Jem and the Holograms is based on a cartoon that wasn't very good. It is kind of fondly remembered, however, for being so crazy. Every episode would basically find its titular heroines put into peril by a villainous rival band. That craziness doesn't really make it into this movie. It instead takes the strange approach of applying the elements of the Scooter Braun style music documentary to a fictional band. The final product is a messy, overstuffed picture that seems unlikely to please fans of the property and equally unlikely to entice new ones.
Ever since the death of her parents, Jerrica Benton and her little sister Kimber have lived with their aunt Bailey and her two foster daughters Aja and Shana. Jerrica is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when Kimber uploads a video of her singing a song she wrote on YouTube. On the video, she wears a wig and introduces herself as "Jem." High powered record executive Erica Raymond signs her and her sisters on, and takes them on a path to stardom. But Erica only really wants Jem, and she pushes Jerrica to abandon all ties to who she really is.
There's also a subplot concerning an invention that her dad left her, and a quest to find the missing pieces to complete it. There's also the minor drama of Rio (Ryan Guzman), the creatively dissatisfied son of Erica who forms a bond with Jerrica while working with her. There's a lot of business in this film, but very little actual movement. The stakes are never felt, and the characters are at times made to do things that make no sense. There is a sequence, for example, that has Jem breaking into a building to recover earrings that were never forcefully taken from her. Whenever it feels like the plot might actually be going somewhere, the movie will inexplicably take a step back and avoid dealing with the conflict that's meant to arise.
The movie that Jem most resembles is Jon M. Chu's Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never, which tracks the pop star's rise from YouTube sensation to international superstar. The film uses much of the same aesthetic, and posits the same vague, overly positive message about how a pop star might inspire others. It all feels terribly false, and the aesthetic is inherently incompatible with the property. It was hard enough to buy those ideas when relating to a real pop star. The aggressive selling of a fictional pop star as an inspirational figure feels doubly dubious.
And the adoption of those documentary elements makes for a pretty ugly film. Or if we're being generous, it could just be called inconsistent. There are some bits in here that are kind of pretty, with the outré production design giving the film a unique look to say the least. But that's matched up with grainy testimonial footage and wonky handheld camera work. The music in the film feels overly produced and artificial, especially given how the story stumps for authenticity above all. The acting from the young cast is mostly okay, with Aubrey Peeples holding this rickety plot together with sheer force of will. Juliette Lewis seems to embrace the cartoon villainy of her character, and she starts feeling out of place after a while.
Jem and the Holograms is an eminently strange movie. It isn’t even really bad; it’s just so weirdly confused. It is a little too serious about its message to be fun, a little too silly to be serious, and almost completely lacking in nostalgic value. A mid-credits sequence promises better things for a sequel that will probably never be made, those last few minutes suddenly giving the film an actual direction and a chance for conflict. This film is caught in a nexus of unwatchability, the filmmakers unwilling or unable to commit to one approach over another. It plays a game of compromise, leaving very little genuine appeal in the aftermath.