When I originally pitched a review of G.I. Joe: The Movie to my editors at Cinematical, I admit I had a certain amount of snark in mind when contemplating and comparing the 1987 animated film to its 2009 live-action counterpart. Admittedly, I liked Stephen Sommers' film if for no other reason than its effectiveness in transporting me back to a 12-year-old mindset, but the truth is that although I'm some 22 years older, I really was a fan of the series at that age, and it didn't compare.
But the interesting thing I discovered is that neither of these cinematic iterations is any more or less preposterous than the other, nor more or less dramatically credible. In fact, the only difference is that one literally is a cartoon, while the other aspires to the thrilling heights of incredulity of its predecessor. In which case, G.I. Joe: The Movie is essential viewing for any fan young or old of the series, and this new Blu-ray offers presentation so remarkable that it almost preserves all of those affectionate childhood memories.
To my knowledge, this film was in fact never released in theaters, but the creators of the series nevertheless bolstered its voice cast with a couple of recognizable name actors, including Don Johnson as Lieutenant Falcon, Burgess Meredith as Golobulus, and Sgt. Slaughter (aka Robert Remus) as Sgt. Slaughter. Following a virtuoso opening sequence that makes little sense but virtually trumps all of the rest of the action in the film, the story falls predictably into convention, following Falcon as he learns the value of being responsible while COBRA's new leader Golobulus conspires to reduce the populations of Earth to mindless beasts. In between sparring sessions between these warring factions, COBRA receives an origin story and the series' greatest hero, G.I. Joe's o.g. leader Duke, suffers a life-threatening injury on the battlefield.
According to story consultant Buzz Dixon, who provides an interesting but not altogether lively commentary track, the creators of the toy line and cartoon series were woefully unfamiliar with military procedure, and he was brought on in part to provide some semblance of authenticity. God only knows what in this film was actually accurate militarily, but that's hardly a problem when the biggest part of the show's appeal was its variety rather than uniformity of characters. Unfortunately, the plot and characters succumbed to the same inevitable decision-making that befell almost all toy lines with any longevity – namely, that in lieu of mining an existing mythology, Dixon, writer Ron Friedman and co. would create an entirely new and mostly sucky one.
The Transformers were the worst sufferers of this phenomenon, because the toy designers abandoned the idea that robots could transform into recognizable vehicles and just made ones up that suited their ideas. (It's why there were Beast Wars and non-vehicle crap like that, not to mention countless characters who changed into futuristic or otherwise unrealistic vehicles.) In G.I. Joe, by the third or fourth generation of toy lines, the designers had pretty much exhausted all corners of the military world, creating marines, air force characters, naval officers, and army soldiers, as well as a cornucopia of specialists who had connections to the military that ranged from "duh" to dubious. The answer to this was to create a race of prehistoric superbeings known as the Cobra-La, three of whose members would essentially provide the backbone for the film's plot.
While most 12-year-olds would be hard-pressed to point out what they did and didn't like between generations, as a grown-up it seems obvious that the problem with creating this mythic new landscape is that it eliminated even the pretense of realism, or attainable heroism, for viewers who wanted to identify with the characters. Despite the filmmakers' best efforts to provide a sound historical backdrop for the Cobra-La's existence, the characters' abilities and ambitions fell into the realm of pure fantasy, and took longtime fans further and further away from the reality- and science-based storytelling the writers employed on individual episodes.
Admittedly, such analysis probably misses the point of a movie based on a cartoon based on a line of toys, and it should be noted that I'm not really criticizing G.I. Joe: The Movie for being too unrealistic. But much like Transformers: The Movie ushered in the epoch of Galvatron and a bunch of quasi-futuristic cars and planes that looked more like transformed robots than, well, robots in disguise, this was the turning point for G.I. Joe to go into that world of pure fantasy and, quite possibly, advance towards its "jump the shark" moment.
I do think that the film looks a lot more polished than most of the episodes, thanks to a beefed-up production budget, and the action moves along at a brisk and engaging pace. Again, I don't think anything beats the opening sequence – which Dixon revealed was, ironically, a late addition – but in terms of giving fans exotic locales, a variety of action set pieces and some character beats that dovetail into one another surprisingly well, G.I. Joe: The Movie delivers like gangbusters.
For example, the film is probably the first time in the history of the series that audiences could sympathize with Cobra Commander. Certainly he could be annoying but there was a certain charm to his complete and total cluelessness, and here he finally pays the price for that incompetence – and we sort of share the tragedy of him being transformed into a slithering snake, losing his mind and disappearing forever. (Even Destro and The Baroness together could not match Cobra Commander as a suitably monomaniacal leader for the Joes' biggest foes.) Even the patheticness of his deterioration feels sort of right for the character, since we watch him fail even at being a man by the end of the film.
The Blu-ray does a spectacular job of preserving the image quality, color, and vividness of the movie, although I'm not really sure which is the correct aspect ratio for the film: the Blu-ray's 1.78:1, or the DVD's 1.33:1. There's a big part of me that hopes this is the first time ever that the sides of the original frame are visible, and it actually makes sense given that the film was only ever shown on video and pre-widescreen television. But the basic 2.0 stereo soundtrack gives the film some extra dimensionality, so to speak, and overall this is precisely the treatment that Transformers fans will want and expect for The Movie when it finally debuts in high definition.
Additionally, the commentary provides a few extra insights about the creation of the film, some PSAs reveal that knowing is half the battle, and the Blu-ray set comes with a standard-definition disc that includes a printable script. But the real attraction here is the movie presented in high definition, and revived in an entirely new, post-live-action context, because it celebrates and showcases the silliness not only that was integral to the success of the original show, but which enables the franchise to flourish some two and a half decades later. That said, of course, if you weren't a fan then I suspect you won't be one now. But as an adventure every bit as rich and rewarding as the ridiculous entertainment that was released last summer, G.I. Joe: The Movie is pretty great.