"G.I. Joe: The Movie" – Bittersweet Sendoff for the Real American Heroes
During the mid-1980’s, Hasbro made a major splash on TV screens with The Transformers and G.I. Joe, capturing the hearts and minds (and wallets) of kids and teens everywhere who fell in love with their memorable characters and high-octane (if ultimately toothless) action. Production began on feature films for these two properties, along with a My Little Pony movie. While G.I. Joe was supposed to be finished first, production delays meant that The Transformers was finished and released first in 1986. The movie met with box office antipathy and vocal fan outrage over the death of a favorite character. The failure of Hasbro’s My Little Pony feature film earlier that year relegated G.I. Joe: The Movie to direct-to-video when that was the kiss of death for a movie, while the The Transformers fan rage also forced one plot change to G.I. Joe: The Movie as well. To wrap up the original G.I. Joe animated series, Shout! Factory has released the star-crossed G.I. Joe: The Movie to Blu-ray and DVD.
G.I. Joe: The Movie begins with a blast of an opening sequence, as the Joes repel a Cobra assault on the Statue of Liberty. While it’s a rousing and energetic sequence, it also makes even less sense than most average G.I. Joe episode plots and is a bit too overstuffed for its own good. This makes it rather like the movie itself. The plot of the movie uses the same formula that worked well for the franchise up to then: Cobra seeks some technical doodad in a bid to take over the world, G.I. Joe stops them. In the movie, that doodad is the Broadcast Energy Transmitter (BET), a device loosely based on real theories developed by Nikola Tesla to transmit power wirelessly. The similarities to earlier mini-series pretty much end there, since G.I. Joe: The Movie skips the globe-trotting MacGuffin race between the two sides that propelled the earlier mini-series. Instead, we get plot that’s part sci-fi/part James Bond involving a sinister race of serpent people from the hidden land of Cobra-La, with surprising connections to the ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world that we all know and love (to hate). Meanwhile, Cobra’s attacks take their toll on the G.I. Joe team, pulling most of the veterans off the playing field early on, leaving a handful of new recruits to save the day.
G.I. Joe: The Movie is not a great movie, even by the lowered standards one establishes when talking about the Sunbow G.I. Joe series. The plot is nearly incoherent and the action is still laughably non-lethal, but these two things never hindered G.I. Joe before and they don’t truly hinder the movie. I’ve come to realize that the show’s willingness to dance on the edges of coherence is actually a strength, not a weakness. As a child, I’d watch and enjoy the series despite occasionally exclaiming, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” As an adult, I will watch and enjoy the series because I’ll occasionally exclaim, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” and mean something completely different by it. It’s also true that G.I. Joe: The Movie has markedly better animation than the TV series ever did. Even though it’s not going to challenge the work of Disney or the Don Bluth studios at the time, there is still some very nice work on display, especially in the bizarre biomorphic designs for the denizens of Cobra-La that are paired with wonderfully gross sound design. The deeply strange and vaguely disturbing designs for the creatures of Cobra-La make it much easier to forgive the way the movie strays so far into science fiction territory. That foray into stranger territory than G.I. Joe was accustomed to also sets up a surprisingly affecting story arc for Cobra Commander, who is as shrill and annoying as ever and yet still ends up a figure that we feel pity for.
However, the movie suffers from a number of decisions that all run counter to the assets that made G.I. Joe a hit in the first place. The ensemble cast was always one of the show’s strong points, and even though the cast had grown to cumbersome proportions by the time the movie was made, it seemed that every expansion of the team (and the toyline) would produce a handful of keepers. Considering the sizable number of fan-favorites in the cast, it’s a disappointment to see them all shoved off-stage quickly to introduce still more new characters on both sides. Those hoping to see the big-screen exploits of their favorite characters are in for a major disappointment. It doesn’t help that many of these new characters are so unimpressive compared to their veteran counterparts. The basketball-themed Big Lob and the Latino MP Law and his dog Order have been justly relegated to the Joe dustbin. It would also be easier to take Lt. Falcon if he weren’t such a complete loser for so much of the movie, especially when compared to other leadership figures like Duke or Flint. I was never sold on adding the wrestler Sgt. Slaughter to the show’s cast since I’ve never felt too moved by pro wrestling, so adding his team of Renegades to the mix isn’t much of a selling point for me personally, either. The new cast of Cobra-La do much better, with the repulsive Golobulous (wonderfully voiced by the late, great Burgess Meredith) outdoing Cobra Commander and Serpentor for theatrical villainy and the largely mute Nemesis Enforcer serving nicely as Golobulous’ Oddjob.
The movie also makes the mistake of wasting time on origin stories for these new cast members. This would be more forgivable if not for the fact that there are so many new characters introduced. It was also one of the strengths of the original show that it didn’t waste much time on origin stories, therefore demonstrating how unnecessary they actually are. The movie stops dead way too often for introductions and exposition, while the original mini-series and episodes of the show succeeded by staying much more focused on the mayhem at hand instead. There is also one plot point that greatly suffers from obvious executive meddling, where a character’s death is clumsily downgraded to a “coma” through ADR voice-over work. It’s a minor thing, but its salt in the wounds on top of everything else.
Whatever the movie’s flaws, there is little to complain about in its home video presentation. Shout! Factory did an outstanding job bringing the original TV series to DVD, and that same skill is brought to bear for the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack of G.I. Joe: The Movie. The 1080p image is about as sharp and clear as you could ask for, and is also noticeably brighter than the DVD version on the same hardware. The one oddity I noticed in the transfer were occasional shimmers when the camera would pan left or right. However, I’d see the same shimmer on the DVD, but not on any of the computers I have available, suggesting that the flaw might be caused by my HDTV setup. The Blu-ray presents the movie in widescreen for the first time, as it was originally animated, but both widescreen and the original full-screen version are included on the DVD. Comparing the two (click the image at right for a screenshot comparison) reveals that the image was slightly matted for widescreen, but is also noticeably squished in full-screen. The movie doesn’t suffer in either format, but widescreen is the only format available in high-def. The commentary track by story consultant Buzz Dixon is a must-listen for Joe fans, despite its occasional lengthy dead spots. Dixon is surprisingly candid about things that work and things that don’t, and if nothing else his commentary is worth listening to for the placeholder name he says he should have used instead of “Cobra-La,” the reason why a reconnaissance team might really run a mission unarmed (as Lt. Falcon, Sgt. Slaughter, and the Renegades do), and the extended Monty Python reference that comments on a key plot twist. We also get the remaining “Knowing is Half the Battle” PSAs and an art gallery on both the DVD and the Blu-ray, and a movie script is available in PDF format on the DVD.
While it was intended as a bridge between seasons 2 and 3 of the TV show, that third season never happened, so G.I. Joe: The Movie serves as a capstone and a memorial to it instead. In either capacity, it’s probably a foregone conclusion that the dedicated fans who have already bought the G.I. Joe DVD sets are going to pick this up as well, regardless of whatever flaws a critic (and fellow fan) like me is going to say about it. If nothing else, there’s an open slot in the G.I. Joe complete series set reserved for it. If you’re not an existing fan of the franchise, I don’t think there’s anything here that’s going to change your mind. Even so, Shout! Factory has again demonstrated their bona fides as the best purveyors of cult TV on DVD, and their Blu-ray of G.I. Joe: The Movie will be sure to satisfy those pre-existing fans.