Jon M. Chu's Jem and the Holograms is, ostensibly, based on the 1985 cartoon of the same name. Names, themes, and concepts are shared between the two, but the film is not an adaptation in any but the loosest sense of the word. Functionally similar to Rupert Wyatt's excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the film uses its more famous source as a launch pad for its own socio-political intent, which is, in this case, to show the dichotomy between real life and internet personas while on the surface talking about family, loyalty, and the scumminess of the recording industry.
The film is not the cartoon, and perhaps it should have used a different name, but ultimately I'm uninterested in that sort of thing. Faithfulness in adaptation can be wonderful, but there's nothing inherently wrong with taking extreme liberties. I'd still really love to see Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky's bizarre Batman reboot, with a poor, homeless Bruce Wayne being taken in by kindly auto mechanic Big Al. Danny Boyle's recent Steve Jobs film takes some large liberties with a true story for the sake of creating a compelling, thematic narrative, and I've got no problem with that (and it's a fantastic movie, go see it) so why would it bother me here? And ultimately, the film doesn't really care about millennials and their nostalgia. There are a few shout-outs (and an out of place mid-credits scene) for old fans, but this is a film aimed squarely at 8-12 year olds, and that's OK. Not everything has to cater to us 80's kids.
|This is who the movie is for.|
Reaction to the film has been intensely negative; Chu received death threats over the changes he made in spite of the fact that Jem's supposed to be about love and friendship. There's plenty of fan and studio drama at play here, but I'd rather look at what's in the film itself than spend time fretting over backlash and weird grudges from people who define their childhood and identity by the TV shows they watch. As someone with an interest in looking for value in critically panned films, Jem fascinated me as a topic. So if I haven't completely lost you yet: Let's talk about Jem: The Movie.
|Kimber and Jerrica trying on some of their aunt's old clothes, telling us everything we need to know about Aunt Bailey.|
|Jem's ghostly debut.|
|Taylor Swift via Jerrica.|
The story's a straightforward feel-good success story with some dramatic but not lethal stakes (The girls need money to save the family home from foreclosure) and it's told in a straightforward way. Nothing wrong with that; again, this is a film aimed at young kids who love today's radio pop (Jem's music is a sort of hybrid of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, though not on the same level.) It's presented as a semi-documentary, bookended by homemade videos shot by Jerrica and interspersed with YouTube videos of amateur musicians and Jem fans doing their thing. Aspect ratios change rapidly and cameras wander around bedrooms with a slight shake, giving an eerie sense of physical presence to them. The camera at times acts as an invasive, ever present paparazzi. There are some pretty great shots, too; Jem's first solo concert is particularly striking.
|There are some awesome close ups in this song, but unfortunately I've only got the trailers to work with.|
|Ghost Dad predicts the popularity of BB-8 sixteen years early.|
|Figurative holograms, unlike the literal holographic Ghost Dad.|
|Kimber making memories.|
|It's also no accident that she looks like a Hunger Games character here.|
|Rio's not so welcome arms.|
Rio Raymond is really the wildcard here. At first introduced as an antagonist who sees the new band as a burden to babysit, he soon gets a crush on the much younger Jerrica and begins his own machinations. He befriends the band, sasses his mom, and eventually stages a corporate coup to remove Erica as CEO before taking the chair himself. Newly empowered, he kisses Jerrica, who's now his employee, in a gross violation of power structure. It's not played creepily, but honestly, Rio is a creep. With an over-inflated ego, he shows off his sick cool giant truck to the girls, but it's a gaudy toy that he drives terribly. He takes them for a ride after rescuing them from their first day at Starlight's studios. Rio is a sort of clean-cut, PG mirror of James Franco's hip hop gangster Alien in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, a decent but not very successful musician with greater ambitions who sees the candy-haired new girls as his key to success. He lacks his mother's bile, but also her honesty, choosing to take what he wants rather than do what's best for the record label. After Jerrica and her sisters spend two hours learning the value of family, Rio kicks his mother to the curb with a smile. If Jem's the goodness of the internet consciousness distilled into a person, Rio's the dark side. At least, as dark as you can get in a PG film. In a better ending, Jem/Jerrica would have rejected both Erica AND Rio and forged her own path independent of the label.
|Kesha as Neon Street Mutant Pizzazz.|
Funny enough, the weakest scene in the movie is the one fans seem to be reacting to most positively; mid-credits, we see a disgraced Erica Raymond seek out The Misfits, a band formerly working under her label who now live as neon street mutants in the gutters of Los Angeles. As much as I honestly do like Kesha and her green hair and scary eyebrows here, the scene's so tonally and stylistically dissonant from the rest of the film that I can't honestly believe it was shot by the same crew. It's here as both an olive branch to fans of the cartoon and as a teaser for the next film, which at this point I assume won't happen. It's a blatant symptom of the Marvelization of film, where every movie must function as a cheap commercial for the next one.
Jem isn't an instant classic, but nor is it the disaster that its box office take and the cartoon fan reaction would imply. It's a decent kid's film with some cool costumes and sometimes great cinematography, aimed at a young audience who could do far, far, far worse