Whatever the fanboy-ish appeal of revisiting a 20-year-old animated series that at one point represented one of the most brilliant toy marketing strategies of all time, watching G.I. Joe, a cartoon concerned with an American Elite Strike Force’s seemingly never-ending battle with a “ruthless terrorist organization” known as Cobra, is admittedly a vaguely unsettling experience in a post 9/11 world. When the news is regularly reporting on savage bombings, the American occupation of foreign soil, and the beheadings of hostages carried out by real terrorists, one is inclined to want to close the door on the heroic fantasies of childhood. Yet G.I. Joe is exactly that, a childhood fantasy, and a cartoon produced in a more naïve time in terms of American invulnerability. The series was by no means a purely simpleminded exercise in blind patriotism and militaristic glory; G.I. Joe demonstrated at least a marginal awareness of shades of gray when it came to issues of violence and national identity, or at least as aware as a children’s program designed in large part to sell product could be. There was such a thing as character development and satire to be found in the series—see the episodes “Worlds Without End” in which one of the Joes comes to despair that there will ever be a winner in the pointless cartoon war, and the story “The Wrong Stuff” wherein Cobra takes over a communications satellite in space and tries to brainwash people with “mindless” TV programming. Of course no one ever died, with soldiers parachuting out of burning planes and leaping from exploding tanks with an alarming regularity, and again one is reminded of how many have died in an actual “War on Terror.” To the program’s credit, however, there is not much stereotyping in the traditional us-versus-them mentality of war time. With the exception of a few vaguely continental European characters and a few roguish Brits, the Cobra organization is exclusively composed of Americans, thick-witted mercenaries lead by a shrieking, unstable Commander who is continually concerned with how he is going to fund his next enterprise of global domination. In fact, one of the most noticeable things about the series is its fascination with the rules of corporate financing, an ironic fact given the program’s agenda of marketing fantasy war toys to children. All disquieting factors momentarily set aside, G.I. Joe featured impressive animation for the time, dedicated voice actors delivering solid performances and fairly sophisticated scripts for a cartoon. In the end, fans will indulge themselves while hopefully taking it all in context while everyone else won’t care much anyway, and certainly there is just as much, if not far more, to be troubled by in “legitimate” live action entertainment—as in the new series about the war on terror, The Grid—as there might be in an ultimately enjoyable, if occasionally silly, cartoon from 1985.
The 28 cartoons in this four-disc set have been sharpened, brightened, and given the full surround sound treatment, and enthusiasts must give thanks. Rhino has done a great job organizing and releasing these half-season sets of classic cartoons. Despite the occasional skipped frame, mismatched voicework, and sluggish animation, this is a crystal clear re-release, and one may find oneself enjoying these slight flaws as charming limitations wrapped up in a great big attractive bow.
The only extra to be found is an interview with two of the original show's voice actors, Mary Macdonald Lewis, who voiced the feisty Lady Jaye, and Bill Ratner, who played second-in-command warrant officer Flint. The interview is intriguing as an insight into the mostly neglected world of voice-over acting, and one is reminded of the mass of performers who made their living from giving life to a literal horde of animated characters. It's amusingly odd to hear voices so closely associated with cartoon icons coming out of the mouths of actual people. The experience leaves one hungry for more screen time for these flesh and blood "alter egos," and one can only hope that Rhino will continue including such pieces in future releases.
For fans, this is a must have, and for anyone else interested in taking a nostalgic trip back to the heady days of 1980s weekday animation.