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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Jem - The Complete 1st & 2nd Seasons
Jem - The Complete 1st & 2nd Seasons
Rhino // G // March 30, 2004
List Price: $59.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted April 10, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Whenever the great girl groups of the rock and roll era are discussed, one animated band always seems to get shortchanged. Fans of flesh and blood combos can argue all they want for the Go-Gos superiority or the Bangles brand of pop and presence. And there will even be those who will look back to the cartoon crooners of the past and champion Josey and her hopelessly perky Pussycats. But when it comes to the queens of pen and ink performance, no one can hold a hand drawn candle to the collection of creative musicians known as Jem and the Holograms. About as pre-fab as the Monkees but without the searing 60s social significance (just think about it for a moment, won't you) this half-hour hit parade could have been a crass business bungle. After all, it was based on a line of dolls from Hasbro and initially conceived mainly as a crass commercial tie in. But Jem, Kimber, Aja and Shana managed to figured out a way - through some very talented people behind the scenes - to transcend their demographically accurate marketing strategy and become something of an anomaly in the standard Madison Avenue kid's show carnival. Instead of being hopelessly dated and directly linked to its toy line, Jem is a wonderfully evocative and energetically entertaining show that captures a place and an era that has all but vanished from the pop culture scene. Nothing exemplifies the carefree clash of fashion and fame better than this animated wonder featuring the first ladies of girl power, icons to female freedom long before those dumb Spice Girls. But even if you remove the mountains of hair and the oversized sweaters, you've still got a great, completely engaging show filled with magnificent music and action packed plotlines. And thanks to Rhino, you can now experience the 1st and 2nd seasons of Jem and the Holograms adventures in all their addictive wonder.

The DVD:
When her father dies, Jerrica Benton is left with a lot of responsibilities. Her father owned half of the popular rock and roll record label, Starlight Music. He also ran Starlight House, a home for orphaned and foster girls. Jerrica must now manage both businesses and it's not easy. On the home front, the girls are a handful, demanding time and attention. And the corrupt co-owner of Starlight Music, Eric Raymond, will stop at nothing to keep Jerrica and her interests in check. When Ms. Benton learns that The Misfits, an all-girl group of abrasive bitches is Eric' s main priority, she decides to fight fire with fire. With the help of one of her late father's inventions, a holographic entertainment program named Synergy, Jerrica becomes rock icon Jem, and her fellow co-workers at the halfway house – sister Kimber and friends Aja and Shana – become her back up band, the Holograms. Acting as their manager is longtime pal and Jerrica's current boyfriend, Rio. Only Jerrica and her friends know that she and Jem are one in the same. The rest of the world only sees her computerized laser disguise. Synergy can also project holograms wherever and whenever Jerrica needs them.

The First Season of Jem is an extended storyline, spread out over five shows, about a battle of the bands competition between Jem and the Holograms and their rivals, the mean miscreant Misfits. First prize is a mansion and a movie contract. The maniacal musicians, with the help of Eric and a goon named Zipper, do anything they can to stop Jem. They burn down the foster home. They try to lure Kimber away from the Holograms. They frame the girls for a casino robbery and kidnap them before the big competition can commence.

Season Two features several multi-part installments, including: a three-part resolution of the movie contract storyline; a two-part plot revolving around runaways and an important Music Award; a similar double dose of drama surrounding an all-star concert called The Jem Jam; and a new look for Jem and the Holograms called Glitter and Gold. In among the longer narratives, Jem and the Misfits visit Paris, get stranded on a desert island, romp around the Peoples Republic of China, enter a fashion show, appear on Broadway, help an aging rock and roller and save a ski resort. There are also a few new characters introduced, including a friend for the Holograms nicknamed Video and her horrible, harassing cousin named Clash, who instantly takes up with The Misfits. The individual episodes offered on the 4 DVDs in the First and Second Season Box Set are as follows:

Disc 1: Season One -The Beginning/ Disaster/ Kimber's Rebellion/ Frame-Up/ Battle of the Bands. Season Two – Starbright 1: Falling Star/ Starbright 2: Colliding Stars

