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Jem and the Holograms
Grossing even less money at the box office than record-setting bomb We Are Your Friends, Jem and the Holograms was an attempt to find cinematic success in another Hasbro Toys property after Transformers and its sequels sold many tickets (despite not being very good movies.) Similar to Transformers, Jem started out as a series of dolls followed by a syndicated TV show with jerky animation said by many to exist just to sell the toys. Nevertheless, there's been a bit of nostalgia for it 30 years later and the next logical step was to adapt it into a live-action movie. The approach here is similar to that of another animated girl-group, Josie and the Pussycats, who got their live-action incarnation back in 2001- the filmmakers don't try to literally put the cartoons into a live-action world, but instead treat them more like real people, taking a few creative liberties and of course update a few things to the present day.
As in the original cartoon, Jem is the stage name of Jerrica Benton, played here by Aubrey Peeples. While the cartoon Jerrica was sort of a singing Barbie doll, here she's a much more everyday person. She was given the nickname Jem by her late father, an inventor, who said that she was his "diamond in the rough". After his death she and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) went to live with their aunt Bailey (80s icon and Sacramento native Molly Ringwald) and her two foster daughters Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). (In the original story, the aunt ran a foster home with several girls.) While Jem is rather low-key, Kimber loves attention and puts herself all over social media including Instagram and YouTube. All four of the girls have a bit of musical talent and they occasionally shoot music videos of themselves, but they haven't been seeking fame and fortune yet.
Aunt Bailey soon has money problems and might lose her house, which drives the girls to do something to help out. Jerrica plays around with a camera in her bedroom and records a mellow song on the guitar, but doesn't think much of it and hands the camera off to her sister to delete the song and try something else herself. Kimber decides to upload the video on YouTube instead billing it as simply a song by "Jem", and it becomes an instant sensation- the uncertainty of exactly who this Jem is just makes it even more sensational as people speculate just who she could be. Record company mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) soon starts courting Jem to sign to her label- Jem accepts but only if she accepts her and her sisters as a package deal. While Erica initially agrees, it later turns out she has other plans but not before all of them are brought to Los Angeles and get to stay in her mansion. (In the cartoon, Jem's father owned part of the record company and she then inherited that part of it from him.)
Jem brings along a work-in-progress from her late father, a robot-like contraption known as 5IN3RG.Y, or "Synergy". It never functioned but she likes having it around just to remind her of her dad, but as they enter Los Angeles it suddenly begins working- projecting videos of dad and giving a few strange clues of places around the city to look, which turn up parts for the contraption that he had hidden away for her to find later. The original "Synergy" in the TV show was a more elaborate computer system that did all sorts of hi-tech jobs for Jem, but the writers of this movie seem to prefer this approach. Jem and her sisters make a few concert appearances and get the public more hyped up for an eventual album, but Erica basically forces Jem to drop the other band members at this point and go solo. Exactly why she thinks this is a better idea is anyone's guess, but this brings in the conflict of whether Jem should stay true to her family or go for the fame and fortune no matter what the price.
Other characters from the original series are dropped in here as well, many with changes made to suit this new story. "Rio" is Erica's son and next in line to run the record company- he's a lot nicer to Jem than his mom is, and thinks she has the wrong ideas about promoting acts with more style than musical talent. Some of the long-time Jem fans found this to be quite silly, and weren't too happy about the revised Synergy robot either. And what of rival band The Misfits? The people behind this movie hope you've forgotten about them until the very end, which teases a potential sequel that will likely never happen unless this disc manages to be a huge seller- only time will tell on that. Director Jon M. Chu at least makes this a nice movie to look at, with an emphasis on pink and purple colors. Having directed the 3D movies Step Up 3D (still one of the best of this decade's 3D revival), Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and GI Joe: Retaliation, it's a shame Jem and the Holograms wasn't shot in 3D as well.
Having seen only a handful of the TV episodes, the main appeal of those to me were the frequent breaking out into upbeat music-video numbers, using songs that were only about a minute long so as not to hog the show's short running time. That doesn't happen in the fantasy world of this movie; the only songs are played on stage and underscore a few scenes. As musicals are one of my greatest guilty pleasures (I actually liked From Justin to Kelly for all that it was), I thought that some great songs could be the redeeming feature here but truth be told most of them are forgettable- the closest to a "hit single" here is the song "Youngblood" (which wears out its welcome a bit on the disc as it plays repeatedly during the main menu)- many (including Jem's online breakthrough, solo number "The Way I Was" and the finale "I'm Still Here") are quite downbeat and never would have made it into the show. Aubrey Peeples, to her credit, at least does her own singing but should have been given some better material to work with. The movie doesn't even have enough confidence in any of its songs to use them to close out the movie during the end credits; instead we get bits of the rather pedestrian music score over that. Most pop musicals have me recalling at least a couple songs from them instantly, but so far I'm hard-pressed to feel the same effect from this movie.
Shot using digital equipment at a 2.35 ratio, the movie does a reasonably good imitation of film by including what looks like film grain throughout. As said before, the color palette with an emphasis on purple and pink is very pleasing to the eye and almost makes up for the movie's shortcomings in other areas. The Blu-Ray disc looks very good, with no compression artifacts and just a couple hints of gradient banding. A standard DVD is also included, which of course looks much softer and less detailed.
The Blu-Ray's 5.1 DTS Master Audio track is also nicely done, giving the songs just enough "thump" to draw you into them, and the rears providing crowd noise during the concert sequences and the sound of "Synergy" as the film takes the view of his onboard camera. The DVD of course is in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. Both discs also include a Spanish track (with songs still sung in English), a descriptive audio track, hearing-impaired subtitles (which oddly don't show any song lyrics) and subs in Spanish and French.
Director Chu includes a commentary track, where he acknowledges many of the other behind-the-scenes people who designed what we're seeing onscreen, points out favorite visual elements and explains some of the changes made from the original cartoons. It seems to have been recorded prior to the movie's theatrical release and subsequent failure, as none of that or the audience's response is mentioned. (I've heard a few commentary tracks that acknowledged their movie's less-than-stellar reception and were humorously self-deprecating.) There's about 20 minutes of deleted scenes (at just under 2 hours, the movie is already a bit long without them), a gag reel, a making-of featurette (again likely completed before the movie's release), and a music video for "Youngblood" that plays more like a trailer. Both discs open with promos for Minions, "Barbie: Spy Squad", "Monster High: Great Scarrier Reef", When Marnie Was There and a trailer for The Secret Life of Pets which has a great music underscore filling the front and rear speakers. If you have BD-Live enabled, these will be replaced with lower-quality but possibly more current trailers streamed from the internet.
Jem and the Holograms is one of those movies that I should have loved despite its obvious faults, and while it's certainly good-looking the choice of songs used in it turn out to be a huge weakness. I was open to the creative liberties taken as I was with Josie and the Pussycats, but while that movie worked quite well for me it didn't so much here. While it was admirable to make Jem more of a down-to-earth person than her "unstoppable" animated character, it makes it that much harder to buy her sudden superstardom. The hard-core "Jem" fans out there largely disliked the changes and updates made to the story and characters, and the general public just ignored the movie completely. This will be worth checking out for curiosity's sake by those with the right mindset, but it will likely leave many thinking how much better it could have been if approached differently.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.