Can a cartoon be a B-Movie? Unquestionably, as anyone who’s ever seen “Fantastic Planet” can attest to.
In the 1980s, Sunbow lucked into a trifecta of incredibly successful cartoons: The Transformers, GI Joe, and Rainbow Brite. As the popularity of all of these shows peaked, the studio hit on a clever plan: Make movie versions of all of their cartoons. This would allow them to reap massive box-office profits for roughly the same costs as making three episodes of the shows they were already making. This would also undoubtedly translate into toy sales, so, you know, ka-ching! It would also allow them to get around the strident censorship rules governing children’s TV at the time, tell a slightly more adult story, kill off a character or two, and introduce some new ones along the way. What could go wrong? All three of their successful shows began production of the movies…
GI Joe was to be the first of these movies to be released, but at the last minute, for unclear reasons, Sunbow decided to release “Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer” first in 1985. It tanked. Since The Transformers were a more popular property at the time, they decided to postpone GI Joe: The Movie and release “The Transformers: The Movie,” which would allow them to recoup their unexpected losses from the “Rainbow Brite” debacle. It tanked. Having lost their guts, GI Joe got dumped on TV as a movie, where it never really had any chance of finding much of an audience, and certainly wouldn’t make any money.
Why did this happen? Well, basically several factors: The little girls who were into Rainbow Brite were simply too young to really go to movies. The Transformers traumatized ten-year-olds across the country by killing off the beloved Optimus Prime ten minutes into the film, and keeping him dead. Throwing in profanity didn’t really endear it to parents. Following that debacle, the studio lost their nerve for ‘adultifying’ their shows, and GI Joe was pulled back some in post-post production. Duke clearly dies onscreen, but we’re told he went into a coma. A guy getting stabbed in the eye was removed. Most of the scenes of bloodshed were removed. A (rumored) nude scene with Zarana was cut, as was the phrase “Chicken Shi_t.”
That said, this is still a pretty freaky movie. We’ve got an ancient forgotten race of Lizard People who’ve got an entirely biological technology, using animals as weapons, aircraft, rockets, you name it. You’ve got a super-advanced reptile city hidden in the Himalayas called “Cobra La“. You’ve got a nightmarish plan to cause the human population of the world to degenerate into ape-zombie things so the reptiles can regain the world. You’ve got angels with big Nietschian elbow-blades whupping up on the good guys. You’ve got Burgess Meredith. You’ve got some overly sexy bald chick with a topknot who sounds like Ertha Kit, but isn’t. You’ve got a blatant ripoff of Larry Niven’s Stage Trees. Most impressively you’ve got a really disturbing origin story for Cobra Commander.
Turns out he’s one of the ancient race of reptiles. A young nobleman (Noblelizard?) and scientist who’s disfigured in a lab experiment. The mask is to hide his nature and his deformity (Hint: More eyes than standard. A lot more.) He was sent out into the world to build an army to subjugate the humans, but, of course, he’s still a bit of a schlub, so obviously “Plan A” isn’t going to work too well. As punishment for his repeated and frequently hilarious failures, he’s exposed to the very same degenerative mutation spores the Cobra-La folk intend to loose on humanity, and he begins to degenerate into the ultimate ancestral form of his species: Snakes. He gradually turns into a huge python-sized cobra with way the heck to many eyes. Initially he wraps himself around Roadblock - who’s blind - and gives him directions to get them both out of a bad scrape, but as his mind begins to go, he gets less and less lucid until pretty much all he can do is chant “I was once a man” over and over again. Eventually he’s just an animal (Still chanting “Once a man once a man once a man”) and he’s got this giant cobra-head with like ten eyes and these tiny little chicken arms flailing around fighting Roadblock while he crushes him with his tail.
It is frankly very disturbing. Exactly the kind of thing that would really freak out a little kid.
The animation is, in general, much, much better than we ever saw on the TV show, with a literally beautiful opening sequence in which Cobra launches an all-out attack on the Statue of Liberty during its rededication ceremony in 1987. That’s just gorgeous by the standards of the time, and you really can’t go wrong with ground forces, planes, a flying helicopter, and a whole bunch of people flying around in jetpacks fighting each other around a national monument, now can you? Style, baby, style! The only thing that sullies it is the terrible theme song.
Heck, just watch it for yourself, but do it with the sound turned down
There’s some typical sloppiness, of course, but the animation is way more consistent - and pleasing - than the Transformers movie. In particular, there’s some really really good use of shadows in the “Attacking the Terrordrome” sequence. The plot is amazingly over the top, but it mostly makes sense, and man oh man oh man, you really have to give them credit for not playing it safe. I mean, the movie is just freakin’ weird, even if it was censored and softened a bit before it was released. It would have been cake to just go through the motions, but they genuinely tried to do something new, and they mostly succeeded.
Every Cobra character turns up in this movie, and very nearly every Joe character as well - the only one I’m certain is missing is Admiral Keel Haul. Every single toy for both sides is in play, too, excepting the USS Flagg aircraft character. (The Space Shuttle set didn’t come out until after the movie). Most of these don’t really get lines, of course, and the few that do get only one or two, but it’s still pretty cool if - like me - you hadn’t seen this thing in twenty years. The obvious mandate here was to advertise the heck out of the toy line, but they told a pretty darn original story in the process. Some people decry this, but it’s business. If you can work within your limits and still turn out something this strange-yet-watchable, then who cares if it’s primarily a commercial?
There’s also a surprising number of new characters introduced: The Cobra La folk: Nemesis Enforcer, Pythona, and Golobulus. Sgt. Slaughter’s Renegades - Red Dog, Mercer, and Taurus, and the Rawhides: Lt. Falcon, Jinx, Chuckles, Deep Lob, Tunnel Rat, and Law (With his dog, Order). Though the whole team is here, and Duke, General Hawk, and Roadblock are featured heavily, this is primarily the Rawhide’s show. They’re introduced as the next generation of Joes. Cobra Commander comes in at a close second.
The movie was intended to take place between the second and third seasons of the TV series, but of course the financial disaster caused by three bomb movies in a row more-or-less ruined Sunbow, and they put all their remaining resources into The Transformers, though the popularity of that show never recovered. There were also problems with the licensing for the toys. Thus, even though about a half dozen episodes had been written, and some were in preproduction, the third season never happened.
Had the show continued, however, there would have been fairly major changes in the show, with Lt. Falcon taking over Dukes’ job (What with Duke being dead and all), the Rawhides and the Renegades would have apparently been the primary Joe teams, Serpentor would have headed Cobra directly, now that the Commander was gone, and the Cobra La folk may have turned up again from time to time. And there would have been a Space Shuttle. The Joes were gonna’ get their own shuttle, named the “Defiant.”
As it happens, the only one character introduced in this movie had any lasting life. Jinx, the Zatoichiesque ninja girl has turned up in all the subsequent GI Joe iterations, excepting the live action move last year.
It’s a strange film, well worth watching, if not for all the over-the-top weirdness, then for the glorious Eightiesness of it all. I mean, it’s even got disk-film cameras in it. Remember those? I didn’t!
As a closing note, after I saw this thing for the first time 23 years ago in my dorm, I wrote an incredibly long, incredibly morose, way-too-sensitive heart-on-my sleeve review of the thing and mailed it to a friend of mine who was going to film school in London at the time. I really, really, really wish I still had that. I’m sure it would be pretty funny to read it now.