Back in October of 2003, when I was still gainfully employed as a writer at Toyfare magazine, I was given the following assignment: using my vast and shameful knowledge of things both Transformer and GI Joe, I was to write an article, using a series of pre-determined questions and criteria, pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then as grown men and women. I can’t say I went into the article without some degree of personal bias. I had a huge GI Joe collection when I was in middle school. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because collecting GI Joe figures was a lot easier on a lawn mowing allowance than collecting the much pricier Transformers figures. And for a kid with a big, wooded back yard, the potential play value of GI Joe was considerably more substantial — and yes, I was eleven years old; I played with my GI Joes.
Hell, I did more than play with them. On occasions when my friends were not around (my friends being super-powered sexy aliens that only I could see), I’d set up epic-scale battles, using the entirety of our property: the bushes and yard in front, the unmaintained wooded area to the side, the wild woods in the back. The trees. The roof. I can’t complain about wanting for Joe figures; my parents were pretty giving on birthdays and Christmas, and I worked some odd jobs to earn toy buying money, so I had pretty much all the Joes I wanted. Thus, there were Joes and Cobras everywhere. They were repelling off the deck, digging trenches in the ditch, setting up ambushes in the trees. The garage became a hangar for Ace and his Skystriker F-14, while the pile of gravel at the end of the driveway was where Cobra would launch their Rattler. Cutter and his hovercraft floated majestically but uselessly in the inflatable kiddie pool, confident in their control of this watery domain since Copperhead’s Sting Raider didn’t actually float. Plus, even if, say, Zartan hopped on his lame little water scooter and tried to take on the hover craft, Deep Six and the SHARC were always waiting at the bottom of the pool to swoop up in a surprise attack.
On top of the toys, I also watched the cartoon and bought the comic book. My friends and I would gather before home room and eagerly discuss the unfolding adventures of Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, the Hard and Soft Masters, Zartan, and the mysterious ties that bound them all together. And who could forget the issue where Destro and Cobra Commander have to go undercover and so remove their usual disguises in favor of slightly more mundane disguises, prompting Destro to criticize Cobra Commander’s taste in attire only to be rebuked by Cobra Commander with the line, “I’m not taking fashion advice from someone who wears and open shirt and gold medallion.” Or the infamous “Viper” episode of the cartoon?
It was pretty obvious as soon as I got the assignment that I was heavily favoring GI Joe. Heck, other than the movie and something about Jazz breakdancing at some point, I could hardly even remember any episodes of the Transformers cartoon, and I’d never read the Transformers comic book at all, even when Spider-Man showed up in it to boost sales. Conversely, I read GI Joe from issue one through much of the 1980s and could still remember most everything that happened in the cartoon.
I could also, however, remember the Joes’ own cartoon movie.
The article, which evaluated each side based on things like best hero, best villain, most episodes, best comic story, coolest base, and hottest female (Baroness, natch, even though I always preferred Lady Jaye and her short hair — umm, if anyone specializes in Lady Jaye with Baroness fan art… email me… Zarana, too… where was I…), ended up being a testament to my journalistic integrity, or at least to the intervening hand of my editor, as the Transformers narrowly edged out out the Joes 11 to 9. It stung me, as a lifetime Joe fan, but I guess it did make dating a lifelong Transformers nut a bit easier. What mattered to me was that the Joes won in all the best categories. They had the hottest chick, the coolest hero (Snake Eyes), the best playset, the best comic book storyline (the Snake Eyes – Storm Shadow thing), the best cartoon storyline (the two-parter “There’s No Place Like Springfield,” where Shipwreck goes home and discovers a secret Cobra terrorist cell). Transformers succeeded largely on the merits of Starscream and the fact that the British made like 50 billion issues of the comic while the Japanese made something close to seventy-five trillion different versions of the cartoon, each one more unwatchable than the last.
