Movies That Ruined My Childhood: G.I. Joe The Movie (1987).
Wait, I haven’t talked about this movie already? How the heck haven’t I talked about this movie already!?
I could have sworn that I’d already covered G.I. Joe: The Movie. Maybe it’s because we’ve covered so many other animated feature films based on toys. They were big business in the 1980’s, and many of them were pants-crappingly disturbing. While Transformers: The Movie is rightly the most famous example, what with Hasbro deciding to launch a new roster of characters by killing the old roster in lavish detail on-screen, other films had questionable ethics as well. The Care Bears dealt with demons possessing children and Rainbow Brite tackled the heat death of the universe. Cool. Well, to keep the streak alive, G.I. Joe decided to play a psychadelic game of mental warfare with its fans.
Sunday Morning Breakfast Serials.
The late 1980’s were a heady time for cartoons. Saturday morning cartoons reigned supreme, and the two hour block after school let out was loaded with animated options to entertain kids when they got home. This was also the glory days of action figures – iconic line-ups such as He-Man, Transformers, My Little Pony and Barbie all had TV shows, lunch boxes, and comic books to help move merchandise. The biggest kid on the block was undoubtedly G.I. Joe, a series of fanciful army figures complete with intricate vehicles who were opposed by the terrorist Cobra organization and their line-up of dastardly toys. It was only natural that at the height of their popularity, the Joe’s would get a feature length film.
G.I. Joe was actually supposed to lead the charge for TV adaptions turned into feature films, but Sunbow Animation ran into problems that couldn’t be fixed by simply yelling “Yo! Joe!” at the animation crew. This resulted in G.I. Joe slipping behind Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie. Both of those movies flopped pretty hard, so Sunbow cut their losses and aired the Joe film as a 5 part series and sold the full length cut on VHS. This would turn out to be a fateful decision for easily scarred tots.
G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987)
The evil organization Cobra has failed repeatedly to get the best of the Joes, and it turns out there is an authority figure higher up in the organization than Serpentor or Cobra Commander. Golobulus is the potentate of a reptilian race of warriors who live in Cobra-La (I swear to god I am not making this up) and who gave Cobra Commander his tech. When Cobra bumbles its way to the opposite of victory one final time, Golobulus takes over, demotes Cobra Commander the hard way, and unleashes a scheme to use poison to mutate all of humanity…unless the Joes can stop Cobra’s evil plan once again.
As a movie, G.I. Joe is pretty forgettable. The whole plot is essentially a television episode blown up to fill a 90 minute run-time. You get the evil scheme, the initial brazen victory of Cobra that leaves the Joe’s gobsmacked, a lucky discovery by a plucky crew member, and then the inevitable steam-rolling of Cobra by a Joe squad that previously couldn’t lick an envelope.
It’s actually a good thing this never got to theaters, because a die-hard fan like myself would have been pissed. At least the Transformers movie or Rainbow Brite had cinematic pretensions. Even at 8 years old, I would have known I was paying full price for what was normally free on Saturday.
First Symptom: Delirium.
The first problem with the Joe movie is that it creates an absolutely cockamamie backstory for Cobra Commander and his organization. The series dabbled in weird science and snake-cults when it introduced Serpentor and Dr. Mindbender, but at its roots this was still a show about war. In 1987 the term “terrorist organization” didn’t mean diddly poo to a kid, so Cobra was pretty much an army of Bond villains plus a snake motif. They were so comically inept that they inspired laughter instead of fear. That changed in the movie.
According to the movie, Cobra Commander has been a pawn of a bigger threat all along: a murderous snake cult led by reptilian creatures who live in an anti-paradise called Cobra-La. These maniacs are furious that C.C. has been such a failure and that their chosen replacement, Serpentor, has been pretty much sabotaged by him at every turn. To get their heads back in the game, they take over with a plan to mutate every living person on earth with spores from space…and then they put the screws to old Cobra Commander.
Second Symptom: Intense Pain.
The punishment of Cobra Commander is the make or break part of the movie. There’s some other questionable stuff, but this scene is where I drew the line as a kid. I’m sure some fans out there got a kick out of C.C. getting his just dessert. Those people are probably in prison right now.
The break down is as follows: Golobulus, leader of the Cobra-La, claps Cobra Commander in irons, puts on a show trial and then gives him a demotion from the human race. Yup, he makes C.C. take a big lungful of the mutating spores which causes him to shriek in pain for what seemed like forever to my young ears. After wailing like a cat with his tail slammed in a door, Cobra Ex-Commander stops…and slithers away in his new horrific snake body. Fun times.
Third Symptom: Coma.
So, if you were hoping to hold on to your Cobra Commander action figure after this movie, you were going to have to do some serious remodeling to it. Unfortunately, the thinning of the toy box did not stop there. Much like Transformers, Hasbro saw the movie as a prime opportunity to get rid of old characters who you probably had already bought in favor of making new characters you would need to run out and buy fresh. So, while G.I. Joe didn’t straight up murder many characters, lots of Joes got put on injured reserve.
While only Cobra Commander gets his pink slip on screen, it’s implied that regulars like Destro, the Baroness and Zartan have been given the boot in favor of the new Cobra-La generals. Even the rank and file goons are mostly replaced by Cobra-La soldiers. Several more notables are thrown into jail, probably never to be seen again. While that seems pretty comprehensive, the good guys got culled as well.
In the early going, we see series staples like Gung Ho, Roadblock and Bazooka all get put out of action. Not to be outdone by Optimus Prime, the Joe’s leader, Duke, has an epic confrontation with Serpentor in order to save his team’s bacon and ends up taking a snake spear to the heart. Yeah, right to the ticker. Since the show was changed to be a TV special instead of a movie, Sunbow added in a scene where Duke is shown to be in a coma…but he was supposed to die to make way for his younger brother Hawk to take over as the big chief.
Fourth Symptom: Switching over to Star Wars toys from now on.
I have to say that G.I. Joe: The Movie went a long way towards killing my enthusiasm for the toys and TV series. As was the tradition in my house, I got to play the bad guys – which, generally speaking was awesome. Sure, you usually had to buy a bunch of faceless foot-soldiers to swell your ranks, but I’d take Destro, The Shredder, or Darth Vader over any of the heroes any day. When the movie sidetracked most of the cool baddies, I checked out. The new baddies were kind of lame and freaky – and I’d already sent away 10 UPC codes to get the hooded version of Cobra Commander!
1986 saw the release of Return of the Jedi on VHS and an explosion of toys to tie in with it. Having the Joe’s aircraft career was amazing and all…but it paled in comparison to the might of an armed and fully operational Death Star (toy set). Sorry, Joe’s, I’m going over to the dark side where they treat their characters better!