“Athletes acting, that never goes well.” This throwaway joke uttered by LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy may be the film’s only pseudo-acknowledgement that the first Space Jam wasn’t an unimpeachable masterpiece. For years, the original 1996 hit, in which Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a variety of Looney Tunes were forced to play an intergalactic game of basketball, was one of those movies kids adored and parents forced themselves to sit through. James, who was 11 when Space Jam came out, was reportedly one of those kids and has now replaced Jordan as the star of the franchise, perhaps setting the stage for a lucrative post-NBA career.
Here’s the good news for King James: Questions about who’s the better player aside, he is certainly a better actor than His Airness ever was, so he’s already overcome one of the earlier movie’s shortcomings. He also has the advantage of working with journeyman director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Undercover Brother, Girls Trip), an underappreciated pro who can confidently keep things bouncing along — a step up from the original film’s Joe Pytka, who, despite being an acclaimed commercial director, somehow couldn’t properly frame a close-up.
The film’s basic idea has value too. Those of us who became parents in subsequent years have discovered that the combination of NBA superstars and classic cartoons remains potent to this day. Which may be why the premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy hasn’t steered far from its predecessor: Our hero must assemble a team with Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the Looney Tunes crew for a high-stakes game against some intimidating creatures who’ve been given the skills of real-life basketball stars (including Klay Thompson, Diana Taurasi, and LeBron’s own Lakers teammate Anthony Davis).
This time, however, the game they must play is something called Dom Ball, a freewheeling, gravity-defying variation on basketball created by LeBron’s tech-savvy 12-year-old son Dom (Cedric Joe), whose preference for gaming and coding over hooping frustrates his perfectionist dad. Father and son have wound up at odds thanks to the sinister machinations of Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a sentient algorithm (get it?) who wants to punish LeBron because the basketball star dismissed his plan to integrate LeBron’s likeness into a variety of studio properties (Batman vs. LeBron! LeBron of Thrones! LeBron and the Chamber of Secrets!).
Al-G sucks Dom and LeBron into his digital kingdom and turns son against father. While Al-G ingratiates himself with the child, Dad is sent spinning off into the distant reaches of the so-called Serververse, ultimately landing in Toonland, whose sole inhabitant is now a lonely Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman). LeBron’s arrival in Toonland may be the film’s most entertaining passage, as he transforms into an old-fashioned, 2-D animated version of himself and promptly begins to do Looney Tunes things like falling off cliffs and crashing to the ground as a disembodied, bouncing basketball head that then must be pumped by Bugs back into its full human shape. Such psychedelic slapstick retains the ability to surprise. (Older viewers may recall that the popularity of the original Space Jam initially led not to a sequel but to a delightful, full-on animated feature film called Looney Tunes: Back in Action in 2003.)
Things get a bit more uneven after LeBron and Bugs commandeer Marvin the Martian’s spaceship and, in an attempt to recruit their own team, travel to different movie and TV worlds, including the settings of Metropolis, The Matrix, Game of Thrones, Casablanca, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The sight of Wile E. Coyote replicating a shot from Fury Road, diving in slow-motion toward the Road Runner while brandishing a giant knife and fork, is just silly enough to work. And yes, Elmer Fudd does kind of look like Mini-Me from Austin Powers in Goldmember. And the idea of Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) training to become an Amazon warrior in Wonder Woman’s Themyscira — sure, why not? Inserting Foghorn Leghorn into Game of Thrones, or Speedy Gonzales and a leather-clad Granny into The Matrix, however, just feels like screenwriting via IP Mad Libs. The less said about Yosemite Sam becoming the Sam in Casablanca’s “Play it again, Sam” scene, the better.
Is this all starting to sound familiar? The bad guy’s plan is pretty much the movie’s plan: Embed LeBron James into a variety of Warner properties. Like most corporate cinematic endeavors, Space Jam: A New Legacy tries to have it both ways, proclaiming to be on the side of the angels while doing the work of the Devil. It criticizes shameless, money-grubbing attempts to synergize and update beloved classics (as LeBron himself puts it, “This idea is just straight-up bad”) … all the while shamelessly synergizing and updating beloved classics. Late in the film, when the 2-D Looney Tunes suddenly become three-dimensional and grow photorealistic fur, they express disgust at themselves. It’s the movie’s best joke, because the folks at Warner would probably like nothing more than to regularly create such “live-action” versions of these iconic cartoon characters, à la their rival Disney.
But maybe the problem is that the picture should have gone further. The idea of incorporating LeBron and Looney Tunes into all these classic Warner properties might sound brazen, but it arguably isn’t brazen enough: The conceit loses energy pretty quickly, like a series of jokes nobody bothered to develop beyond “What if?” This debilitating lack of inspiration becomes apparent during the climactic game, played in front of a massive crowd filled with even more familiar characters, from the Scooby Doo gang to the Jetsons to the ThunderCats to the Iron Giant to King Kong to Mr. Freeze to an assortment of Jokers. Also there: Bette Davis’s character from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (no, really) and the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
Outrageous! But is it, really? Plopping all these disparate characters into the film feels like the kind of thing we’re supposed to deem “crazy” and maybe even get offended by … if only any of them did anything crazy or offensive, or even remotely interesting. (Seriously, what’s the point of throwing King Kong into the crowd and not having him do King Kong things?) This is the real problem with so much franchise filmmaking. The studios rarely seem to want to do anything new with their properties other than remind us that they still own them. This leads to repetition, tedium, sameness — which is probably why we still get movies about how Batman’s parents died. In the grand scheme of things, the new Space Jam isn’t hateful or inept. It fills a two-hour hole in the schedule, which will keep parents happy, and it brandishes the brand, which will keep shareholders happy. Whether it could have also been a good movie might not have crossed anyone’s mind.
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