Disc 2: Season Two (Cont.) – Starbright 3: Rising Star/ The World Hunger Shindig/ Adventures in China/ Last Resorts/ In Stitches/ The Music Awards 1/ The Music Awards 2

Disc 3: Season Two (Cont.) – The Rock Fashion Book/ Broadway Magic/ In Search of the Stolen Album/ Hot Time in Hawaii/ The Princess and the Singer/ Island of Deception/ Old Meets New

Disc 4: Season Two (Cont.) – Intrigue at the Indy 500/ The Jem Jam 1/ The Jem Jam 2/ Culture Clash/ Glitter and Gold

Jem is a lot like cartoon crack: you know it can't possibly be good for you, but once you've sampled some of its sugary charms, you instantly crave more and would sell your soul to obtain it. Now, with its foundation in the product placement ideal of children's toy manufacturers, Jem should really be pathetic. Most merchandise oriented entries into entertainment reek of rotten priorities, a decision to make the goods look as desirable as possible without interfering, too much, with the basics of boy/girl cartooning. But Jem is the exception, a fantastic fantasy of utter wish fulfillment for girls with just enough action and intrigue (along with hot animated babes) to keep the boys (and some middle aged men) interested. It is an example of what can be accomplished when good stories are matched with professional writing and execution. From its toe tapping tunes to its 'made ya think' mentality, this is one resplendent remnant of the bygone 80s. There is even some moralizing tossed in to give the show a little social consciousness.

So even with its often atrocious animation, occasionally shrill vocal gymnastics and hyper-unrealistic plot developments, Jem is a show befitting its bejeweled name. For some reason, all the flaws and faults in character modeling, the multiple cliffhanger plotting and a catalog of songs that make the Partridge Family seem edgy just can't undermine the show's special vibe. Some would argue that the reason the series works is because it's crafted to click instantly with its target audience, make a minimal impact and then dissipate quickly, like the hint of perfume in a lover's bedroom. It's just an animated infomercial for Hasbro's attempt to undermine Barbie. But Jem is really much more than this. The hope and happiness that Jem/Jerrica and her band mates feel - the overriding optimism that, even through the toughest times, they will somehow persevere - is outrageously contagious. And before you know it, you are caught up in their spirit of support and friendship and you're whisked away on clouds of cartoon cleverness. You eventually soar high above the cynical storms of everyday life and feel an ironic sense of self washing away. Jem makes you believe that there is indeed magic in music and that inside each and every one of us is an individual capable of incredibly charitable acts of kindness. Yes, this is a fantasy, but it's one with its fashion-clad feet firmly planted on the ground.

But aside from all the philosophical falderal, the reasons for Jem's greatness are rather simple. First and foremost, the show is great fun. Jem is filled with well-crafted characters with their own individual personalities and accompanying quirks. These entertaining entities are then placed in familiar action/adventure scenarios and given a chance to meet and exceed expectations. Jem is just like those great old-fashioned serials from cinemas past, using the cliffhanger device and the deviousness of Eric Raymond, Clash and The Misfits to turn up the suspense. Most critics will agree that any form of superhero, even one mostly known for being a rock and roller, needs a fantastic foe to modulate the protagonist's preachy principles. And since the dynamic in Jem is a basic battle between the forces of good and the powers of pestilence, The Misfits and Mr. Raymond need to be all powerful champions of evil. And man are they wicked. There have, perhaps, been no more resilient bad guys in all of cartoon-dom. It was an especially genius stroke to make lead singer Pizzazz a spoiled rich brat whose father can buy and own anything she wants in the world. This means that she, along with her cohorts Stormer and Roxy are able to get away with almost any and every anti-social act imaginable. And as the series continued on, these creeps became almost hyper-human in the criminality they fostered. And yet, somehow, it all seems plausible, with Jem and her friends never once seeing the obvious destructive overtures heading their direction. Indeed, the best part of the series is the idea that the Misfits could manage to undermine Jem so easily, fortifying the idea that the glamorous superstar is just as human as everyone else, not some invincible, inviolable cliché.

