I’ve fostered a number of obsessions in my life, from The Baby-Sitters Club to The West Wing to a nice oaky chardonnay. But no obsession in my life has ever burned as bright or clean as the first: I was a five-year-old Jem superfan.
I owned every doll, every cassette, every accessory, and poster. In a sign of my parents’ love and surrender, one Christmas Santa even brought me the Jem Fashion Flash game. And so, like many book, comic, and TV-show fans before me, I greeted the news that Jem and her Holograms were bound for the big screen with a mix of excitement and trepidation. As it turns out, trepidation was the appropriate response.
Jem and the Holograms is not a terrible movie, but by being fiercely mediocre, it squanders the goodwill on which it’s depending to attract audiences. It quickly becomes clear that this Jem and the Holograms was never for me. At best, it was for a version of me that has made more productive use of her reproductive powers: a former Jem fan who would drag her 8- and 10-year-old daughters to the theater for a little nostalgia and a feel good lesson in non-conformity.
The film does pay homage to the TV show that inspired it – almost every word to the original Jem and the Holograms theme song is uttered at some point during the two hour movie – but it’s targeted toward a younger, more social media-obsessed generation. And while there’s nothing wrong with making a film for children, there are movies that do a much better job.
The story starts slowly, taking too long to establish the basic premise: Jerrica Benton, played by Aubrey Peeples, her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and her foster sisters Aja and Shana (Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau) love each other, as well as their financially unstable aunt/foster mother Bailey (Molly Ringwald). They also like music, and Jerrica is particularly talented. Kimber leaks a video of Jerrica singing an original song as “Jem”, and it starts a nationwide obsession with the mysterious Jem, which in turn leads to a recording contract offer with big deal music studio Starlight Enterprises.
This is where the fun begins, because Juliette Lewis as studio head Erica Raymond is one of the highlights of the film. Erica is clearly the villain, and thankfully, director Jon M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Step Up 2: The Streets) doesn’t bother making her even moderately likable. Lewis chews up the scenery, strutting, frowning, and insulting everyone around her, but her venomous jabs are clever, and because Jem and the Holograms is at its best when it plays with its own ridiculousness, it works pretty well.
Less effective is the sugar-sweet sentimentality oozing through the move. Good god, there is so much love and affection. The sisters love each other and solve many of their problems by breaking into harmonies. They also love Aunt Bailey, so much so camera-shy Jerrica takes on a musical career to save the house they’re about to lose. Jerrica’s dead father even loves her enough to send her on a tiny-robot-driven scavenger hunt of life lessons from beyond the grave (yes, really). By the end of the movie, you actually want someone to be more of a selfish jerk. But no one (besides Erica) is a jerk. No one is even mildly objectionable, because everyone is supposed to be accepted for who and what they are, and that message is a lot easier to sell when everyone is flawless and wonderful.
The underlying theme of identity and media in the world of Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat is the most ambitious piece of the film, and Chu goes all in. He overlays YouTube videos of musical performances over pivotal scenes in a way that is unique and kind of cool. He also uses faux video testimonials with mixed success. The testimonials featuring cameos by Alicia Keys, Chris Pratt, and Dwayne Johnson are charming, if a little forced. On the other hand, those used later in the film to illustrate how much Jem means to struggling teenagers across the world border on uncomfortable.
For all that it gets wrong, Jem gets a few things right. The style is a low-budget, but it’s fun and colorful. The bubblegum pop single “Young Blood” is a lot more fun to have stuck in your head than any of the original Jem tracks. And at the risk of veering into spoiler territory, if longtime fans stick around through the credits, they’ll see that the movie does address one of the biggest criticisms of the adaptation.
For a pre-teen audience, perhaps the music and colors will be enough. Maybe today’s tweens won’t get bored by the dead-father-scavenger-hunt plot. Maybe they won’t notice that the audiences at every one of teenage Jem’s shows are made up of adults over the age of 30. Maybe they won’t recognize the offensively cheesy dialogue or outlandish plot points, and maybe the message of finding and loving your own identity will resonate. But that seems unlikely, and it’s a little sad. There’s no reason a badass feminist pop icon like Jem couldn’t be reborn for a new generation. Next time, perhaps.