A 40,000-year-old race of snake people resurface, and with help of Serpentor, Destro, Baroness, and Dr. Mindbender, plan to eliminate all of mankind and rebuild Cobrala. Once rulers of Earth, the Snake people were driven underground by ice-age temperatures. While in exile, they developed a plant whose spores turn ordinary men into mindless, weak animals. The key to their plan is G.I. Joe's secret project -- the Broadcast Energy Emitter (B.E.T.). Only this device generates enough heat so that the spores can mature. Humankind's very existence depends on G.I. Joe, but are they strong enough, smart enough, cunning enough to fight a warrior race with 40,000 years of experience?
"G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly-trained special missions force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."
Nostalgia is a very powerful thing. I was a child of the 1980s – and so, given that I'm a boy, it should follow that I was also a fan of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Every boy who grew up in the 1980s was, virtually without exception. G.I. Joe was the defining toy of the decade. I was 8 years-old when I was given the VAMP Jeep with Clutch figure for Christmas, and it rocked my world. G.I. Joe toys were simply the coolest things ever. They still are, in fact.
To make sure that kids got the message, the Hasbro corporation cross-promoted the property like crazy into every available medium. There were G.I. Joe coloring books, sticker albums, lunchboxes, Shrinky Dinks, Halloween costumes, and much, much more. Most importantly, the narrative mythos of the franchise was established on two fronts: a long-running Marvel comic book series written by Larry Hama, and a Sunbow cartoon series that ran in syndication every afternoon. The comic and cartoon had little to do with one another, and frequently contradicted each other. Any fan will tell you that the comic was clearly the superior of the two. Nevertheless, both were equally important to the development of the franchise, and were equally popular for their own reasons. I watched that cartoon every single day after school. As a child, G.I. Joe was my religion.
Looking back as an adult, of course the 'G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero' cartoon was little more than an animated commercial selling toys to children. Even as kids, I think we all recognized the crass commercialism of it. The show was goofy as heck, and erratically plotted at best. Because this was a program about the military, which of course must involve shooting at some point, the FCC forced the producers to make some fairly ridiculous concessions to minimize the violent content. First, no guns in the series shot bullets; they all shot lasers, which supposedly removed a level of reality from the action. Secondly, real people were never killed in the cartoon. If ever someone was shot, he or she invariably turned out to be a robot soldier or an android disguised as a human. Perhaps most absurdly, every single aircraft that was shot down had to clearly show the pilot parachuting to safety – even helicopters. Think about that one for a second. Try to picture what would happen to a real helicopter pilot who'd try to eject upwards from the cockpit into the rotor blades. Realism was not a top priority for anyone involved in the creation of this show.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, 'G.I. Joe' was enormously entertaining, pure cartoon fantasy. It was filled with likeable characters, loopy humor, and enough explosive devastation to satisfy the demands of any over-stimulated child's attention span. In fact, this half-hour daily commercial was so successful at selling plastic joy to children that it led, inevitably, to a feature film spin-off. Or was supposed to, anyway.
'G.I. Joe: The Movie' was produced in 1987 with the intention of being a theatrical feature. Unfortunately, after 'Transformers: The Movie' flopped, the studio pulled 'G.I. Joe' from its release schedule and sent it straight to TV syndication and VHS instead. To be fair, in this case, that was probably for the best. Although still filled with many of the aspects that made the cartoon popular, the animated movie is saddled with a weak concept and several poorly written new characters.
Much like the 'Transformers' film, the producers of 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' made the mistake of using the feature to focus mostly on a new batch of plastic toys (excuse me, characters), rather than the old favorites that fans came to see. Children had been delighting for years in watching the Joes trounce the evil Cobra terrorist organization. Yet here we're delivered a supposedly greater menace – an ancient race of bio-mechanical freaks called Cobra-La who want to wipe out mankind with space-borne mutant spores. This lame sci-fi premise plays out to much yawning.
