Jem and the Holograms is a movie about magical transformations, but really, the most incredible transformation we see is a cheaply animated cartoon about a flashy ’80s hair band being turned into an inspirational movie about the power of a capella.
Having expected a live-action movie about Hasbro’s Jem toys to be something along the lines of Spice World, I was chagrined when the film’s first trailer made it look like we were going to get a generic story about a disconcertingly tasteful 21st-century rock band. This Jem—helmed by Jon M. Chu—is indeed tasteful, but somehow, it actually makes tasteful look good.
Chu’s directorial résumé includes two Step Up installments, one abysmal G.I. Joe flick, and, most significantly, the pre-bad-boy Bieber documentary Never Say Never. I actually liked that movie a lot—especially the way Chu managed to portray Bieber’s fans with real respect and empathy—and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I found myself also enjoying Jem, which is an attempt to transfer that approach to a fictional character with less impressive hair.
The nearness of the Bieber experience is what makes it weirdly plausible that millions of diverse young people would profess to be personally “inspired” by a straight cis gorgeous white girl with a major-label record contract and a fireworks-laden stage show. Chu’s Jem, as scripted by Ryan Landels, is a semi-reluctant YouTube sensation who becomes a superstar when a record executive gives her a 360 deal and some heavily-hyped pop-up shows. Really, the least believable part of all this is the fact that—thanks to unsubtle product placement—the primary vehicle of Jem’s rise isn’t Facebook, it’s Google Plus.
Jem and her less ostentatious alter ego Jerrica are embodied by Aubrey Peeples (Nashville), who conveys beautiful brunette sobriety in the Kristen Stewart vein without that squinting sense that she’s trying to figure out whether or not she’s smarter than this material. The film’s least ironic ’80s imports are the Gen X women who tussle for Jem’s millennial soul: a warmly maternal (though disappointingly bland) Molly Ringwald and a scene-stealing Juliette Lewis, who somehow manages to seem like she’s overacting without actually doing so.
The star’s “Holograms,” as in the toy/TV line, are her one biological sister and two step-foster-sisters. Their costumes aren’t literally holograms, though, as they were in Jem’s original incarnation (as Wikipedia dryly notes about Jem’s illusionary costuming, people were often “in direct physical contact with her without disrupting the holographic projection”). The literal hologram comes courtesy of Jerrica’s dead dad, who’s left a cute little robot and an elaborate trail of high-tech clues to show how his eldest daughter just much he loved her. Jerrica’s sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) somehow isn’t jealous, despite the fact that the only thing their father left her was an offhand mention.
There’s also a hunky love interest with the quintessentially ’80s name of Rio (Ryan Guzman, a 28-year-old who’s playing a 21-year-old while looking like a 38-year-old), though the fact that this Jem’s costume is less thorough than the original Jem’s means that the Jem-Jerrica-Rio love triangle is reduced to a crush with a mild identity crisis. The best thing about Rio is that he comes with wheels: a ride that looks like the G.I. Joe beach assault vehicle your Jem dolls would have to ride in if your parents were too cheap to buy the FM-enabled Rockin’ Roadster.
The a capella sneaks in via several scenes that create pre-stardom musical interludes for the Jerrica gang while also demonstrating that Jem and the Holograms will be ready to take on the Barden Bellas if the cartoon band’s O.G. rivals the Misfits don’t show up to start some trouble first. All of the musical numbers (featuring perfectly functional songs by Nathan Lanier) have the starry-eyed sincerity that’s brought sighs to the hearts of High School Musical fans, and they’re apt to work the same trick here.
Say this for Chu: he puts his money where his mouth is. This Jem believes in itself, even when it’s being truly (truly, truly) outrageous. The film’s closing scene sets up a sequel, but now we’ll all have to decide whether we’re ready to see Jem break the Internet with naked vacation pics while Molly Ringwald tweets inappropriate comments about her ta-tas. To borrow a phrase that’s familiar to Jem’s first generation of fans, reality bites.