There’s a lot of G.I. Joe media available now and it’s easy to get lost on where to start or what’s even worth watching. However, many got their first taste of the real American heroes with the 1987 animated film that still shines above almost all others in the ranks. Debuting after two seasons of the Sunbow Productions run, G.I. Joe: The Movie wanted to close out that era of the show correctly by offering its fans a grown-up and higher stakes adventure, but the project ran into numerous problems and was destined to be remembered for more of Hasbro’s meddling than all the awesome action.
It was billed as the final battle between the Joes and Cobra, a conclusion to a rivalry that felt like it was waged for longer than the show had been running. The movie wasn’t the end, however, and even if it had been, this wasn’t an adventure that everyone could agree on. G.I. Joe: The Movie messes with the show’s continuity, not just by introducing new characters and making one of them Duke’s half-brother, but by drastically changing the origin of Cobra Commander and Serpentor. That last one is somewhat explained in the film, by the explanation that Golobulus implanted the idea of creating the Cobra’s current leader in Dr. Mindbender’s head, but that also feels like it undermines the character and his introduction in the series.
The crux of these changes is around a new group from Cobra-La, a mythical network of living defenses and caverns in the Himalayas. If that sounds silly, as an obvious play on Shangri-La, the name was only meant to be temporary in the early stages of production, but some higher-ups at Hasbro fell in love with it, so Cobra-La stuck. This was a civilization that was dominating Earth before that pesky little Ice Age got them down and it’s revealed that Cobra and their leaders were part of a plan to reestablish some of their power, but that has failed. Now, with the help of a new device called the B.E.T. (Broadcast Energy Transmitter) and some dangerous spores that could de-evolve most of the planet, they’re about to make another power play, unless the Joes can stop them.
This plot has a lot going on, especially as a follow-up to a long-running kids cartoon, but thankfully, a large number of the characters have already been introduced and the conflict between the two sides is well-established. The movie decides to add in an almost jarringly escalated science-fiction element though, one of a Cthulian-type threat whose home seems like something out of a nightmare. Everything from Cobra-La is alive, organic, otherworldly, and moving. We see it in their weapons, the fact that they use bugs as keys and bridges, as well as these giant creatures for transportation, and that living red carpet – it’s all beautifully gross and alien when compared to what came before.
Many of the Joes and Cobra agents get screen time – even if it’s just in the background, they did have around 84 characters total in this – but several more characters are also introduced. We have some amazing fresh additions like Golobulus, Pythona, and the man himself, Nemesis Enforcer (it’s just a badass name and he has metal wings). There are a handful of new good guys also, but a few of them can be kind of annoying, so all anyone needs to know about is Lt. Falcon, voiced by Don Johnson, and Jinx, a skilled martial artist who is believed to be bad luck and fights better blindfolded.
G.I. Joe: The Movie wasn’t just a reset for the toyline, even though it was certainly using it as a way of cycling figures in and out, but also as a point to change the battleground for a perspective third season had the series not been given to DIC Entertainment instead. There was a push for a slightly more grown-up experience for the kids that had been watching for the past several years. The beginning of the movie focuses on Cobra, the cooler characters, and shows these new soldiers being efficient and deadly. Seeing Duke get wounded in that first altercation, even if it was only a glancing blow on his arm, felt incredible and made the viewers think there was more danger involved. Watching Duke fry Serpentor after hurling him onto the dish didn’t hurt either, or seeing Tunnel Rat blast his way out of one of the Cobra-La creatures when he was swallowed. The enhanced violence added something. There’s a scene where Falcon is captured and being slap-tortured by Serpentor for information, but the hardcore part is that this new G.I. Joe recruit is just trying to hold out five more minutes, willing to sacrifice himself because he knows they’re all about to die since the Terror Drome was rigged to explode.
Most people know that G.I. Joe: The Movie actually wrote Duke’s death before the Transformers animated feature came out, but due to numerous delays, that Hasbro film came out first and used their idea, killing off Optimus Prime on the big screen. This upset parents, as the average age for the Transformers franchise then skewed a bit younger and changes had to be made to make sure there wasn’t a repeat. This resulted in a few bad lines being added in and lowered stakes, considering what the movie had tried so hard for, as well as taking some of the momentum out of Falcon’s redemption arc. Sadly, this is one of the bigger things the film is remembered for now, an act from above that certainly hurt its legacy.
G.I. Joe: The Movie features several deleted scenes, a few that were animated and then removed, but most were in the final script and cut at the last minute. One of these was Duke’s funeral, which was supposed to take place before the final battle. Even though one of the Joes’ biggest heroes was clearly pierced through the heart and goes out in a brutal and fantastic way, he’s said to be in a coma. The toy was still temporarily retired and viewers were robbed of their heart-wrenching goodbye, but the live-action films did attempt to make up for this years later by killing him off.
Not only had the film tweaked its tones and attempted to show the violence of war a bit more, but it had ramped up the sex appeal slightly too. Falcon is shown being horny through the first half of the film and even slaps Jinx on the ass when he’s ignoring his duties, only to be rewarded with a kiss at the end once the day is saved. That was going to be child’s play, however, had the original scene of Zarana changing clothes after her infiltration mission gone through. The initial storyboards had the seductive Dreadnok topless in a stylistic scene that wouldn’t have shown anything completely risqué but would have been more memorable than that one-piece bathing suit seen in the final version. That scene would have taken advantage of the PG rating, as well as the theatrical release the team believed they were getting.
Being a longer self-contained adventure also gave the opportunity for some more intertwined storytelling elements. Viewers get to see Falcon and Cobra Commander both going on trial for completely different reasons, even if each is accused of a type of failure. We see that excellent sequence of Falcon being dropped off at The Slaughterhouse and beginning his turn to becoming a better soldier, growing as a character, and finally thinking about other people than himself. At the same time, Cobra Commander is turned into a snake over time, devolved physically and mentally as he tries to guide a blind Roadblock out of Cobra-La. Soon he can only repeat the infamous line and simply slithers away, which gives a drastically different type of character growth. Finally, we see two attacks on the big Cobra base, the Terror Drome, one by Pythona, which is much more direct and efficient, and then another from Sgt. Slaughter’s team, who starts out stealthy and then leaves with a bang. This feels like another show of the differences between the two sides and a way to show the end of an era with the iconic building being destroyed.
There are so many awesome moments in the film, great characters, fun montages – like when Beachhead is training the Rawhides – and that incredible intro with the song as the two groups fight on the Statue of Liberty. The movie is simply an evolution of the cartoon, even if the story went in a wild direction. There were some odd things, like Serpentor’s Cobra-La war cry that never fails to make me laugh, Sgt. Slaughter talking about his itty bitty ditty bag, or the bad ADR and stolen Star Wars sound effects. The animation is spectacular in some parts and many of the action-heavy sequences have a solid flow to them, but not everything has aged equally with the visual presentation.
Due to Transformers and My Little Pony not performing well with their theatrical excursions, Hasbro made the call to send G.I. Joe: The Movie direct-to-video, which may have been just as big a mistake as not committing to Duke’s death scene. The film still holds up, even after a rough production and some bad calls, it’s an exciting adventure that stands on its own, but doesn’t sync up with the rest of the franchise. It tried to give the fans a better version of itself, leaving a lasting impression and a reason to still yell, “yo, Joe!”