Familiar Joe characters like Duke, Scarlett, and Snake Eyes are present, but largely take a back seat to an annoying group of new recruits. Front and center among these is Lt. Falcon, voiced by 'Miami Vice' star Don Johnson. As described in the official canon written by Larry Hama on the character's file card and in the comic book, Falcon is supposed to be a highly-skilled, tough-as-nails Green Beret who inspires leadership through example. The movie instead chooses to portray him as a smug playboy jerkoff whose careless attitude and bumbling incompetence get the Joes into much trouble. We're meant to believe that such an irresponsible loser could become an officer in an elite military unit solely through nepotism. Breaking canon again, the movie reveals that Falcon is Duke's younger brother. And yet, despite the fact that a lieutenant would outrank a sergeant, Falcon takes orders from Duke. How does that work?
The movie tries to give Falcon a redemptive story arc in which he learns some valuable lessons and eventually saves the day. It doesn't work. The animated version of the character is so irritating and hateful that even young kids in the audience won't buy it. Falcon is the Wheelie of the G.I. Joe universe. No one wants to see him succeed. We just want him to die.
Speaking of death, the original script for 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' featured a death scene for a major beloved character. (Spoiler alert: It's Duke. We all know that by now, right?) When the same ploy in 'Transformers: The Movie' was greeted with fan outrage, the producers immediately set to rewriting 'G.I. Joe'. An awkward last-minute overdub has an off-camera character declaring that he's fallen into a coma; later, someone else off screen announces that he's pulled through and will be just fine. Even as a kid, I knew that was a huge cop-out.
With all that said, the movie has a few good points in its favor. The budget is obviously higher here than the daily cartoon. We're treated to more elaborate action scenes than usual. (Yes, the helicopter pilots still eject to safety.) Enough of our favorite familiar characters return to move the plot along, and the simpering villainy of Cobra Commander (voiced by the incomparable Chris Latta) is deliciously campy enough to liven up just about any scene. As a feature film, 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' would probably have failed miserably. Truth be told, if taken as just another of the cartoon's frequent five-part miniseries, it gets by as middle-of-the-road. If the show has to be represented on Blu-ray by just one program, I suppose we could do worse. At least it's not as bad as the later third season of the cartoon, which switched animation houses from Sunbow to DIC, and suffered a dramatic drop-off in quality as a result.
And really, when all is said and done, how could anyone not love a movie audacious enough to open with a musical number set to military combat on the arms of the Statue of Liberty? That's just awesome.
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
'G.I. Joe: The Movie' was initially released on DVD back in 2000 by Rhino Home Video. Recently, Shout! Factory picked up the rights, and is now reissuing the film in both a standalone DVD edition and this Blu-ray + DVD 2-disc set. The DVD is authored with several annoying trailers before the main menus, but the Blu-ray fortunately has none.
Owner's of Shout! Factory's 'G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – Complete Collectors Set' DVD package should find an extra space in the footlocker packaging to make room for this movie.
When this disc was first announced, some rumors made the rounds that Shout! Factory had found a print with the original version of the movie before Duke's death scene was rewritten. Those rumors appear to have been false. Both the Blu-ray and DVD contain the cop-out revision, the same as the movie has always been distributed.
Although 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' was originally produced as a theatrical feature, the film never made it to theaters. It went straight to TV syndication and video. One side effect of this is that it has only ever been seen in a "full frame" 4:3 aspect ratio. Until now.
Much like the 'Transformers' feature, the animation cels for 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' were originally drawn with an aspect ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 1.4:1. For the proposed theatrical release, the top and bottom of the frame were to be matted to 1.85:1. Because that never happened, TV and video releases were instead transferred at 4:3 with slight cropping on the sides. The new Blu-ray and DVD present the movie for the first time in widescreen, here offered in a 16:9 ratio that will fill an HDTV screen. The Blu-ray includes only the 16:9 transfer, while the DVD has both 16:9 and 4:3 versions.