The non-rock and roll storylines and characters are also charming. The Starlight girls come across as average teens, filled with the recognizable angst and issues that come with maturation. Rio is not just some pretty boy love interest but a complicated guy with a dark past and troubled personality. Even Eric Raymond, villainy personified, has his moments of measured humanity. Sure, he wants power and wealth, but even the misplaced menace of the Misfits can get to him on occasion. About the only truly irritating member of the cast is a young Asian orphan named Ba Nee. Center stage for such stories as that golden oldie – the emergency, expensive surgery – and the reality stretching Vietnam/ father saga, she comes across more whiny than winning. There is a streak of selfishness to her wants and needs that just doesn't exist in the other members of Starlight House (even when the rest of the girls pal around with the Misfits or show flagrant disrespect for Jerrica and the rest). Her persona is too needy and non-descript, without the substance that supports the rest of the characters here. She may be a boring blubbering baby, but Ba Nee is yet another factor that makes Jem more complex and less contrived than other cartoons.

And then there is the music. Jem is jam packed with the basics of top of the pops rock that, somehow, explains every irritating tween act on the market today. Hilary Duff, Raven Simone and S Club 7 can all trace their talentless tunefulness to this animated catalyst and its crop of commercial length joy jingles. But unlike today's AOR awfulness, the tunes by Jem and the Holograms (and for the most part, the music of the Misfits) are absolutely delightful and catchy as Hell. Sure, they are not three minute masterpieces, but tunes like "She's Got the Power", "She Makes an Impression", "Back in Shape" and "Truly Outrageous" capture the character and the mood of the show in short, sweet sonic bliss. Jem is also a nice reminder of the original marriage of sound and vision. Completely tapped into the emerging MTV-ization of the nation and filled with their own free-form animated videos, the show occasionally comes up with equally involving images to accompany the songs. And the music also enhances the plots. Script writers got to suggest the themes and even outline some of the lyrical content, so when the groups perform, the songs usually follow the flow of the narrative fairly well. And once you've heard these earworm nuggets, you'll never forget them.

Overall, Jem is a very well put together show. The voice work is excellent and the performers all strive to give their animated equivalents the right amount of believability. Only occasionally (with Clash and a supersonic psychotic nerd named Tech Rat) do over the top theatrics take center stage. And the show can't avoid the occasional lapse into non-PC accents (specifically for the Chinese in Adventures in China and the Eastern Europeans in The Princess and the Singer). But there is a strong emotional thread to the performances and this helps give weight and seriousness to the cartoon antics. While the animation itself is not the most fluent or fancy (no Disney-like detail here) it does capture the essence of 80s style, fashion and culture, from the pastel zing of the outfits to the borderline Blitz kids cosmetic statements. But there is something deeper to this show, something at the core that makes it resonate with a classicism that other animated entries into the world of children's entertainment seem to have forgotten. Jem is a show that surpasses its setup and situations to capture your heart and your head. And thanks to advances in technology, we are able to witness its wonders all over again.

Rhino's 4 DVD box set is an amazing time capsule of the past. Taken as a whole, you can witness the evolution of the series and its growth in popularity. Jem started out as part of the Hasbro Super Saturday/ Super Sunday block of cartoons surrounded by other revolving series like the Inhumanoids, Robotix and Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines. Small sequences of the all girl rock and roll revue were crammed in between the boy's adventure tales to give patient little ladies everywhere a minor thrill. Indeed, the first five shows in the set reflect a cobbled together cartoon style that is just appalling. The animation is awful. The continuity is scattershot. And the pace jumps from all action to all talking. But as the series became increasingly popular, more time, money and effort were put into it and you can see the substantial changes. The animation strives for a more realistic look with the characters becoming more human and less cartoonish.

