Jem and the Holograms is a nostalgia-bait movie with its own identity crisis

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Ah, nostalgia, my old friend. Literally.

Jem and the Holograms was a cheesy, ridiculous cartoon in the 80’s by the same corporate synergies behind the cartoons Transformers and G.I. Joe. It wasn’t something I really watched, because it was a “girl’s show” and I didn’t really watch many of those back then. The conceit was simple and delightfully stupid: normal girl Jerrica Benton uses hologram technology to transform into her rock goddess alter ego Jem. Adventures, hijinks, etc. Transformers has obviously been successful, and the G.I. Joe movies have done alright — unlike the Battleship movie, which was just a board game.

But what about the movie?

Jem and the Holograms comes from director John M. Chu, who directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never. Both have interesting connections here; G.I. Joe is another silly 80s cartoon like Jem that is ridiculous, and Never Say Never focuses on YouTube celebrities and musical performances. Not a terrible fit, but the movie has its own issues.

The story goes like this: In a small town, 18-year old Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) lives with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) who likes recording their lives for the Internet, and foster sisters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) who likes designing clothing and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) who is a “hacker” and a rebel in the classic “conformist” rebel sort of way. They all live with Jerrica and Kimber’s Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald, the quintessential 80s girl herself).

The setup is simple: they will be kicked out of the house soon unless they make enough money first. Kimber tries to get her sister to get involved in their homemade music video, but Jerrica doesn’t like being on camera. So instead she dresses up in garish pink makeup and and a wig and sings a lovely song on the guitar under the pseudonym “Jem.” For you see, Jerrica was called that by her late father, who was an inventor. Kimber sneakily uploads it without asking permission, and within a day, it’s a viral hit and everyone is talking about Jem.

Quickly Jem and her sisters get hired by record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), which was male character “Eric” in the show. And that’s when the movie starts to stumble. They get a minder, Erica’s son Rio (Ryan Guzman). Rio and Jerrica flirt. Jem is a huge and immediate success, her identity staying intentionally a secret. Blah, blah, blah, will the band break up, romance, etc. But then there’s also a bizarre side plot about a robot that Jerrica’s dad built and a series of National Treasure-like clues that she’s following to find out what her dad left her.

Oh, I almost forgot the other other conceit. Throughout the movie, scenes of people from YouTube recording themselves talking, singing, and dancing about Jem and how much she means to them are interspersed. Sometimes in interesting ways, other times to hammer in an overly obvious point like “believe in yourself” and “sisterhood is important.” The problem is that all these real life submissions from people are talking about Jem from the TV show, not the movie. So it all seems a tad disingenuous.

Again, I don’t want to just throw the whole thing out as a bad movie, that’d be unfair. I found the performances winning, especially lead Aubrey Peeples and, of course, Juliette Lewis was delightful. There are a lot of legitimately funny lines, and the songs are catchy and not without merit. At times, I even found a few bits moving, mainly the parts about Jerrica and her late father. But then there’s the rest.

The romance subplot was stupid. All the treasure hunt stuff got increasingly weird and silly. The sisterhood and band plotlines were extremely clichéd and very sappy. It felt like a movie where a movie executive was checking off boxes of plot points to include. “We need songs, a tragic backstory, something about the holograms – not the original way of course, plenty of YouTube submissions, and messages about female empowerment and staying true to yourself. We can squeeze all that into a tight two hours, right?”

It’s unfortunate because I think that if they had cut 30 or 40 minutes off the movie, I think you’d have something pretty good. Right now, it’s a mixed bag. There are enough references for the nostalgia crowd, but it might not be what you really wanted. And for those unfamiliar with the old show, it might not be unique enough to stand out. But the soundtrack is pretty decent.

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