Monday, March 31, 2014

Beatlesmiscellania - The Beatles cartoon series

Quite probably the earliest version of parody (on film anyway) for the Beatles was this cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings in America from 1965 to 1969.  It was the very first cartoon series to ever be based on real people, and it's clearly not meant to be an accurate portrayal, both in that the Beatles are largely caricatures of the real thing and the situations far too out there to ever be based on anything in real life.  They also didn't even try to pick voice actors who could sound like the Beatles, which is a little confusing considering that each episode has a total of four Beatles songs incorporated into them.

Paul Frees voiced both John and George.  John has no trace of an English accent at all, and has a voice very similar to one I know I heard Frees portray in various Rankin/Bass stop motion animated specials.  George's voice has a bit of an Irish lilt to it.  I'm not sure if that was chosen because George's mother is Irish, or if that was just some kind of strange coincidence.  Paul and Ringo are voiced by Lance Percival who has the bonus of actually being English.  He gives Ringo the scouse accent that you most commonly hear people do these days when mimicking the Beatles, though Paul's accent is very slight by comparison.

As far as personalities, John is presented as the leader and at least once referred to as the brain of the Beatles, whereas poor Ringo is the brainless one.  Paul and George tend to shift a little depending on what's going on.  George doesn't seem to be necessarily "quiet" and Paul is never referred to as the "cute one."  He does develop a strange kind of skepticism as the show goes on, strongly arguing that everything in Hollywood is fake and that he doesn't believe Robin Hood was a real person.  I don't know if that was based on anything Paul once said that has now been forgotten, or if they just needed a role for him and chose that.

As I mentioned, most of the situations the Beatles find themselves in are quite bizarre.  The very first episode finds them in Transylvania trying to rehearse, and having to head to what they believe is a deserted castle to do so.  The place is full of monsters, but it's all okay as the monsters love the music and dance along.  These Beatles also have far more free time than the real ones did, as a lot of times they seem to just be traveling the world going on adventures rather than playing shows.  They also exist in a strange limbo where they are broke but also have to pay a lot of money to the taxman.  Basically, whatever the short needs at the time, that's what they are.

Each episode contains two shorts named after Beatles songs, as well as two singalong songs included in the middle.  The singalongs are usually very minimalist animation or even a sequence of still frames with the lyrics included.  I counted quite a few errors which tells me no one was giving them an official copy of the lyrics and it was just left to someone to transcribe them.  The singalongs also have a lead in where either Paul, George or John encourages you to join in and sing with them, while Ringo fills in for the prop man who is always out sick.  One such exchange has  John saying the next song is a ballad, so Ringo brings out a voting ballot.  When that's not acceptable to John, he comes out in a tutu saying he's ready for the ballet (pronouncing the T).  They only made a very smaller number of these lead ins to the singalongs.  In fact there were only five for season one and three used for both seasons two and three.  It can get a bit tedious when you're watching the episodes in a row.  I can't imagine it could have been much more fun as a kid on Saturday mornings.

Besides this kind of cost cutting, the animation is just very cheap in general.  Most of the Beatles performance animations are recycled episode to episode, and I saw at least one background character reappear  - he was a Spaniard when they were in Spain and a Frenchmen when they were in Paris.  Movements are minimized and any time they can have a still scroll across the screen they will do so.  However given the time period it makes sense, especially when you consider they pushed out 26 episodes for the first season.  They had to make them very quickly, and they were no doubt thinking that Beatlemania was only going to last so long.  The second and third seasons have only six episodes a piece, and do have a few updates and improvements in the animation here and there.  It's also worth noting that while their movements are repeated so often, they do look pretty accurate.  John holds his guitar high and bounces in place, George shuffles his feet back and forth, and Paul moves his bass around in his arms a lot.  Even Ringo adorably bobs his head from side to side.  Some of the later episodes even add in John playing keyboard or piano.

As far as the shorts themselves, most of them have plots as basic as the Transylvania one described above.  Others get a bit more zany, but it always results in them playing the song toward the last quarter of the short and almost always ends with Ringo uttering a goofy laugh. "Huh-huh yeah" will now be a secret in joke only to me when someone is doing something silly.  Some shorts are related to the song, and others feel like the song was shoe-horned in.  For instance, a doctor comes up with a shrinking potion and drops it in a pool to show it works.  John dives in and becomes miniature.  The other Beatles talk about how adorable he looks, and Paul decides he will belong to him, therefore leading into the song "It Won't Be Long" (because they sing "it won't be long 'til you belong to me").  On the other hand, some do fit quite well.  For"Penny Lane" the Beatles walk the street and we witness everyone Paul is describing in the song.  And "Strawberry Fields Forever" has the Beatles stop by an orphanage and bring color back to it (in the most wonderful psychedelic way of course) when they play.

When I first started watching the cartoon, I was completely charmed.  It was all very silly, but also adorable.  The humor is witty while still being simple enough for children to understand, and of course you've got the great music thrown in.  But I quickly found I had to limit my viewing to only an episode or two in a row.  Despite having about 5 albums of material to work with when they began season one, the songs are often repeated from one episode to the next episode's singalong, or vice versa.  It wore on my attention span a little to be hearing the same songs repeatedly.  With the fewer episodes in the later seasons that is improved, but yet they also started repeating a few of the singalongs.  I'm guessing they were either pressed for time or knew they were being cancelled so didn't bother.

Apple Corps Ltd. has had the rights to this cartoon series since the 90s, but has never released it officially.  At first I thought that was unfair, but the deeper I got into the series I began to understand why.  Because they travel the world a lot, most of their adventures rely on "ethnic humor" for lack of a better term.  Any time they go to a foreign country, the accents are extreme and the clothes stereotypical.  This affects plenty of European countries and even Texas (where the Wild West apparently still exists), but the absolute worst of it affects Asian,  African, and Polynesian people.  Slanty eyes and buck teeth for Asians, tribal masks and spears for Africans, etc.  While it wasn't intended to be cruel at the time it was made, these are just the kind of things we don't find acceptable anymore.  That said I don't see any reason why a collection with the more offensive episodes removed could not be released.  Remove the repetitive singalong lead ins  while you're at it and maybe just let those speak for themselves, or even have them in a separate grouping in the collection.  Each short has its own credit sequence, so it would be really easy to do.

While it's obviously a bit difficult to get your hands on, I would recommend this for both Beatles fans and fans of 1960s animation if you can find it.  Just be prepared to cringe at those offending episodes and I think you'll find something to enjoy in the rest of them.

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