The 1987 live-action Masters of the Universe film has been criticized from day one for not adhering to the animated series of the same name. But what audiences keep forgetting is that it was never meant to. It was actually an adaptation of the original concept of the toy line which birthed the series and which did not contain a number of elements and characters that the cartoon introduced. The director of that film even stated that Jack Kirby’s New Gods series was a bigger influence on the film than anything from the cartoon.
Now, nearly 30 years later, we have the Jem and the Holograms movie which, like Masters of the Universe, had both a toy line and an animated series that evolved far past its original intent to sell toys. And like MOTU, the cross-pollination between the series and toy line blurred the origins of both: characters from the cartoon were given dolls while merchandise from the toy line was liberally inserted into the plots of the cartoon.
There are perhaps few 80s properties that have bred more loyalty and devotion than Jem. Fans were understandably upset when the trailer for a film based on the beloved property finally arrived and seemed to bear little to no resemblance to the music-and-adventure cartoon they loved. But Jem and the Holograms isn’t an adaptation, and it isn’t trying to be. Instead, it comes off more properly as a re-imagined, high-budgeted fan fiction project that hits just a little more than it misses. The essence of what made the show resonate is still there, but the execution is different…and much more realistic (most of the time).
We still have Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), whose alter ego is the mysterious rock star Jem. She’s accompanied by her band, made up of her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) and her foster sisters Aja (Hayley Kyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perinneau). When a video of “Jem” performing one of Jerrica’s songs goes viral, record label mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) swoops in to bring the band over to her company, Starlight Music. The girls soon find, however, that glamour and glitter and fashion and fame come with a price, and Erica does not have their best interests at heart.
A number of other elements of the show are still there. Rio (Ryan Guzman) is still the band’s manager and Jerrica’s love interest (and also kind of a jerk, but a damn fine-looking one). Molly Ringwald shows up as Mrs. Bailey, here as Jerrica and Kimber’s aunt and Aja and Shana’s adoptive mother. Synergy is still here as a kind of inheritance from Jerrica’s late inventor father, but instead of a super-advanced super-computer with a maternal AI, she’s an adorable (but still super-advanced) little robot. And just like the show, a number of plot points are chalked up to coincidence, and everything seems to happen extremely fast; Jem goes from an unknown to an Internet phenomenon in the span of about a week, although the film rarely gives us any sense of exactly how much time passes between acts.
Director Jon Chu and writer Ryan Landels have brought Jem down to earth, at least by a little bit, and channeled the essence of the series through a modern, social media-connected filter. It’s no coincidence that Jem’s explosion onto the internet mimics that of Justin Bieber, whom Chu chronicled in the film Never Say Never, in more ways than one.
In fact, social media permeates the entire film. Most of the film is framed around a confessional video Jerrica is making to reveal to the world who Jem is. Travel from one location to another is done via Google Earth images (the 21st century version of the old map-and-red-line trick). A number of scenes are scored using YouTube videos of drummers and Stomp-style dancers. There’s even a viral video of waterskiing squirrels that serves as a plot point. (Twice.) But Chu isn’t trying to comment on the use of social media in any way. He’s simply capturing and showing the reality of life in 2015.
And that reality is what makes the film its own creature. While the Holograms’ rise to fame is just as accelerated and rocky as it was in the cartoon, in the film, it’s much more relatable. The Holograms don’t have a warehouse full of costumes and instruments ready to go here, and they’re much less worldly. They are, in essence, ordinary teenage girls with a lot of musical talent instead of the arena-ready young adults of the show. Instead of making their own way from the start, they’re struggling to find the voice to do just that.
The main issue with the film is that it tries to cram far too much into a space of two hours and has frankly horrible pacing issues. The film is so focused on Jerrica/Jem that a lot of things seem to happen off-screen. We’re given some montages of media clips to give us a sense of how quickly the Holograms are taking off, but it seems disconnected to the story we’re watching. And a lot of those montages go on an awful long time, as do a number of the scripted scenes. The pivotal moment in the film right before the climax is sweet and emotional in a very genuine way, but it goes on forever. FOREVER.
The cast all seems like they care about the film, and nobody gives a truly weak or lazy performance, even if several characters (Shana in particular) don’t get much character development. Aubrey Peeples is very open and extremely natural as Jerrica and Jem. This isn’t the fiercely independent Jerrica we see in the first episode of the cartoon, but instead is the person that young woman sprang from. She’s a sharp contrast to Juliette Lewis’ Raymond, all first-world swagger and smug, who is able to seem completely honest when telling reporters about how genuine and real Jem is immediately following a scene where she’s given the Holograms what amounts to forced corporate makeovers. Ryan Guzman’s Rio is a more toned-down version of the fiery Rio of the series, but he has decent chemistry with Peeples, and it’s interesting to see their romance develop on its own terms, instead of being pre-packaged with the characters.
(And yes, there are cameos from people involved with the show, but I’m not going to spoil them here. Suffice it to say, they all show up in very, very meaningful ways.)
The music, happy to say, is just as connective and dynamic as the cartoon series. In fact, the music may be the brightest part of the film. The Holograms big single “Youngblood” is kind of like a Kesha track without the cynicism or artifice and is imminently catchy. A mid-film number performed by a solo Jem is very much like a Sia electro-ballad, and she very much looks like a Fame-era Lady Gaga while singing it. Even the songs that serve as background music fit well with the Holograms’ output, giving the film a music anchor that helps guide it through its rough patches. The soundtrack is what made the cartoon so iconic, and it’s nearly as good here.
Toward the end of the film, we’re given a few montages of videos put together by Jem’s fans, some real and some staged to seem like real, that speak to how her music has helped them with their own difficulties. It bears more than one similarity to videos that could have been made by Gaga’s Little Monsters, but it also speaks to how the music and message of Jem have resonated with people for decades. It’s even more touching on a personal level, since it features a number of queer youth (especially boys and men that are obviously gay).
This may not be the film adaptation of the cartoon that the fans wanted (and there may be no way to even produce such a thing), but even so, it is still very true to the heart of what made Jem so special. It’s about people who learn not be afraid of their talents, people who find the power of expression through music, and people who aren’t ashamed of who they are or what they feel. It may not be the most perfect way to translate Jem to modern audiences, but at least their hearts were in the right place. And in the world of Jem, that’s usually enough.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B- (with reservations)
NOTE: You really DO want to stay to see the mid-credits scene. Trust me.