Regardless of the winner between the two, though, there was no arguing with the fact that, within the realm of toys aimed at young boys in the 1980s, GI Joe and the Transformers ruled the roost. Nostalgia may try to convince you that He-Man and the Thundercats were just as popular, but that wasn’t the case. If GI Joe was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of 80s toys, and the Transformers were Stallone (after all, Stallone was less prolific than Schwarzenegger, and there were a lot more Joes around the place than Transformers, owing mostly to the complexity of engineering a new Transformers toy), then He-Man was maybe Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Thundercats were… I don’t know. Chuck Norris, maybe? Carl Weathers? Sure, they were all popular, but The Transformers and GI Joe existed on a plane far, far beyond the grasp of any of the other popular toy lines and cartoon series (which, in the 1980s, were pretty much synonymous).
There was also the sore subject of the respective movies. But first, for the benefit of people who didn’t work for or read Toyfare and doubtless don’t care one lick about the history of the GI Joe toy line, allow me to relay to you the history of the GI Joe toy line…
In 1963, a guy named Stan Weston pitched a new toy idea to Hasbro’s Don Levine: a military-themed doll for boys. The concept was novel, and not without challenges — the most obvious being that dolls were for girls. You could dress it up in fatigues, but it was still going to be a hard-sell to get boys to ask their parents to buy them a doll. a 12-inch tall doll still did little more than conjure up images of Barbie, especially since her boyfriend, Ken, had just joined the line a couple years earlier in 1961. But something about Weston’s idea stuck in Hasbro’s brain. So a series of marketing decisions were made. It wasn’t a doll. It was an “action figure.” I would be much more posable than the Barbie and Ken dolls, allowing imaginative young lads to place the figure in a variety of heroic and dangerous looking fightin’ commando stances. And although based loosely on the television show The Lieutenant, the action figure would take its name from a popular war movie of the era: GI Joe.
Hasbro ran with the idea. A version of Joe was designed to represent each of the branches of the armed forces. There were also a variety of accessories. It turned out that Hasbro’s gamble on the appetite of boys to play with a macho Barbie paid off. Sales were huge, and the figure quickly became one of the most popular toy lines of all time. Hasbro continued to tinker with the line in order to ensure that there was always something new for kids to bug their parents for on birthdays and Christmas. They even managed to successfully navigate the tricky waters of fickle tastes, sustaining the toy line for much longer than it was traditionally believed a product could entertain young boys. However, Joe wasn’t bullet-proof, and while fickle tastes and convincing boys to play with dolls were both battles fought and won, GI Joe lost ground when he tackled the changing social mores brought about by the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War.
By the late 60s, America’s taste for gung-ho military toys was on the decline. In an effort to keep the GI Joe line afoat, Hasbro began to retool the figure, casting him as retired military, now committed to a life of Johnny Quest style adventure. GI Joe’s transformation was rocky at first. The initial attempt — The Adventures of GI Joe — faltered, but by 1970 the concept had been refined into the GI Joe Action Team. It was during this incarnation that I came into my first GI Joe, who would often team up with Six Million Dollar Man action figure to steal my sister’s Barbie Corvette, which they would then take joy riding through the Barbie stuff, knocking it all over the playroom and eventually blaming the whole thing ont he mysterious “Crazy Bob.” Hey, we grew up in the country; sometimes, you had to do weird things.
This was also the incarnation that gave us many of the things for whih Joe is remembered: the “lifelike” hair that didn’t feel like any natural occurring hair on earth, the kungfu grip, and that awesome submarine playset with the giant squid. In the end, the Action Team incarnation proved more versatile and more successful than the original military version. But even that couldn’t last forever. GI Joe playsets were big ticket items, after all, something you got on special occasions rather than being able to buy with any regularity. Recession hit, belts tightened, and GI Joe and his Action Team suffered. In 1976, Hasbro retired the line.
It was a pretty spectacular run for a single toy line. Only Barbie and Hot Wheels could really compete. Had Joe vanished in 1976, never to return, it still would have been a marketing success story. But as it turned out, the old grunt and his corporate creators still had a trick up their sleeve.
