‘Jem and the Holograms’ Review | Reasonably Outrageous

The rumors are true: the Jem and the Holograms movie has about as much in common with the original cartoon as Batman Begins does with the old Adam West show. Now all we have to do is ask ourselves the question of “why.” As in, why would we even complain about that?

The TV series Jem and the Holograms was a very silly show. It all took place in a strange fantasy realm where rival girl groups could commit violent felonies against each other with no legal consequences. Our heroine had sci-fi earrings which projected photorealistic holograms of anything she could possibly imagine, and she used that ability to become famous, trick her boyfriend into cheating on her (with herself, no less) and to raise money for foster kids who probably would have been more financially comfortable if she just patented and sold the hologram technology in the first place.

So making a few changes to that story probably shouldn’t be all that offensive, and in the hands of director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D), it isn’t. Chu has stripped away most of the artifice of the series and found the heart and soul of Jem and the Holograms. And then – to his credit – he gradually ladles artifice on top of it until, by the end credits, it is essentially the same Jem all of her die hard fans know and love. 

The story opens with sisters Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) and Kimber Benton (Stefanie Scott), living with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and their foster sisters Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). It’s a musical family – the girls are forced to sing in harmony every time they bicker – but Jerrica is a shy one. It takes multiple tries, lots of makeup and a pink wig to even get her to record a single song, and under a pseudonym no less. But when she does, Kimber posts it online behind Jerrica’s back, and it goes viral.

The concept of internet stardom would probably have been more fantastical to the makers of the original Jem and the Holograms than those actual holograms. But in the new movie it becomes the whole empowering point. Like Justin Bieber before her, Jerrica – now known as “Jem” – achieves not just fame but an influential role in the lives of her young audience. And unlike Justin Bieber (with whom Chu has worked repeatedly), Jerrica emerges victorious over an ugly celebrity culture that seemingly warps the innocent into gross pop culture caricatures.

To that end, Jem’s adventures play out with a Greek chorus culled from real-life YouTube wunderkinds who provide her life with musical accompaniment and dramatic counterpoints. An impressive amateur drum battle intercuts with Jem’s negotiations with record mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), and a climactic montage of original Jem fans expressing their affection for the heroine plays out at a moment of victory of the new, live-action version. This is a film about what Jem represented, Chu seems to be saying, more than what she actually did, which wasn’t always dramatically defensible.

But of course there’s also hologram-shooting robot and a subplot that seems destined to be continued in a sequel, in which the deliciously corrupt Erica Raymond confiscates Jem’s iconic earrings and puts them in a safe. And of course those earrings must eventually be rescued in a daring heist, which really shouldn’t be daring since everyone trying to sneak into Starlight Records actually works there and could probably have just presented their badges at the front door.

Which is another way of saying don’t worry, the new Jem and the Holograms is pretty dumb too. But it’s dumb about the formal constrictions of cinematic drama, not about its themes. The plot involves Jerrica reassembling her father’s greatest invention and finding out how much he really loved her, but she also has a sister named Kimber, and Kimber doesn’t get equally involved in that mission. In fact, once her father’s final message comes through he barely mentions Kimber at all. It doesn’t make much sense, but it plays sweetly enough if you don’t think too hard about the details.

At some point, fun though this movie may be, the plot only makes about as much sense as a typical Jem episode, and you have to decide for yourself if that’s really worth complaining about. Batman Begins wasn’t ruined by the water evaporation bomb that makes no sense whatsoever, and Jem and the Holograms isn’t ruined by occasionally taking it seriously. The cast is up to the challenge – particularly Juliette Lewis, giving a camp performance for the ages – and the movie is bright and enjoyable despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws. 

This may not be the Jem we all remember from the 1980s, but as much as we all loved that version, there’s room in our hearts for this one too.

Photos: Universal Pictures

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.