In the original Space Jam, Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes play basketball against a bunch of aliens to avoid the unthinkable fate of becoming attractions in an intergalactic theme park, forced to perform toothless versions of themselves for the amusement of paying customers. Jordan and the Tunes win that round, thankfully, and the 1996 movie ends with them resuming their ordinary lives happily ever after.
But Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like the Monstars getting the last laugh. Here are not just the Looney Tunes but the entire vast universe of Warner Bros. IP trotted out with big, vacant grins at the behest of a calculating corporate parent. It’s not completely devoid of fun — I laughed a few times, mostly when Don Cheadle was onscreen. On the whole, however, the new Space Jam feels less like an entertainment than a sales pitch.
The once-in-a-generation basketball talent at the center of the story this time is LeBron James (playing himself). Along with his tween-age son Dom (Cedric Joe), he gets sucked into the “Warner Bros. Serververse” — essentially, the OASIS from Warner Bros. Ready Player One — by a villainous algorithm named Al-G Rhythm (Cheadle), who forces father and son to compete against each other in a basketball video game that Dom created.
LeBron enlists the Tune Squad for his team, while Dom throws in his lot with the Goon Squad (a hideously animated cast of human-animal hybrids based on real NBA and WBNA players like Klay Thompson and Diana Taurasi). They’ll play in front of a mixed audience of Warner Bros. characters and random humans sucked into the Serververse against their will. The stakes are high: If LeBron loses, the Looney Tunes get permanently deleted and everyone else is trapped in the Serververse forever. If he wins, everything and everyone goes back to normal.
Are we having fun yet?
Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Did that plot recap make sense to you? It doesn’t make that much sense to me, and I watched this movie. In any case, it barely matters. The premise is just a vehicle to get us where we’re really going, which is on a journey through the Warner Bros. catalog and into a grand finale wherein LeBron and the Tunes play cartoon basketball in front of the Iron Giant, Fred Flintstone, and Pennywise from It. Oh, sure, it gestures vaguely at some deeper lesson about the importance of being oneself and letting other people be themselves. More importantly, though, is that the Penguin rubbing elbows with The Mask in the front row? Why, yes, it is!!
Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like the Monstars getting the last laugh.
Occasionally, the crossovers are cute. A quick reveal of what the Tasmanian Devil has been up to since the last time we saw him, for example, feels satisfyingly appropriate. In most cases, though, the joke begins and ends with the simple fact that a bunch of stuff from different properties have been thrown together. If you’ve ever wondered what Casablanca be like if Yosemite Sam were the piano player, Space Jam: A New Legacy has an answer, and it’s “just like Casablanca already is, only now Yosemite Sam is the piano player.”
Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t the first movie to spend some time showing off what else its studio owns, and it’s not as if its predecessor was some shining example of pure anti-capitalist art. But the move has never felt quite as coldly commercial as it does in Space Jam: A New Legacy, which barely even tries to make the references amount to anything more. Ready Player One may not have been much subtler about its showcasing of Warner Bros. IP, but at least that Shining sequence was pretty neat.
Perhaps that cynicism would grate less if the film had more going for it otherwise, but everything around all the obsessive branding is just kind of there. James, who proved himself a surprisingly adept comic actor in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, is basically likable but not exactly interesting in the lead role of a father who can’t connect with his son, while other talented performers like Sonequa Martin-Green (playing his wife) are literally relegated to the sidelines. Likewise, the lessons he learns at the end are largely unobjectionable but broad, bland, and shallow, even by the standards of a PG family film.
I did laugh at this bit.
Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The animation is busy, garish, and in some places, shockingly cheap-looking. In particular, the Goon Squad, which add fantastical features like wings and spider legs to cartoon likenesses of human players, look lifted in from a decade-old bargain-bin DVD. On the other hand, Bugs and his pals are upgraded by Al-G from 2D to sleek 3D animation for no apparent reason. They are not any better looking and their makeovers have no bearing on the plot, but now they look more like what kids today expect mainstream American animation to look like. That a great many people put a great deal of time and money and skill into making Space Jam: A New Legacy is obvious; the screenplay is credited to six different people and director Malcolm D. Lee boasts a solid resume that includes comedy gems like Girls Trip and The Best Man. If only all those resources had been put to better use.
In its very best moments, of which there are few, Space Jam: A New Legacy embraces the madcap silliness of its characters. There’s a basketball practice session where all the Tunes show off their most over-the-top tricks, and it’s maybe the most delightful five minutes of the 115-minute run time. Cheadle’s performance conveys less “having a blast” than “no fucks given,” but it’s still funny when he yells at his cutesy robot sidekick, Pete. And Lil Rel Howery’s cameo is, if nothing else, a welcome reminder that every movie is improved by putting Lil Rel Howery in it. But then the film screeches to a halt so that Porky Pig, aka the Notorious P.I.G., can deliver the most cringeworthy rap performance on HBO Max since “L to the O.G.,” and, wait, what are we doing here again?
Is this supposed to be fun? Space Jam: A New Legacy would like you to believe it is. Indeed, the film is explicitly about the importance of joy. LeBron begins the movie seeing basketball solely as a career and a responsibility, and characters like Dom and Bugs Bunny try, even as he’s playing for his freedom, to remind him that the game is also supposed to be fun. It’s a lesson Space Jam: A New Legacy itself would do well to heed. A movie about beloved cartoons playing a fantastical version of basketball with a beloved star athlete should be fun. Space Jam: A New Legacy, for all its bright colors and wacky plot points, is only about business.