In 1982, GI Joe was reintroduced to the market. This time, though, the make-over for a new generation was considerably more radical than just weird fuzzy hair and an arctic adventure playset. For starters, GI Joe wasn’t a guy; it was the codename for an entire team. The figures were scaled down from the original twelve inches to 3 3/4 inches, a size made familiar to kids by the wildly popular Star Wars toys. This meant that Hasbro could produce a lot of different toys, sometimes with only subtle variations (“that guy has a beard”), and sell them for much cheaper than a larger toy. The figures, however, were still well articulated, much more so than their counterpart Star Wars figures from Mattel, which featured stiff, unjointed arms and legs. The new GI Joes, while very different from the original, were much more fun to play with than Star Wars characters, because you could do so much more with them. Plus, Hasbro wasn’t bound by movies. Where as Star Wars figures (at least at the time) had to represent characters who appeared in the movies, GI Joe could make up any crazy shit they wanted to. Plus, the small size of the new Joes meant that playsets and vehicles were much more affordable. Here, now, was an incarnation of the action figure that wouldn’t be relegated to the ranks of special events. Any kid with an allowance could afford GI Joe figures. In a way, the endless variety, small size, and affordability made this new line less like the original GI Joe and more like Hot Wheels.
The first wave of new Joes was modest, but I remember seeing them in Ayr-way and immediately freaking out over them. Much of the outlandish character design that would become the defining feature of the product was absent from that first series, where most of the guys were just dudes in olive drab fatigues. Only three of the figures really stood out as somewhat outlandish: Flash, the guy who fired a laser cannon (the first GI Joe accessory I got) and thought that required him to wear bright red umpire’s pads; Scarlett, the chick in blue and beige aerobics wear (or something); and Snake Eyes, clad entirely in black. This conservative, realty-based (relatively speaking) approach to character design lasted for the initial wave and was quickly abandoned in favor of designing increasingly cool and/or ludicrous figures. Snake Eyes immediately proved the most popular, while poor guys like Grunt, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Zap, and Short Fuse were almost entirely forgotten in favor of a military unit that looked like it shopped at the same stores as the Village People.
Another thing that made the new line different was that, this time, GI Joe shipped with a pre-packaged enemy. So not only were us kids shelling out for the members of GI Joe themselves; we were also putting down our hard-earned money to purchase murderous terrorists like Cobra Commander, Destro, and Major Bludd. Rather than rely entirely on real-world villains, Hasbro created a sinister organization called Cobra, which was sort of like James Bond’s SPECTRE if SPECTRE had been formed by pro wrestlers. The occasional villain reflective of the real world was sprinkled in (such as the Oktober Guard), but for the most part, GI Joe didn’t want to be caught off-guard should the Russians and Americans patch things up. Cobra was lead by a masked menace named Cobra Commander, and his chief henchmen included a dude in a metal mask (Destro) and a hot chick in a tight black catsuit (The Baroness).
Hasbro also decided that there was no need to pay for a lot of advertising (though there was a lot of advertising) when you could get people to pay to be advertised to. In 1985, Hasbro launched both a cartoon series and a comic book in support of their increasingly popular new GI Joe line. The comic book, in particular, was surprisingly complex given its origin as a toy line promotional vehicle. Head writer Larry Hama, however, decided to treat the series with the same care as he would any other series. The results made the GI Joe comic book one of the most popular of the 1980s. Besides Daredevil and Amazing Spider-Man, it was the only comic my friends and I purchased with regularity, and like I said, we discussed it with the same sense of glee and excitement as people use to discuss their favorite TV series. Hama refused to be constrained by the toy tie-in origin, and the characters became increasingly complex, just as the world they inhabited continued to be fleshed out. For many young readers, the series skyrocketed to new heights of greatness with an issue called “Silent Interlude.” The concept was novel: the entire issue, focusing on Snake Eyes’ attempting to rescue Scarlett from a mysterious ninja named Storm Shadow, was told entirely without dialogue. The adventure itself was pretty run of the mill, but the last page, which revealed Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow had identical red tattoos, made us all go insane with excitement. That one page launched a long-spanning story arc that contained, in my opinion, the comic’s best stories.
The cartoon, by contrast, was unabashedly childish and silly, though we still loved it. But where as we really got involved with the comic, the cartoon was recognizable as idiotic from the get-go, even to our pre-teen eyes. That didn’t mean it wasn’t fun, mind you. But one of the things that kept us from really loving the show as much as the comic was the focus on characters we didn’t care that much about in print. In the comics, everyone loved Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, and Stalker. The cartoon seemed pre-occupied with Shipwreck and Duke. Plus, no one ever got shot. Cobra and GI Joe would stand five feet away from each other and fire off thousands of lasers, yet no one ever got hit. That was, I know, a mandate from the decency police, but compared to the comic book, where characters suffered and occasionally died, it was a big difference. But whatever. No matter how dumb the cartoon was, we still all rushed home from school to watch it.
