Retelling Movie Review: What REALLY Ruined the New JEM Movie

Jem_Movie_Teaser_PosterI went into the new JEM movie expecting to hate it. In fact, I even judged myself a bit for letting my curiosity get the better of me to support a movie that I was pretty sure was going to crap all over my childhood.

Still, I couldn’t totally shake the excitement of new JEM material as the opening credits rolled. I told myself early on to step back from comparisons to the original. After all, I am a writer and reader of retellings — so I went into the movie thinking of this as a “retelling” of the JEM origin story that took some elements from the original and remixed them in their own way.

Spoilers for the movie begin after this point, so be warned.

Thinking of it as a “retelling” allowed me to cope with the introduction of Aunt Bailey and the reduction of Synergy to a glorified home movies projector. It allowed me to accept Eric Raymond’s sex-change to Erica Raymond, the loss of Rio’s purple hair (the one thing that was REMOTELY interesting about him), and his new familial relationship as Erica Raymond’s son.

Here’s what I couldn’t accept: the way Jerrica Benton was reduced to an insecure teenager with her big, pink-clad eyes always turned toward Rio to save her.

Yes, what ruined the movie can be summed up in one word: Rio.

The original TV series was revolutionary for the way it never shied away from letting the women’s storylines — whether Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits — always take center stage (no pun intended.) Rio was relegated to sidekick and plot device status — sort of like most of the female characters in every superhero franchise. And let’s not forget that he was Jem’s road manager: HE worked for HER. Yes, he had a female boss. And he was secure enough in his masculinity not to let it bother him, even if he did need to kick a potted plant once in a while to cope.

In the new movie, Rio is the son of Erica Raymond. That means that he is the heir to Starlight Music. And in the movie’s final scenes, he finds a copy of his father’s will, which deeds Starlight Music to him “whenever he thinks he’s ready to accept it.” So he’s like, “Now, baby!” and fires his mom. This is good for Jem because his mom was a total creep who pressured Jem to go solo and ditch her sisters/band, but Rio “gets” her. So, yay, he saves the day!!!

But wait, there’s more. When Jem is giving her last performance on a three-show run, the editor of Rolling Stone comes up to Rio and is like, “Great band! What are they called?”

Rio gives it a moment’s thought and is then like, “Let’s call them … the Holograms. Jem and the Holograms.”

[Excuse me while I wretch.]

Jerrica at work, chewing out Eric Raymond.
Jerrica at work, chewing out Eric Raymond.

So, we’ve already taken a look at the role Rio played in the original series. But in case you’ve forgotten, JERRICA was the heir to Starlight Music, and Jerrica ran that company. One of the best things about the series was that it showed little girls that there was more than one way to be a woman — it wasn’t all about partying on stage. It could also be about signing contracts and managing a budget. And yes, we actually saw Jerrica do these “mundane” business-y things in the cartoon show, as well as the more assertive things like fighting another label for a band they both wanted to sign. Most little girls are understandably enamored of Jem, but Jerrica is one of the best role models I’ve ever seen in a children’s show. Now that I’m an adult, I relate far more to her than to her more glamorous counterpart.

She was so much more than the insecure teenager the movie reduced her to.

Also, who could forget the three-year, drawn-out drama that was the “Will she/won’t she?” question of whether Jerrica would ever tell Rio that she was really Jem? I kept expecting her to come clean in the last episode, but she never did — she ended the series as much a mystery to Rio as she was when she first appeared on the scene.


This publicity shot is telling -- we see Rio's full face and body, while the female characters are reduced to "pieces."
This publicity shot is telling — we see Rio’s full face and body, while the female characters are reduced to “pieces.”

