Back in 1985, Hasbro had introduced a new series of dolls under the brand name of Jem. Like most toy lines in the ’80s, there was a cartoon (also known as Jem) to go along with it. The cartoon followed the adventures of Jerrica Benton, the owner and manager of Starlight Records. Thanks to Synergy, a high-end artificial intelligence and holographic projection system left to Jerrica by her deceased father, she leads a double life free from the restrictions of running a business as pop star Jem. As Jem, she rocks out with the help of her band the Holograms, made up of real sister Kimber and foster sisters Shana and Aja, and they also help to fund a foster home for girls known as Starlight House. She also gets some help from Rio Pancheco, who is in love with Jerrica but also has a crush on Jem. However, their fun life isn’t free from trouble, as they’re plagued by the Misfits (a punk group jealous of their success) and Eric Raymond (a businessman seeking to regain control of Starlight Records from Jerrica). Though the series may be dated in how it is written, there’s still a charm to the cartoon, thanks to its very ’80s designs, its story of sisterhood, and one heck of a catchy theme song. Now, a movie has been made inspired by the cartoon. However, it’s missing the charm and has stripped out the heart and substance, telling a baffling yet generic story in the form of Jem and the Holograms.
In this iteration, Jerrica Benton and her sisters are all teenagers living with Jerrica’s aunt Bailey and practicing music together. One night, Jerrica shoots a video of herself singing a song she wrote, dressed up in a costume with pink wig and calling herself Jem. Despite Jerrica’s reluctance, Kimber posts the video onto YouTube, which ends up going viral and gets a message from Erca Raymond, head of Starlight Enterprises. Jerrica is hired to perform for the company, convincing them to bring her sisters along as her band. From there, they find themselves in the spotlight as Erica begins molding them into the next big hit. However, the pressures of their newfound stardom begin to threaten their sisterhood, especially when Erica makes it clear that she wants Jem and not any of the sisters. Meanwhile, Jerrica and Kimber also find themselves left with clues from their dead father, clues which may bring his greatest project, a robot known as Synergy, to completion.
The resulting film is baffling and bad, on numerous levels. For one, the core story is a generic tale of a band made up of close individuals (in this case, sisters) who leap at the opportunity to become big-name music stars but find themselves threatening to fracture from the pressures of the business. This story has been done before, it’s been done better, and it’s a story that is ultimately handled in a way that doesn’t capture any of the core spark of Jem. Maybe it could have tried to maintain a sense of sisterhood like the source material, but sloppy writing and poor directing results in Jerrica and the others hardly feeling like natural sisters and friends. The generic story of friends in a band would be bad enough, but the attempt to justify the sci-fi elements of Jem with the treasure hunt plot just feels like a total tangent and wasted time. Nothing is truly done with holograms, and Synergy is reduced from a full intelligent AI to a pet robot that communicates only in music. It is as if they feel embarrassed about the source material, yet want to desperately sell it to a millennial audience. The result is a movie that combines two generic plots, a mixture of half-hearted callbacks to the cartoon, and bizarre directorial choices such as cramming in clips from YouTube (including a few clips of people praising Jem, when it’s clear they’re talking about the original cartoon and not the character in this movie). However, there is an alternative that people can pick instead of seeing this movie.
IDW, an independent comic book publisher, has started making its own comic book of the Jem property called Jem and the Holograms (no relation to the film, thankfully). This comic reimagines Jerrica and her sisters as young adults, seeking to submit a video of their band for the Misfits’ Battle of the Bands contest yet plagued by Jerrica’s stage fright. One night, a storm ends up causing enough power to restart Synergy, a dormant AI and holographic projection system that Jerrica’s father had invented. Realizing that Synergy’s holographic projectors can be the key to her overcoming her stage fright, Jerrica uses a pair of projection earrings to create an all-body hologram around herself and a new identity as Jem. With a video finally made and uploaded, Jem and the Holograms find themselves becoming stars overnight…along with gaining rivals in the form of the Misfits.
Now, this comic is an example of what happens when you actually respect a property as you adapt it. It maintains the heart of the source material by examining the impact of celebrity along with exploring sisterhood, which it examines not only through the camaraderie of Jem and the Holograms but also in the dysfunctional nature of the Misfits. The writing is also sharp and natural, such as in capturing both the friendliness and support of Jerrica and her sisters along with the frustrations and fights that can crop up between siblings. They’ve also done a good job of making the characters feel like modern figures without cramming in unnecessary references to social media or pop culture all of the time. As for aspects of the source material, they fully embrace it. Synergy is an active element to the comic, as her holograms not only offer the central component of Jerrica’s double life of herself and Jem, but also allow the band to make incredible videos or even offer a distraction when needed. It also embraces the over-the-top character designs from the original cartoon, offering neat character designs that capture the colorful, vibrant nature of the source material yet feel like a natural update to the modern day. Most of all, it manages to capture the feel of the music performed by the bands through text and skillful design, communicating the emotion well in a format without sound. Thus, the comic is a delight to read and really shows what can be done with an adaptation of something when you demonstrate a respect and embrace of the source material.
In short, don’t see the terrible, baffling, and generic movie. Instead, go out and read the vibrantly designed, sharply written comic book. The first volume of Jem and the Holograms is now out in stores. The comic is also still running. If you want to follow it issue by issue, I suggest you go out to your local comic book shop and support it.