Matching this multi-pronged strategy of promoting their product were Hasbro’s other big toy line, The Transformers, though their comic book was never as popular or well-respected (such as these things can be) as GI Joe in the United States (Japan and England were a different story). In 1986, The Transformers got a theatrically released feature film whose main purpose, it seems, was to kill off a lot of characters so that would have room to introduce a bunch of new characters whose toys we could buy. In 1987, GI Joe followed suit with its own movie, though I don’t remember it playing in the theaters near me. By this time, though, I was in high school, and my Transformers and GI Joe days were left behind when I graduated middle school in the spring of ’86. I didn’t even see Transformers: The Movie in the theater, as by then my interests had moved on to skateboarding, punk rock, and girls.
But I must have still been watching the stuff at some point, because I remember seeing GI Joe: The Movie on television. Fan reaction to the Transformers movie was mixed but generally enthusiastic. The decision to kill off everyone’s favorite robots and replace them with Judd Nelson was controversial, but folks rolled with it, more or less. These days, the movie enjoys a modicum of respect, even if most of that respect comes as a result of simple nostalgia. GI Joe: The Movie, on the other hand,was almost universally reviled when it first came out, and nostalgia has not softened opinions of it, though it does enjoy a more dubious honor that places it in the realm of “so terrible it’s great.” When working on my article for Toyfare, I went back and revisited both movies. Transformers: The Movie felt like a really good television commercial or music video. GI Joe: The Movie felt like.. well, a hilariously shitty cartoon movie.
The movie jumps right into the action, assuming that if you don’t already know who the characters are, you probably aren’t watching anyway. After an opening montage that affords the Joes an opportunity to pose majestically on the top of the Statue of Liberty (and represents the coolest part of the whole movie), the action proper picks up with Cobra Commander (voiced by the legendary Chris Latta, who also lent his trademark shriek to The Transformers‘ Starscream) and a guy named Serpentor screaming at each other. As was established in the comic and the show, Cobra Commander is constantly vying for control of his own organization against a guy named Serpentor, who was engineered from the DNA of history’s greatest conquerors to be the ultimate warrior. Cobra Commander should have known better than to trust the work of a genetic researcher who walks around shirtless and wearing a billowing purple cape, though, because it turns out that the guy (Dr. Mindbender) didn’t take into account how many of history’s greatest conquerors were insane. Thus, Serpentor emerged as something of a mixed bag, and everyone should have been clued in to his instability as soon as he started insisting on wearing a hilarious snake costume 24 hours a day.
For some reason, though, the other Cobra bigwigs (Destro and The Baroness) seem happy to throw their lot in with this psycho. I mean, Cobra Commander (who has gotten into the spirit of things by augmenting his usual outfit with a jaunty cape) is a bad leader, but he’s merely incompetent. At least he wears relatively normal clothes. Where the hell did Serpentor even get that outfit? Did Cobra just have it lying around, like the mascot outfit at a fast food restaurant. Before Serpentor claimed it as his own, it was probably worn by a new recruit whose job it was to stand on the sidewalk, handing out fliers and coupons. Actually, given Dr. Mindbender’s sartorial peculiarities, he probably had it lying around for his “furry” parties, or whatever the reptilian equivalent of a furry is. Anyway, smarting from their failure to blow up the Statue of Liberty (which, to be honest, seems like a petty mission for an organization that has spent much of its time trying to conquer the entire world), Serpentor is left to brood in his throne room when Cobra headquarters is infiltrated by a mysterious spy. She reveals herself to Serpentor as Pythona, and if nothing else, she’s as committed to the illogical extremes of the snake motif as he is. Even though they’ve never met, Serpentor pronounces her somehow familiar and so decides to follow her order to attack GI Joe and retrieve something called BET, which he would already have if he just got basic cable.