Not so in the remake. Less than halfway in, Jerrica slinks into Rio’s room at Starlight Mansion (oh, and did I mention that Rio has basically been assigned to “babysit” Jerrica and her sisters?) and confides in him that she’s having an “identity crisis.” She expresses the struggle to find who she “really is” between her public persona and her private one. She tells him there is “no one else” she can talk to about this — even though all three of her sisters are down the hall and have WAY more context about this than Rio possibly could. But it all plays into making Rio, although way less glam than his animated counter part (seriously, no purple hair?!?), essentially the center of this retelling — despite the fact that he’s about as interesting as a box of hammers.

So, to recap: In the original JEM, Jerrica owned her own record label. She and her band named themselves. She kept who she was a mystery from everyone, including Rio, except the Holograms. The cartoon series depicted an “inner circle” of women’s friendship that nothing else could penetrate, while the movie lets Rio “save the day” with his acquisition of Starlight Music, reassure Jerrica about who she “really is” on the inside, and, oh yeah, GIVE JEM AND HER SISTERS THEIR FREAKIN’ IDENTITY!

rio rioAlso, in the one tiny cameo the Misfits make during the end credits (which is probably the best part of the movie), Erica Raymond convinces them to come back to work for her by telling Pizazz that Rio has fallen in love with Jem. And THAT is what motivates the Misfits to set on a path to “destroy” Jem and the Holograms — an unspoken but heavily implied unrequited love between Pizazz and Rio. As if Pizazz ever gave a flying fig for Rio. (As if ANYONE would, considering how lame-ass he is in this movie. He’s not even man enough to rock purple hair.)

I’m not such a purist that I think every little detail must remain the same from one incarnation of the Jem story to the next. After all, what would be the point if it was exactly the same except played out by live actors? But I DO take umbrage at the fact that the movie didn’t just tweak some details. Instead, its idea of an “update” was to strip Jem of all her autonomy and tie her very identity irrevocably to a dude.

AND THEN director Jon Chu has the gall to say THIS about the movie in an interview with the Verge:

The one thing [Christie Marx] asked is what she wished she’d done in the series itself: pay more attention to the girls as sisters, and pay more attention to that sisterhood. I took that to heart, and our movie was about that sisterhood and family anyway, so it definitely helped.

All I can say is that Jonny needs to go back to Sisterhood 101.

He also claims that:

The hard part was, in the cartoon she’s Jerrica and Jem, and [her love interest] Rio doesn’t know that. She’s constantly debating whether to tell him or not, and which one is he going to choose? And those type of things just don’t translate to live action. I think you’d be like, “Wait, what, she’s waiting for him to choose her, or the other her?” Some of those things, even though it’s core to the cartoon, we have to make it something that people who don’t know anything about Jem can accept.

Yeah, so, you know to make this movie more palatable to a live-action crowd and/or a new audience, we have to make sure the Dudebro is the one to save the day. Because things like women in leadership positions just don’t translate well to live-action — oh, unless you’re planning to change male leadership to female leadership (Erica Raymond) for the sole purpose of deposing it and proving that women suck as leaders in the first place. Apparently a mysterious lead whose love interest doesn’t know who she really is also doesn’t translate — I mean, none of the movies in the Batman or Superman franchises have ever pulled it off, right? And let’s not forget, the dual identity thing is just TOO COMPLICATED for people new to the storyline. Even though plenty of six-year-olds had NO trouble following this plot point in the original series.

I think this team saw lots of nifty fashions, funky hair colors, and sexy ladies — and decided to “rebrand” keeping those elements with no respect for any of the rest. This is a team that truly did not “get” Jem & the Holograms. Sure, it was fun seeing live-action replicas of Jem’s fabulous 80s wardrobe, but underneath that fluffy exterior the Jem series asked big questions of its young viewers: questions about identity, artificial intelligence, and what is real and what is not. It tackled topics as weighty as infidelity, drug addiction, adult illiteracy, child abuse, and the pain even an adult child feels when her parent is dead or distant. And it did it all in a way that let the series’ female protagonists work through these issues on their own — Rio may have saved Jem from an explosion or two, but he never had to save her from herself. And she certainly wasn’t going to hand over the keys to Starlight Music.

If only Hasbro had done the same.

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