Hello, it’s Al and on this installment of Late to the Party I want to talk about the 1987 GI Joe animated feature, G.I. Joe: The Movie. Like all our Late to the Party content, I’m coming into something most geeks would consider landmark as a relative newbie! I did not watch the show growing up nor did I have many toys; in fact I have bought more GI Joe toys in the last few years on Craigslist while searching for Transformers than I did while I was a child. My knowledge of the franchise is entry level at best, so please take my thoughts on this thirty-year old film with a grain of salt.
All that being said, I must admit the opening to this film is worth the price of admission alone. A great reinterpretation of the classic GI Joe theme puts you immediately in the right mood as Cobra attacks the Statue of Liberty and a vast number of characters from both sides of the fight engage in a huge laser battle. The gunfire sprinkling the back drop with red and blue lights as explosions act as intense fireworks. It’s like watching an animated version of an old Universal/Disney stage show.
In fact, the animation is a notch above what I would have expected from a film like this at the time, and watching the reflection of the chaos off of Cobra Commander’s mask as he is punched off the statue is brilliant. It’s a spectacle to be sure, and if I were a nine year old that had been watching this show loyally for the past couple years, this would have been incredible for me. I can imagine my eyes widening and a huge grin stretching over my face as the sequence went on, imitating how I had played with my toys. The fact I can relate so well to this alternate universe version of myself really says something about how good this introduction is and about how under-medicated I probably aim. When it finished I immediately said to myself, “How are they going to able to follow that?!” sadly, the answer was that they don’t really, and I suspect it would have been very hard and expensive to have even tried.
The movie proper is about Cobra trying to get a hold of a MacGuffin device that they are going to use to destroy the world. This basic trope was so prevalent in GI Joe, that a season one episode actually had the Joe’s chaising after a literal device from McGuffin Laboratories. I’m all for sticking to what you know, but I’m not sure they really did that.
For one thing I was kind of thrown off when Cobra Commander was NOT in charge of Cobra. This dude in a golden cobra cosplay called Serpentor is the leader and the Commander is a subordinate. Reminder; I’m coming into this as a total newbie, and I need to rely on the film to catch me up. This guy is apparently so important to the organization that a character actually says that if Serpentor dies there is no Cobra. We later find out that he is some genetically engineered super-being kind of like Khan in Star Trek 2, manufactured out of the DNA of history’s greatest monsters. Even that doesn’t turn out to be true as both the construction of Serpentor and the organizing of Cobra by Cobra Commander are all the machinations of some elder snake-man-monster by the name Golobulus. The Cobra Hierarchy is consistently in flux in this film and not for the reasons it should be.
It’s not like Destro is trying to wrestle away control from Cobra Commander with bold statements of superiority, which is what 80’s cartoons considered political subterfuge. Instead it’s just a lot of, “No wait, this guy is really in charge.” kind of moments. Maybe this was all hinted at in the show before the film came out – I’m at least positive Serpentor was a thing beforehand – but it is a lot to take in when you enter the movie cold.
The Joe’s fair a bit better in this regard. The film does its best to allow appearances from a very large cast of characters while introducing new ones. One clever way it pulled this off was in the training of recruits. Older characters either were part of the training or were simply commenting on it, grounding the audience in the old guard and the new. I was immediately invested in characters like Beachhead, Duke, Shipwreck, and Gung Ho as well as the new guys like Jinx, Falcon, Mercer, and Big Lob. Though, to be honest, with the myriad of characters that we were presented with, those were all the names I could remember. Characters pass by a mile a minute and it is hard to keep track of who the heck everybody is. Thankfully, it is easy enough to just refer to them as the helicopter guy or the other other ninja guy and be good.
I actually liked the new Joe characters, especially Jinx and Big Lob. I found those two to just ooze charm. Falcon however, took some warming up to. Falcon is our protagonist in film and he is kind of an asshole. Not an enjoyable one either, as he pretty much acts like a jerk to Duke and slaps Jinx’s rear-end when she isn’t looking, which I’m pretty sure is grounds for sexual assault. A huge plot point in the film is him abandoning his post to screw around, and his negligence results in a serious attack on the base and some main characters getting hurt so bad they are mysteriously out of the rest of the film.