In comparison to the 4:3 version, the 16:9 transfer is cropped on the top and bottom, but also includes a sliver more picture on the sides. The framing sometimes looks a little tight, but is generally not distracting. Here are some comparison images taken from the DVD, resized to maintain a consistent scale of objects within the frame.
And here's a composite of the two transfers overlayed on top of one another, to give you a sense of how much image is gained or lost in each respective transfer.
To be honest, I think I favor the 4:3 framing in this case. The widescreen theatrical matting appears to have been an afterthought in the production. The movie was protected to make sure nothing important would be lost in widescreen, but I'm sure that everyone knew that this movie's primary life would be on TV and video. I expect that the filmmakers composed their shots with that in mind. Nonetheless, the 16:9 version is an acceptable alternative that rarely looks awkward in its own right.
In other respects, the 1080p/AVC MEPG-4 transfer is bright and colorful. Line detail is appreciably crisper in HD than the standard DVD edition. However, there's a limit to how much detail is available in the artwork itself. This disc may not showcase the most dramatic difference between SD and HD in that regard.
If anything, the HD transfer is very revealing of dirt and dust on the animation cels, most of which is embedded in the original photographic composites. Some viewers who expect a squeaky clean "through a window" picture from every HD disc may find this a disappointment. Others will appreciate that the transfer is so clear that you can actually see through to the animation cels themselves. I fall in the latter camp.
Some film grain is also apparent. (The cels were photographed on 35mm.) It appears to be properly digitized and compressed. No Digital Noise Reduction, artificial sharpening, or other electronic processing artifacts make themselves known.
In comparison, the DVD is softer, a little duller in color, and (because that disc has two transfers squeezed onto separate layers) has a lot of distracting digital compression artifacts.
Shout! Factory has encoded the movie's soundtrack in PCM 2.0 Stereo format. Yes, only stereo, not surround. When Rhino Home Video released 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' on DVD back in 2000, that studio remixed its audio into a gimmicky Dolby Digital 5.1 track with excessively loud surround channels filled with sound effects clearly meant for the front speakers. As far as that goes, I'd rather have a straight stereo track that's at least faithful to the original mix, as limited as that mix may be.
Perhaps the best thing that I can say about the audio quality is that it's never so bad that it stands out as unlistenable. Does that sound like I'm damning the disc with faint praise? Perhaps I am. But, realistically, the track is perfectly adequate, considering the source.
Here's what it boils down to: the soundtrack is thin and weak throughout. Music is dull and indistinct. Sound effects (such as the lasers) lack crispness. There's no surround activity at all, and no notable bass. The audio on the disc sounds basically the same as watching original broadcasts of the animated series through TV speakers.
In a strange way, that's kind of appropriate. The movie's sound mix has never been anything special. Viewers should temper expectations for how good this movie could ever sound.
[Note: This review has been corrected since first publication. The article originally stated that the soundtrack was encoded in Dolby Digital 2.0 format. The Blu-ray audio is in fact uncompressed PCM. I apologize for the error and any confusion this may have caused. However, I cannot upgrade the star rating for audio quality, because the disc still sounds exactly as I described it.]
Aside from one item, the Blu-ray and DVD in the set contain an identical assortment of bonus features.
Objectively speaking, 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' is – let's just be frank about it – kind of terrible. Even by the standards of the cornball cartoon series that it spun off from, the movie is pretty dumb. Even so, the cartoon and the movie were major components of my childhood. I will always cherish them, despite their flaws. I will watch 'G.I. Joe: The Movie' a hundred more times before I ever watch the execrable 'Rise of Cobra' live-action abomination ever again. At least the animated movie doesn't blasphemously destroy all of the franchise's most important characters.
As a Blu-ray release, 'G.I. Joe' has decent video, but barely adequate audio. The commentary track is entertaining, but the disc lacks many other notable features. While I don't imagine new viewers will find much of interest here, fans will find it a worthwhile purchase.
This I command!