As with all Cobra offensives, this one ends with Cobra Commander shrieking “Cobra! Retreat!!!” He also manages to manipulate the situation so that a wounded Serpentor is abandoned on the battle field and captured by GI Joe, although underlings Destro and The Baroness register lukewarm protests. Rather than hopping into a bunch of gyrocopters and whizzing off like they usually did, Cobra Commander says he knows of a secret place they can go to regroup. And this is where the movie completely unhinges itself from everything established by the comic books and the TV series, dashing headlong into the arena of the batshit insane.
It turns out Pythona is a representative of an ancient race that makes its home in a tropical paradise above the Arctic Circle, called Cobra-la. Cobra Commander knows about it because, he surprise! He’s not a used car salesman with a grudge after all. He’s actually a thousands-of-years old member of the secret race whow as sent out by their poorly-named leader, Golobulus (voiced by Burgess Meredith, who i guess figured if Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles could do Transformers: The Movie…), to reconnoiter the outside world and lay the foundations for Cobra-la’s re-emergence upon the global scene. Their plan for world domination? Apparently, Golobulus doesn’t get BET, but he does get TBS, because he basically decides to use the plot from Moonraker, releasing spores that will devolve humans into their basest, reptilian state. In order to launch the spores into space, though, he needs GI Joe’s new BET energy generator. He also needs to express his disappointment with Cobra Commander by blowing some spores into the hapless Cobra founder’s face, causing the commander to begin his regression to a shrieky snakelike form.
So right here the movie starts to go wildly off the rails. Cobra isn’t really a terrorist organization; it’s an ancient race of creatures who didn’t quite understand the concept of a play on words when they named their Shangri-la Cobra-la? Seriously? And Cobra Commander is an ancient warrior member of this race? For their part in things, Destro and The Baroness seem pretty blase about the whole thing. Fans, even ones coming to the movie long after the fact and when we were far too old, were willing to accept some tinkering with the formula. After all, there had never been much continuity between the comic book and TV show anyway. But this whole Cobra-la thing? That came completely out of left field, and no one watching thought it was a very good idea. But it was hardly the last awful idea screenwriter Ron Friedman would throw into the mix.
After effectively eliminating most of Cobra’s popular characters in favor of a bunch of goofy monsters with names like Golobulus and Nemesis Enforcer (the hell???), the movie decided to do the same with the Joes themselves. Where as you might have been hoping for lots of action involving Snake Eyes and Scarlett, or hell, even Shipwreck, everyone with whom you are familiar is relegated to little more than a cameo (except for Duke, but honestly — did anyone ever really like Duke all that much?) in favor of an entirely new bunch of characters, including a ninja chick named Jinx, some Hispanic guy, a Brooklyn dude named Tunnel Rat, a tall black guy whose special commando skill seems to be that he likes basketball, and a guy named Chuckles who wears a Hawaiian shirt and has no other notable personality or professional traits.
Then there’s Falcon, who is basically just the character Flint, but voiced by Don Johnson. Falcon is supposed to be the lovable rascal, but mostly he’s just intensely annoying. Lazy, incompetent, horny, and worst of all, he gets to be a Joe because Duke is his half-brother. Oh yeah, he also comes across as a borderline rapist when he corners Jinx in a dark garage and does the ol’ “come on baby, you know you want it” routine, which was supposed to be, i don’t know. Funny, I guess, or rakishly charming. Mostly it was just creepy. Even when his dereliction of duty results in Cobra rescuing Serpentor and wounding a bunch of Joes you wish were the main character instead of Falcon, the guy is let off with barely a slap on the wrist. As far as I can tell, his offenses at this point would have justified a death sentence. And in a way, I guess they do; unfortunately, the death sentence is levied against the audience.
Falcon is sent to “the Slaughterhouse,” and any fan of GI Joe knows that means we’re about to suffer through twenty minutes of 80s icon Sgt. Slaughter yelling at stuff. Slaughter even has his own crack squadron of troublemakers, none of whom you will care about. Falcon’s “scared straight” experience is interrupted, however, when Cobra attacks again, wounds Duke, and captures the BET. It’s now up to Flacon to rise to the occasion, become a hero, and lead a ragtag bunch of new recruits and screw-ups to rescue all the characters you wish the movie was focusing on.