I get the feeling we are supposed to dislike the guy, but not this much. Falcon might have made me walk out of a lesser film, but thankfully this one does actually hold him accountable for his actions. Falcon gets a court-martial and then has to go through intensive training to essentially beat the jackass out of him. I may have never liked Falcon, but I eventually ended up rooting for him and felt for him when tragedy struck.
While Falcon was bothersome, there were other things that brought me great joy! When Sgt. Slaughter made his dramatic appearance in the film, I was suddenly able to go back to that alternate universe Al who grew up with the Joes and made sure to take my vitamins. Never a dull moment while that character graced the screen. He wasn’t the only thing to make me feel like that either; the trial of Cobra Commander was another, as was Roadblock’s attempt on Cobra-La, and the battle to keep Serpentor from stealing the BET at the hanger.
However, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times that the film became nothing but a blatant theatrical toy-commercial, and I was flip-flopping on loving and hating it. When the Havocs opened up and hover-crafts came out to shoot more lasers, I thought it was pretty awesome, but when large snowmobiles required the driver to sit exposed in a chair stuck to the roof rather than inside the damn thing, I was losing interest. Then, when Serpentor tried out his new catch phrase of screaming, “Cobra LA LA LA LA LA!” it felt kind of racist.
Speaking of Cobra-La, it had genuinely awesome aesthetic. I loved the gimmick of the underground society that avoided inorganic technology in favor of devices made from mushrooms, slimy creatures, and giant monsters. They didn’t use laser guns, they squeezed tentacle monsters to burp out poison gases. Now, that sounds nuts, but to a kid that probably would have been the coolest thing ever. My gut tells me that the powers-that-be didn’t intend to make toys from these creature-vehicles, so they allowed the designers’ imaginations go a bit wild. That is, unless Hasbro planned on releasing a giant flying bug/lizard transport that you piloted from inside its ass.
The animation was feature-film quality for its time, and even if it never got as stylish as that intro, I never felt like they were holding out me. The soundtrack, left a lot to be desired though. I know it isn’t really fair to compare, but The Transformers had a legendary soundtrack that elevated the film as a whole, and GI Joe just does not have that factor going for it. That’s a tragedy in my opinion, as laser gun fights and 80’s hair-metal are the perfect power-couple.
Speaking of The Transformers movie, there were some serious punches pulled in this film, due in part because of the reaction Transformers received. Hasbro decided to brutally murder most of the original cast in the Transformers movie, and was then shocked when children reacted with hysterical sobbing. Hoping to avoid that, they elected not to kill off certain planned members of the GI Joe team, even though it’s pretty freakin’ obvious what was supposed to go down when a guy has a hole in his chest the size of a baseball and continues to bleed out all over his loved ones. There are even lines of dialogue they didn’t change that reference character death even though a scene ago we were told they were fine. If you were to ask adult Al of his opinion he would say “let them die and drink the pathos!” but alternate universe child Al probably would have been horrified to see one of his cartoon dads die on the big screen. It’s a prime example of dammed if you did damned if you didn’t.
The most important thing to me about GI Joe is that it was fun. Music aside, character hiccups aside, and unlikable protagonist aside – I don’t think I ever stopped having fun. Knowing nothing about this franchise did not hamper my enjoyment of this film, and I was certainly never lost. There are worse ways to spend an hour and a half than screaming GO JOE! as everything on screen blows up for the fifth time. I enjoyed myself because of its well-refined simplicity and liberal use of imagination in both the mad-science and the monsters. I don’t think I will be looking into the television show anytime soon, but I will probably watch this film again. If you have even a passing interest in either the movie or the franchise, I say check it out. With its weird ascetic and over the top characters, at the very least you won’t feel compelled to turn your brain off while you’re watching it, and that’s not something a lot of action films can say.
In a way, I’m envious of this parallel dimension Al that got to grow up on jets, tanks, and army trucks – stuff I either was not interested in or could not afford growing up. I’m thankful for this peak into the possibility of what that boy would have grown up to be like. Hopefully, he would have wound-up more Duke than Falcon, but in reality was probably Shipwreck.