It looks like the Jem and the Holograms movie might make it into the history books after all — but not for a positive reason. John M. Chu's weaksauce adaptation of the 1980s Hasbro toy turned cartoon is being yanked from the vast majority of theaters just two weeks after opening due to its dismal numbers, Yahoo Finance reports, having grossed a mere $2.1 million so far.
Pulling the movie is an unprecedented move for a wide release, but makes good business sense in light of something that not only fails resoundingly as a film, but also fails as a nostalgia piece — which, honestly, might be the greater sin in today’s pop cultureverse.
Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about the truly, truly, truly terrible Jem is that it conjures up memories of another film with which it shares many surface-level similarities, but that manages to succeed in every way Jem fails: 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.
Now, granted, Josie wasn’t exactly a critical darling when it premiered — reviews could charitably be called "mixed" — and it was a certified box office bomb. But the cheeky adaptation of the musty Archie Comics characters-cum-1970s-cartoon has accrued a significant cult following in the years since it slunk out of theaters and on to home video.
Despite being perhaps the most 2001 movie imaginable — its pop music world is one of Total Request Live, physical media, and brick-and-mortar record stores — Josie still plays well today as both a tweaked musical comedy and a dark satire of the music industry. While it’s impossible to definitively predict the strange alchemy that creates a cult film, it’s a safe bet that Jem will not enjoy the same sort of appreciation down the road.
It didn’t have to be this way. Jem has same basic DNA as Josie: It’s a teen-focused musical with a music industry setting, based on a cartoon property ages past its cultural expiration date. Hell, the titles even echo each other.
But where Josie is bright, funny, and surprisingly daring, Jem is dreary, somber, and utterly banal. Jem is the moody, self-centered teenager to Josie’s "punk-rock prom queen," and while that theoretically could make for a pointed modern update of the earlier film’s sunny worldview, Jem is too thematically and emotionally vacant to be afforded such consideration.
In honor of the movie that Jem could have been, let’s look at some of the lessons it could, and should, have learned from its vastly superior spiritual successor.
1) Play to your source material’s strengths
The strangest thing about Jem is how much effort it puts into ignoring its Day-Glo Saturday-morning-cartoon origins. (The dark, lackluster trailer for the film turned off a lot of fans before the movie even hit theaters.) Outside of perhaps Juliette Lewis’s teeth-gnashing performance as evil Starlight Enterprises honcho Erica Raymond, there’s nothing about this Jem that could be called even remotely cartoonish. Instead, it shoots for a sort of middle ground between coming-of-age story and cautionary fame tale, piling too much narrative and emotional weight onto its tissue-thin cartoon foundation.
This isn’t to say that a kiddie cartoon couldn’t beget a serious-minded live-action adaptation, but movie history is not exactly brimming with successful examples of that approach. The default for live-action adaptations of kids’ cartoons tends to be a more or less straight tonal translation — think the Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films — and even more experimental efforts, like Robert Altman’s much-maligned (but secretly great) Popeye, know well enough to recognize and honor the material’s cartoon origins even as they establish their own distinct tone.
Josie and the Pussycats may be the finest example of adapting cartoon material to live action without being a straight tonal translation. Its bright colors and goofy attitude honor both the Hanna-Barbera cartoon and Archie comics that birthed the characters, but there’s a strong satirical bite to the story and humor that modernizes the musty material and makes it capable of sustaining its own film-length narrative.
Rather than ignoring the fact that it’s based on a cheap, disposable cartoon property, Josie embraces that fact. There’s even a throwaway joke where a seemingly useless character explains her presence by saying "I was in the comics." Jem, meanwhile, is content to take a screamingly unoriginal movie premise and slap on elements of the original cartoon — the pink hair and makeup, the names, the magical earrings — in hopes of livening it up, like Lisa Frank stickers on a plain black Trapper Keeper.
2) Don’t overestimate your material’s importance
Jem’s tagline — "Every generation needs a voice" — telegraphs the fact that the film is out to make a Grand Statement. Unfortunately, Ryan Landels's screenplay doesn’t have a very clear idea of what that statement is.
Jem brims over with trite platitudes about being yourself and how music can change the world. But despite parroting all the right clichés, Jem doesn’t really have much of a point of view, beyond patting its viewers on the head and telling them they’re special and pretty. It’s not a good look, and Jem comes across screamingly phony and pandering in its attempts to say something meaningful.
Josie, meanwhile, uses the fact that most pop music and artists are disposable to its advantage. Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook) and her bandmates (Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid) get caught up in a music industry machine that churns through hot young acts and tosses them aside as soon as they stop being beneficial to the bottom line. That’s a standard insight into the pop music industry, but Josie takes it a step further by incorporating subliminal messaging and corporate branding into its musical world, commenting on the corporatization of musical artistry in hilariously over-the-top fashion. (There’s hardly a frame in the movie that doesn’t feature a brand logo.)
Music is an inherently emotional medium capable of conveying more than mere words can. The right song can illuminate something a script or a performance can’t. But that kind of song is not what Jem is offering. Jem tunes like "Youngblood" and "Hit Me Up" are perfectly serviceable (and admittedly catchy) modern pop songs in the vein of Katy Perry or Sia. They work conceptually as a modern update of the cartoon’s glam-rock aesthetic, but to call them world-changing, or even envelope-pushing, is drastically overselling the material.
Josie’s millennial pop-punk songs, like "Three Small Words" and "Pretend to Be Nice," are similarly lightweight and of-the-moment, but the movie never suggests they’re anything more than rock-solid pop tunes that will appeal to a mass audience. Josie and her friends simply want to be rock stars, not become "the voice of a generation." That lack of self-importance makes it easier to invest in their quest.