If the whole “relegate all the old characters to the background to make way for new ones” shtick sounds familiar, and if the “introduce a cocky young screw-up who eventually becomes the hero” thing sound familiar, it’s because you probably saw it all in the previous year’s Transformers: The Movie, which was also written by Ron Friedman. It’s basically the same movie, only GI Joe didn’t have the heart to actually kill anyone, though it does turn Cobra Commander into a snake/salamander thing that squeals, “I was once a man…a man!” But everything else is pretty much the same. Shuffle off the established characters to make way for new characters no one is all that interested in. Get rid of the main villain everyone loved and replace him with a bunch of new guys (at least The Transformers got Galvatron) no one ever asked for. Hell, most of this we could have accepted, but the endless mucking with and undoing of everything that came before the movie irritated the few people left watching GI Joe by the time the movie came out. No one wanted cobra to be a bunch of gooey snake people. We wanted them to be incompetent terrorists! And I really don’t think it was wise to replace the old “Cobra!!!” battle cry with Serpentor yelling “Cobra-lalalalalalala!”
The entire thing is a laughable mess. None of the new characters are interesting (seriously — what does Chuckles do?), so the story’s insistence on cramming them down our throat becomes tiring very quickly. As the new villain, Golobulus is ludicrous and bland, which is a bad combination. Cobra’s stock in trade was to be ludicrous and interesting. But all the major players, like I said, are shuffled off to the background in favor of this new bunch of alien monster things. The Transformers killed off a bunch of Transformers, but you know what they replaced them with? Other Transformers. Imagine if, instead, Optimus Prime and Megatron had been written out of the story and replaced by sass-talking chipmunks. For anyone who came into GI Joe: The Movie as a fan of the comic book or the cartoon — and I can’t imagine anyone but those people would bother to watch — this tremendous misfire is salvageable as anything other than an embarrassing, ill-conceived disaster. For those who watch it just because, or maybe because they just want to watch something animated, the story will probably seem more harmlessly stupid. It does have a lot of action, after all, and for someone without any investment in the movie, its weirdness will just be silly weirdness instead of a bizarre slap in the face.
Look, I know that GI Joe is silly. The cartoon was never some bastion of artistic accomplishment. Even within the realm of kids’ fare, it pretty stupid. But it did have a certain charm, obviously, and within its own universe it established certain expectations. The movie, on the other hand, is sill even within the accepted silliness of GI Joe, and on top of that, it seems to have even less regard for the cartoon than most critics and adults. Like Transformers: The Movie, it was conceived as a vehicle to make money while also clearing the shelf to make room for new toys, which would make more money. But really, both of them came too late. Although the GI Joe franchise limped into the 90s in increasingly nutty waves (Eco Warriors? Star Brigade???), no one was very interested. By 1994, the line was put on hiatus again, with sporadic releases until the dotcom boom meant that people like me, who grew up with the Real American Hero, could start reliving our childhoods again. The line was relaunched and continues to see new product, though it seems like the best days are long gone. Hasbro also resurrected the old 12-inch line, featuring both big versions of the Real American Hero characters (mostly Snake Eyes) and reissues of the original GI Joe dolls. It is unlikely that the 2009 GI Joe: Rise of Cobra live-action theatrical film will do much to revive interest in the GI Joe line. Kids have moved on, and action figures are not their primary focus anymore.
It’s fitting, I suppose, that after the movie, the GI Joe line would flounder about somewhat aimlessly. The movie was pretty aimless, a harbinger of things to come. It never seems to be able to figure out who the main characters are. Hasbro shelled out money to hire Don Johnson to voice Falcon, and I suppose he’s supposed to be the main character since it’s Don Johnson, and he’s the character who undergoes the typical “hero’s journey.” But really, he’s not that main a main character. He’s got as much screen time and I think even fewer lines than Jinx. The only character that was established in the cartoon that has a notable role in the movie is Roadblock, but even his actions are minimal. The story just jumps from character to character, not wanting to focus on the guys we know but unconfident (rightly so) in the appeal of the new characters. As such, there’s really no point at which the movie engages the viewer in any way. Maybe the part where Duke gets wounded, but compare the sort of ho-hum quality of that to the final battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, Say what you will about the Transformers movie as a whole, but that scene was well planned and executed so that fans had an actual emotional response to it other than, “Oh, brother!” GI Joe: The Movie never focuses on anything in particular, and that means even when the action is goofy enough to be entertaining, it’s still kind of not that entertaining.
