DVD Review: G.I. Joe - The Complete Series (or, My Childhood in a Box, Part 2)
For fans of the 1980s version of G.I. Joe, 2009 must have been the greatest year since the original cartoon went off the air decades ago. There was a shockingly decent big-screen adaptation, The Rise of Cobra (which made enough money at the box office that a franchise seems likely), the even more kickass animated web series, G.I. Joe: Resolute was released on DVD, and now the entire run of the original ’80s cartoon is out on DVD in a killer box set.
I always thought it was a bit odd that Transformers got the big-screen treatment first, as it would seem considerably easier to sell mainstream audiences on a movie about an elite paramilitary unit than a film about transforming alien robots, and G.I. Joe has a deeper, richer history in American pop culture. (Clearly though, such distinctions are academic, as both properties seem to be doing just fine as Hollywood blockbusters.) But G.I. Joe’s importance to an entire generation really can’t be overestimated; every self-respecting child of the ‘80s remembers those “…and knowing is half the battle!” PSAs.
Revisiting the G.I. Joe cartoon series for this review was interesting; the show, even its earlier episodes, are actually way cartoonier and out-there than the military style would initially suggest. In retrospect (both with the help of the copious bonus materials and my own geekbrain), I now know that a big chunk of the creative team behind the show were veteran comic writers, and there’s a wacky, “what crazy adventures will the Joes find themselves in today?” sense to the episodes, particularly the latter ones, that’s very reminiscent of superhero comics of the ‘60s through the ‘80s, when creators didn’t tend to plan their stories much beyond the next few pages, let alone future issues. The Joes’ adventures and Cobra’s schemes grow increasingly bizarre as the show goes on (robots, parallel realities, plagues of killer plants, etc.), but as an adult, I can appreciate the loose, goofy vibe to the show, and the fun the creators must have had trying to top themselves. Obviously, this can go a little far into plain old silliness, which happens on more than a few occasions (at one point Destro and the Baroness try to feed Flint and Lady Jaye to a giant octopus Cobra just so happens to keep at its undersea base, the absurdity of which is never acknowledged). As more than one creator says in the extras, creating an animated show that runs five days a week is a huge undertaking – G.I. Joe was only on for two proper seasons, but runs almost 100 episodes – so the progression actually makes sense. Only in the world of G.I. Joe does Cobra’s weather-control machine seem like a quaint, almost realistic scheme to take over the world.
But more so than The Transformers, which shared many writers and producers and actors, G.I. Joe had some episodes that really seemed ahead of their time, with odd touches of irony and meta-humor. For example, in the episode called ‘The Viper is Coming,’ the Joe team keeps getting apparently threatening phone calls from a man with an accent who identifies himself only as “the Viper,” and informs them that he’s coming for them. The episode consists of the Joe team frantically trying to figure out who this Viper is, taking out a bunch of Cobra bases in an attempted pre-emptive strike, but all their work produces no more information about this Viper. At the end, when “the Viper” finally turns up and the Joe team is ready…it’s revealed that he’s actually a window-cleaner with an accent. “I am the viper,” the little old man explains when he arrives. “I’m here to vipe your vindows.” There’s also an episode called ‘Once Upon A Joe’ that is utterly bizarre (which also has a weird cartoon-within-a-cartoon subplot), with something actually called the “MacGuffin Device,” and the writers never miss an opportunity to have one of the characters refer to it by name, the result being so over-the-top and absurd that it seems like something out of a Simpsons episode. And I don’t care what anybody says, G.I. Joe was totally educational: this show taught me what DNA is, regardless of the fact that it was in the context of Dr. Mindbender’s plot to genetically engineer the ultimate Cobra leader, Serpentor (who remains as lame now as he was when I was 8). Knowing really is half the battle.
G.I. Joe’s animation is somewhat crude by today’s standards, and the show’s core premise of selling toys is fairly plain – the second season opens by introducing a slew of new Joe and Cobra characters and vehicles, a.k.a. the new line – but there’s also a clear desire to create an entertaining adventure show for kids, and as someone who spent countless hours being entertained by when I was a kid, I can verify that it remains a fun, silly adventure show. As much as revisiting G.I. Joe was purely a nostalgia thing, I can’t pretend I didn’t have a blast reliving my childhood with this ridiculously fantastic box set.
The G.I. Joe: The Complete Series might be the coolest DVD collection I’ve ever reviewed. The packaging itself is simply brilliant – it’s an ammo box that opens up to reveal a false control panel, which in turn is lifted to reveal the discs, housed in a pair of nine-disc packs, as well as an assortment of other cool extras (an awesome booklet, stickers and temporary tattoos, and, best of all, a USB flashdrive containing a G.I. Joe comic). This package is just amazing. Props to Shout! Factory. They do the little things perfectly, like using the artwork from the original toy line for the disc art, and including the original toy commercials, which gave me even more of a nostalgic rush than the show itself.
G.I. Joe also has some of the most entertaining bonus features I’ve seen. They’re all aimed at people more or less myself – grown-up fans of the show on a nostalgia kick – rather than kids, and just about everyone who’s interviewed is funny and charming and filled with amusing anecdotes about the show’s production. Even the roundtable discussion with a bunch of the show’s voice actors, which I expected to be a bore, was a riot to watch. There’s a great assortment of extras covering various aspects of the G.I. Joe brand, from a look at its evolution from a 12-inch doll in the 1950s to the smaller plastic figures I grew up playing with, to the comics (and a nice tribute to comics writer Larry Hama, who basically single-handedly came up with all the characters and the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra storyline – the entire post-1980 G.I. Joe mythology, essentially – on a lark because nobody else at Marvel was interested in writing a comic based on a line of toys), to the production of the cartoon to its enduring legacy. I know I’m biased because I’m very much the audience this collection is aimed at, but G.I. Joe: The Complete Series is one of the best DVD packages I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of the show, you can’t miss this one.
Labels: animation, DVD review, nostalgia, TV on DVD