3) If you’re going to go for it, really go for it
Leading up to Jem’s release, one of the questions on fans’ minds was how the film would incorporate Synergy, the "ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer," built by young Jerrica Benton’s father before he died. Synergy projects a hologram over Jerrica, allowing her to become Jem in the eyes of everyone else.
It’s an inherently ridiculous idea that could only be born of a ’80s cartoon conceived to sell toys and accessories to young girls, but it’s also an integral part of the property’s appeal and legacy. To have a Jem movie without Synergy would be blasphemy.
Obviously Synergy needed to be tweaked to fit into the context of a modern-day film, but the solution Jem lands on is mind-bogglingly off-base.
Synergy has become an EVE-like robot created by Jerrica’s father for some purpose unknown to her; it hasn’t worked since his death. Over the course of the film, Synergy is revealed to be the means to an elaborate treasure hunt Jerrica’s father concocted, wherein she must travel to sites around Los Angeles to find new pieces of the robot and learn trite lessons via inscriptions from her father. Once Synergy is completed, it does indeed project a hologram — of Jerrica’s father, telling her how special and unique and talented she is. (Poor Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Jerrica’s younger sister, is apparently not special enough to warrant such attention from her dead father.)
That’s it. That’s literally all Synergy does, besides beep-booping around the fringes of scenes and occasionally projecting a show not unlike those created by a children’s light projector. It’s a wild goose chase in robot form, and contributes nothing of value to the film. This approach has little to nothing to do with what Synergy was meant to be, which is basically a futuristic party machine. In trying to make Synergy "realistic," Jem takes an out-there concept that could have been interesting and unique and half-bakes it.
Josie, on the other hand, is a prime example of how committing to a ludicrous idea can be beneficial in the right context. By embracing its cartoonishness, Josie is able to have fun with a ridiculous concept like corporate brainwashing via pop music. It takes that idea way, way over the top, and even if it isn’t always 100 percent successful — it can get too silly for its own good — it’s at least memorable.
4) Include some ringers in the cast
With apologies to Lewis, Jem is in dire need of a quirky character actor or two to mix up its cast of bland young Hollywood faces. Aubrey Peeples does serviceable work as Jerrica (and, it must be said, she's a pretty great onscreen crier), but she and the rest of Jem’s cast are all various flavors of vanilla, and the movie follows suit.
Josie’s main triad of Cook, Dawson, and Reid isn’t exactly a dramatic powerhouse. But they fit the roles well, and Reid’s uber-ditzy performance as Melody stands out for its go-for-broke silliness. Josie’s real secret weapons are Alan Cumming and Parker Posey as the promoter and CEO, respectively, of the evil MegaRecords. Both are established, extremely talented character actors with significant comedic chops. Throw in meaty cameos from the likes of Eugene Levy, Seth Green, Donald Faison, and Breckin Meyer, and there’s more than enough comedic fuel to keep Josie burning bright and lively.
5) Maybe involve some women behind the scenes of your women-centric movie
The most irritating moment in Jem is also its most symbolic. Ryan Guzman’s Rio is a character taken directly from the cartoon — he’s Jerrica’s longtime boyfriend and the Holograms’ road manager — but in this origin-story reimagining, he becomes the neutered son of Erica Raymond. Rio longs to return his mother’s music company to being about the music, man, rather than the corporate monolith it’s become under her regime.
This is an entirely new aspect of the Jem mythology; in the cartoon, Jem was the owner and manager of Starlight Enterprises from the jump. She’s been reduced to a lowly artist in this film. Given that this is a "modern reimagining" and origin story, that’s believable enough, but Jem’s script makes the head-scratching decision to turn Rio’s acquisition of Starlight Enterprises into the film’s big happy ending.
That’s right, Jem and the Holograms ends with Rio watching paternally as the band performs; he’s now their boss and Jerrica’s love interest. He’s even the one who names them the Holograms, a decision he makes without any input or agreement from the band itself. It’s a neat — but annoying — summation of a Jem movie that was directed, written, and produced entirely by men, without the involvement of Jem series creator Christy Marx (who expressed her displeasure with not being involved in the film, but ultimately gave it her blessing).
Jem is targeted squarely at girls and women. The fact that its film adaptation has been masterminded entirely by men — Chu, Landels, and producers Jason Blum and Scooter Braun (a.k.a. the man who brought us Justin Bieber) — is more than a little disheartening. It’s impossible to say whether Jem would have been a better movie with a female creator, but it seems unlikely a woman would have ended the film with the bland male love interest becoming the hero and ruler supreme of Starlight Enterprises.
Josie and the Pussycats’ source material, conversely, was created by an all-male team — which might explain their customary leotard-and-kitty-ears costumes — but its film version was co-written and co-directed by a woman, Deborah Kaplan, alongside her creative partner Harry Elfont. (The two of them also made 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait together.) While it would be a stretch to call Josie a female-empowerment narrative, it doesn’t do anything as ridiculous as turning its male love interest into the film’s hero. That's precisely the kind of thing that a female screenwriter or director would likely push back against, given the chance.
Unfortunately, Jem the movie never even gave a woman the chance to envision what a modern Jerrica/Jem could, and should, be in 2015. Instead, it turned the reins over to bunch of dudes who apparently knew little to nothing about the character, or her appeal, before Hasbro tapped them to bring the character back to life.
What fans got was a character — and a movie — that's DOA.