The best parts — and by best, I mean the funniest — include Serpentor trying to mint that new “Cobra-lalalalalala” war cry (though he stops short of asking troops, “So, umm, what do you think? Does that work for you?”) and a scene where Joe member Beachhead is saddled with training the new recruits, who are standing in front of him and designed in such a hilariously sloppy fashion that they look like a bunch of kids who won a special visit to GI Joe headquarters for Halloween. All they lack is a talking dog, and they’d be ready to become Hanna-Barbera’s latest gang of crime-solving teenagers. I also like that when the Joes are finally confronted with Cobra Commander in his snakelike form, no one is all that fazed by it. The dude’s been shrieking at them for years now and constantly trying to blow up the world. You’d think that his arrival amongst the Joes — transformed into a meekly whimpering “I was once a man” snake thing would raise some eyebrows, but the reaction is mostly, “Huh.”
Also, I assume that after the big battle with Cobra-La wraps up, Falcon had to stand some sort of trial. Right? Right??? I mean, jeez. If you set a building on fire, you don’t get to be a hero just because you grab a hose once the fire department shows up.
The voice acting is actually pretty good. Most of the people performing in this misfire were experienced veterans. Chris Latta was, as I said, a voice acting legend, and even though what’s done do his signature character is somehow both insulting and boring, he still gives it his all, hissing “Cobra! Retreat!!!” and “I was once a man…a man!” with his trademark gusto. Don Johnson must have collected a pretty penny for voicing Falcon, and while he does OK, most of his lines are just, “What?” and “Who are you?” and “Yo Joe!” I suppose the name recognition bought them something, but other than that, I can’t think of any reason why they needed Don Johnson. I doubt it was worth the price, since while we loved GI Joe, and while we loved Miami Vice, I don’t think we kids would flock to anything that Don Johnson did just because it was Don Johnson. After all, none of us bought Heartbeat. The rest of the cast was taken largely from the show, so they knew their characters well, although most of them only got one or two lines. Burgess Meredith collects a check for voicing Golobulus, and he does a decent job as well, though he sounds a bit too old to match the character. But then, I guess I can’t really say what a part-man, part-spider, part-crab, part-spore-guy would sound like.
The production values are higher than the TV show, but not quite at the level of what you would expect from a feature film. The artwork is generally good, and while the entire concept of Cobra-la is thoroughly idiotic, it at least affords the artists a chance to draw lots of cool stuff. There’s still amateurish mistakes that betray the rushed, low budget nature of the film. For example, when Duke takes a spear to the chest, it’s drawn in a way that clearly depicts the spear being deep enough to have pierced his heart, calling for a fatality that is brushed aside in favor of the more kid-friendly “he’s in a coma.” In that same scene, once the spear is removed, Duke’s bloody wound (the first time we’ve ever seen such a thing in a GI Joe cartoon) moves from one side of his body to the other, depending on who was doing the drawing that day. Stuff like that keeps GI Joe: The Movie feeling small-time, and ultimately, it got the distribution it deserved: direct to video, then aired as five separate episodes on broadcast TV.
All that said, the value of GI Joe: The Movie as a source of entertainment can’t be underestimated. It’s so wrong-headed, so awful, so scatterbrained, that once you get over (as a fan) the initial dismay at the havoc wreaked with your favorite characters, that the movie becomes a must-see of awful cinema. Even though Transformers: The Movie is ostensibly better, GI Joe: The Movie is the one I love more. Transformers: The Movie feels like marketing first, story a distant second. GI Joe: The Movie feels like marketing was supposed to be first, but the screenwriter had so much booze and amphetamines that the whole thing veered off into the outer limits of madness. There’s just nothing in it that is well-done, and you know that from me, that’s an endorsement. Dumb as it is, there’s still a lot of fun that can be extracted from the mess, even if it’s just in listening to a voice actor earnestly trying to make “Cobra-lalalalalalala!” sound like a menacing battle cry.