The beloved 1980s cartoon series “Jem and the Holograms” gets a millennial makeover in the live action film of the same name. Director Jon M. Chu, of several “Step Up” installments, as well as the “G.I. Joe” live action franchise, adapts the kooky cartoon about a girl band with special futuristic powers to the YouTube generation, where anyone can be a star. With a strong self-empowerment message, “Jem and the Holograms” shoots squarely for a tween audience, as well as those older fans who have nostalgia for the cartoon of their childhoods.
The updated “Jem and the Holograms” explores the conflict between the world of new, self-made Internet stars and legacy industries like the recording business. Director Chu utilizes a mixed-media approach, with confessional video blogs, homemade music videos and even Google Earth woven into the film, nodding toward a found-footage aesthetic.
Young Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) finds herself going viral after her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) uploads a video of Jerrica singing a song she wrote, performing as alter-ego Jem. While fans are clamoring to know who Jem is, the music biz is also calling. Jerrica decides to take Starlight Music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) up on her offer of stardom – with her sisters as her backup band.
Erica gives the girls a full makeover, and soon the teens are rocking the stage, looking like a colorful teenage girl version of Kiss. But Jerrica resists the studio’s control. In a world where anyone can upload a video of themselves, this old-fashioned and inauthentic model of stardom just isn’t going to fly with the kids today.
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The film is incredibly faithful to its source material, which results in a few titters of recognition when the original theme song’s lyrics are peppered into the dialogue. But Chu has also chosen to include Synergy, the robot created by Jerrica’s father before his death. In the cartoon, synergy is a giant synthesizer that allows Jem to change her appearance and create realistic holograms with her truly outrageous earrings. The movie Synergy is a mini robot that sends her on a wild scavenger hunt finding clues placed by her father. Because the film is a bit more rooted in reality than the quirky cartoon, the robot subplot doesn’t quite fit and pays off only in life lessons that Jem herself has already learned.
The old vs. new theme becomes a visual motif that Chu leans into throughout, sometimes to the detriment of the story and character-building. He intercuts tense moments with YouTube videos of drumming or step teams, which is a clever way to visualize the tension, but it feels gimmicky and distracts from the moment. Instagram-style videos offer looks into Jem’s emotional resonance with fans, but not enough is put into explaining her meteoric rise and why she’s such a sensation.
For all the technological updates, there are times where “Jem and the Holograms” gets a bit too distracted by its own origin story. For some, revisiting the source will be the attraction to the film (and the cartoon is available on Netflix). But the intent is to connect with a new, much younger audience, and for that group, “Jem” is a fun and empowering diversion filled with catchy tunes and lessons about embracing oneself.