Towards the end of Series Two, a definite Japanimation, or anime, style could be seen creeping in. Perhaps that is why so many people think the show is foreign based (either in Asia or somewhere in the Pacific, like Australia). When it came to stories, you could see the struggle between an individual adventure ideal and a stressing of continuing storylines. Whenever the story could be spread out over several episodes, the results were usually excellent. But there are also a couple of dudes here, shows that suffer from being far too brief. Island of Deception, where the bands are stranded and have to work together really never explores this idea to its fullest, and Intrigue at the Indy 500 is just too unbelievable to be enjoyable. Still, such quibbles are minor compared to the treasure trove of treats to be found here. Jem is a shimmering diamond of a series.

The Video:
The 1.33:1 full frame image looks nearly brand new and this has its own positive and negative attributes. On the plus side, the images are vibrant and the animation retains a nice balance between color and contrast. On the down side, Jem was not some multi-million dollar hand drawn wonder and the shortcuts and pathetic pen and ink are only highlighted by how good the picture is. True, Jem never strived to be anything other than a vibrant bit of kid-vid entertainment, but DVD shows how completely half-assed that dogma can look onscreen.

The Audio:
In a word – OUTRAGEOUS! Jem has been remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1 (the original Dolby Digital Stereo is intact as well) and it sounds incredibly. As a show about rock and roll, the aural presentation is everything and the power pop of all the bands here is captured in crystal clarity and sonic superiority. As for the dialogue and effects, everything is handled in a professional – if not very channel challenging – manner.

The Extras:
While not overflowing with bonus content, the material offered as part of the four disc package here is extremely interesting – starting with the four commentaries by writer/executive story editor Christy Marx. This woman is a true cartoon genius. When she describes how she had to create something as special as Jem out of a few Polaroid prototype pictures and a list of potential names, you instantly recognize her skill. Her narratives are sparse at times, but she is full of behind the scenes insights, failed story ideas and the occasionally embarrassing in-joke (a good number of the characters are named after family and friends). The onscreen interview with Marx covers some of the same ground as the commentaries, but also fleshes out many of the anecdotes with more in-depth elements. Samantha Newark, the non-singing voice of Jem, is also interviewed and her saga is equally compelling. Flabbergasted at the lasting impact of the show, she details how girls of all ages approach to thank her. Jem was a strong influence in their life and having such universal importance and acceptance makes Samantha very emotional. And you can even hear an older, more mature Jerrica/Jem in her calm, clean voice.

Additionally, we are treated to some rare and rather humorous Public Service Announcements, warning kids about everything from strangers to live electrical lines. It's hard to imagine any of these promos swaying anyone's behavior. But perhaps the most intriguing extra items on the discs are excerpts from the Jem Production "Bible" – the massive manual that describes the characters, their background and their chief attributes for the writer's and animator's reference. Reading the lengthy back-stories and specific characterizations of all of the main cast shows just how well thought out and complex Jem was. While it may not have looked like it from the outside, this was one animated series that understood its audience and its strengths from the very beginning and planned everything out with intricate detail to preserve such connections.

Final Thoughts:
There is really no denying it: Jem is a great show. From its initial incarnation up and through its corporate mandated changes, it found a way to match music to message without every once skimping on character or narrative. It discovered how to incorporate and comment on the emergence of rock video (and the surrounding culture) while proving that the song, not the visuals, was the key, crucial element. It managed to offer villainous foes that balanced out the goody two shoes image of its main characters and never once tried to be satirical or self-righteous. Jem was a show created by a woman with a true geek's mentality to help little girls fulfill their every daydream while also finding a way to keep the little boys engaged. Rarely has such a show spoken to so many across such a wide demographic. A few more extras and this would have been a must-own box set. As it stands, Rhino has given fans and newcomers a reason to rejoice. Whether it's truly outrageous or deadly serious, Jem is a vibrant, energetic series about believing in yourself and others. Sure, Synergy can create illusions of power and passion, but in the end, it is the heart of Jerrica Benton and her friends that makes the magic of music meaningful. The exterior is just the facade. It's what's inside that counts. And what's inside Jem: The Complete First and Second Season is something you'll want to experience over and over again.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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