to remake The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine as a 3D CG-animated movie for a 2012 release – here’s the story.

 “We all live in a yellow submarine” is not one of The Beatles’ most relatable lyrics. Nevertheless, the track ‘Yellow Submarine’ did inspire an acclaimed animated feature of the same name in 1968. When the Fab Four were looking to satisfy a three-film contract with United Artists after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, they hit upon the idea of adapting the Lennon-McCartney-authored children’s song into an animated film instead of making another live-action outing.

Yellow Submarine sees John, Paul, George, and Ringo travel to Pepperland, an underwater paradise that’s fallen under the yoke of the music-hating Blue Meanies. Designed as a film in the style of Disney’s Fantasia, the uniquely stylised film plays out in a succession of weird and wonderful setpieces accompanied by Beatles tunes, as the characters set out to restore Pepperland to all its colourful, musical glory.

The film was a modest commercial hit upon its release, but it was lauded by critics and has long been considered an animation landmark. Some 40 years after its original release, there was a brief period where Robert Zemeckis was working on revamping the film as a computer-generated 3D extravaganza.

This came on the heels of his previous performance-capture animated films of the 2000s, The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, which we’ve covered in a previous feature.

Read more: Revisiting the performance-capture animated films of Robert Zemeckis

The latter of those was the inaugural project for Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital, an animation unit set up at Disney, and the studio was also set to distribute the Yellow Submarine remake. So, what went wrong?

Return to Pepperland

A few months before A Christmas Carol hit cinemas worldwide, Disney held its first-ever D23 Expo, a biennial event for members of the studio’s official fan club, where many projects are announced or previewed. It was here that Disney confirmed it was partnering with Apple Corps Ltd, the rights holder for the Beatles’ original songs and recordings, to make Zemeckis’ Yellow Submarine.

The project was announced by Dick Cook himself, towards the end of his run as Disney chairman. In the subsequent press release, Zemeckis enthused: “Yellow Submarine is one of the greatest fantasy films of all time and making this new 3D performance capture movie is a dream come true for me.

“With the latest advances in technology, we will be able to take moviegoers on a voyage unlike any other and bring new excitement and dimension to Pepperland and the various sea worlds they encounter.”

The deal with Apple got the film over the licensing hurdle that tends to bring down smaller films about The Beatles and their songs and by the following January, development was well underway, and some casting was announced.

 

In retrospect, the most notable casting is Peter Serafinowicz as Paul McCartney, as he’d already played all four Beatles in a sketch for his (brilliant) 2007 series on BBC Two, which you can see above. But even having previously cast Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, and Gary Oldman in multiple animated roles, Zemeckis never intended to have Serafinowicz reprise all of those roles.

Rounding out the main cast were Dean Lennox Kelly as John Lennon, Cary Elwes as George Harrison, and Adam Campbell as Ringo Starr. Although the Beatles’ original vocals were to be used for the songs, Zemeckis also enlisted The Fab Four, a California-based Beatles tribute band to do some additional motion-capture work for the band’s performances.

The other casting nugget we’ve gleaned is that David Tennant auditioned to play the film’s villain, the Chief of the Blue Meanies. The aim was to get the remake in cinemas for summer 2012, riding on the anticipated wave of Anglophilia that would accompany the Summer Olympics in London.

Judging from what we’ve seen of concept art for the remake, the plan was to be faithful to the art style of the original, rather than the “uncanny-valley effect” for which previous mo-cap outings had been criticised. And so, Zemeckis was casting for vocal and physical performances, rather than likenesses.

Courtesy of The Lost Media Monsters, (a Twitter account well worth following if you’re interested in cancelled projects like this one) we recently caught a glimpse of test footage, dated July 2010, that shows what the CG version might have looked like.

“It’s All Too Much”

In the end, it didn’t take Blue Meanies to stop the project in its tracks. Cook had stepped down as chairman in late 2009, before A Christmas Carol came out. The underwhelming performance of that film would catch up with Yellow Submarine in the year that followed, with Disney announcing in March 2010 that it would shutter ImageMovers Digital after the completion of its second and final project for the studio.

That project wasn’t Yellow Submarine, but a sci-fi adventure called Mars Needs Moms. Directed by Simon Wells, the film would score a $6 million opening weekend in March 2011 on a $150-million budget. When all was said and done, the film was said to represent the biggest financial loss in Disney’s history.

Support for Zemeckis’ Beatles remake was already waning within the studio, due to concerns about budget, the oft-repeated criticism of “creepy” performance-capture visuals, and a long-delayed filmmakers’ presentation for the two surviving Beatles (and the estates of John and George) that was repeatedly postponed and eventually never happened.

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The failure of Mars Needs Moms spurred Disney to confirm it was no longer backing the remake. Whether the deal with Apple was still in place or not, the project’s turnaround status enabled Zemeckis to take Yellow Submarine to other studios, but nothing came of it.

Whether related to the remake or not, a remastered version of the original 1968 feature was ready around the same time that Disney and Zemeckis intended to bring the story to a new audience, and Yellow Submarine duly got a limited re-release in cinemas in May 2012.

Later that year, while doing the press rounds for his return to live-action filmmaking with Flight, Zemeckis told Total Film Magazine that he was no longer pursuing the remake.

He added: “That would have been a great one to bring the Beatles back to life. But it’s probably better not to be remade – you’re always behind the 8-ball when do you a remake.”

After a couple of further live-action projects in the shape of The Walk and Allied, Zemeckis has returned to performance-capture techniques, (which played a big part in 2018’s Welcome To Marwen) remakes, (with last year’s The Witches) and even Disney, (the forthcoming Pinocchio) but there’s no sign of him going back to Yellow Submarine.

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