Overtly deciding to make their latest film one of the most shameless cash grabs in Hollywood history, Warner Bros. never once tries to hide its Easter eggs in Space Jam: A New Legacy. In this ostensible follow-up to the 1996 live-action/animation crossover, LeBron James teams up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes to challenge an evil computer program to a do-or-die game of basketball.
Occupying the last half of the movie, the marquee matchup is watched by thousands of spectators on the sidelines, separated by an invisible forcefield of course, with a crowd that consists of seemingly every notable character or intellectual property Warner Bros. has ever released. From King Kong to Space Ghost to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine to Danny DeVito’s Penguin, the sea of back catalog is literally endless, and most of the time the viewer is playing “I Spy” rather than watching the actual basketball game that’s apparently got the fate of the world at stake. But I’m not so sure the execs at WB would have wanted it any other way. However, there is one particular property that seems conspicuously absent, not just from the crowd, but from this movie entirely.
Despite a brief shot of the diminutive aliens from the first film, 1996’s Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan, almost doesn’t even seem to exist in the world of this “sequel.” Not a single human character returns, and prior to the quick mention of MJ late in the game–and a clever cameo by actor Michael B. Jordan–we could have made the case that the filmmakers weren’t even aware that a predecessor existed at all.
Right away it’s clear that we’re in a shinier, glossier movie altogether. We trade Jordan’s relatively modest estate from the first film for a massive Beverly Hills mansion owned by James. The NBA player, as a fictionalized version of himself, gets into an argument with his middle child, Dom (Cedric Joe), who wants to put all of his effort into designing video games, where his dad pushes him to play basketball instead. This conflict gets visited and revisited as LeBron and Dom get kidnapped by a Warner Bros. computer program named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) after LeBron fails to make a deal with the company that would place his animated likeness into all of their movies (?).
Al gets on Dom’s good side by feeding into his insecurities with his father, and convinces him to relinquish full access to his latest video game, Dom-Ball, an over-the-top basketball game similar to NBA Jam. Al informs LeBron that he must assemble a team made up entirely of Warner Bros. characters. And if he doesn’t win, he’ll become his prisoner forever.
Initially his plan is to recruit the likes of Superman, Batman, and King Kong, and I’m still unclear why that didn’t pan out. But lo, he meets Bugs Bunny, who helps him gather the rest of the Looney Tunes for the task. It’s at this point where the film truly goes off the rails exploring other “realms,” such as the worlds of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Matrix, and DC Comics. It’s incoherent, but also the most interesting part of the film in hindsight. Yet there seems to be one question that no one is asking: Why is it called “Space Jam” if the movie has nothing to do with space?
Director Malcolm D. Lee, using a screenplay by a team of six (!) writers, seems to have a vision at times, which then often gets overrode by the need to hit all these obligatory marks, turning the story into ridiculous chaos. Not the fun Acme kind of chaos, but the frustrating, “I don’t know how there’s still an hour left” kind of chaos.
Some of the best scenes in the original aren’t animated at all. There’s the hilarious montage where five NBA players go through identity crises as they suddenly, and simultaneously, lose all of their athleticism. And then there’s the poignant and memorable opening scene with a young MJ and his father which under girdles the entire film. The new movie, however, takes “going through the motions” to a new level. It’s not so much paint-by-numbers, but finger-painting gone bad.
Considering the sad state of live-action family comedies over the past decade and a half, our expectations for the mandatory live-action setup story with James were already tempered. However, when Bugs and the gang finally do show up, it’s obvious that there’s such a disconnect from the essence of the classic Looney Tunes that they don’t actually add anything substantial. As funny as it is to hear Granny quoting Chappelle’s Show, it’s also a microcosm of the comedic expectations of this modern age. Well-crafted slapstick has devolved into lazy genre stereotypes. Topical jokes are welcomed, but not if that’s where the filmmakers are investing all of their energy. Ultimately, this isn’t Looney Tunes; it’s just what someone thinks Looney Tunes is.
And then there’s James himself. There’s a scene early on when the basketball player tells the WB execs, “Athletes acting, that never goes well.” It’s a conspicuous line to throw into a movie where it’s star athlete can’t act whatsoever. He’s not only required to do TOO much acting, but a lot of the comedic responsibility is put on his shoulders as well, and he just can’t deliver. He doesn’t have Bill Murray or Wayne Knight or even the Looney Tunes much of the time to carry the comedic burden. Likewise, the original Space Jam had essentially no human-to-human drama whatsoever, so MJ never had to show much range as an actor. His purpose was to ground the film by simply playing himself. And he was very good at just playing himself. James can’t even play himself convincingly during post-game interviews in real life.
In Space Jam: A New Legacy, the singular theme is played very much on the sleeve. The film-in-name-only tries to mirror several scenes from the original and even utilizes the same basic framework, except it’s made to be much more complicated, thus demanding more from its execution and requiring more to be explained–which it doesn’t do on either account. The villains are constructed to be more unstoppable this time so that beating them actually becomes implausible. Likewise, with James now concerned with the relationship with his son–and rightfully so–there’s less of a focus on his bond with Bugs and the others, yielding a much less fun ride in the process. The stakes are just way too high here.
There’s one improvement made this time around, as the overlong basketball sequence includes color commentary by Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery. The original had nothing of the sort, contributing to the only real low point of that movie.
Is this shiny new Space Jam for fans of the original or for the kids of today? Well, it’s caught between both. By forcing attention away from the original all it’s doing is forcing people to compare the two–as if they weren’t going to already. The events of the first film didn’t end tidily. The villain gets booted off of Earth, but it’s very likely that he would have been seeking his revenge 25 years later. Warner Bros. had a perfectly good movie to base a sequel off of, but squandered every chance they got. There’s no Monstars, no catchy theme song, or killer hip-hop soundtrack. There’s no Bill Murray or Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan (or Pepé Le Pew). There’s not even much Space Jam.
Prior to the release of the first movie, there was a question as to whether Looney Tunes could be relevant enough in a modern age to carry a film to box office success. It was a vulnerability that served as a palpable undercurrent throughout the film as the characters struggled to find their own confidence as well. Well, they not only proved that they still had it in them to be popular, but also showed that if you have passion and creativity on your side, anything is possible. Fast forward 25 years later and these matters don’t seem all that much of a concern anymore. With Warner Bros. flexing and flaunting their IPs all over the film, it’s hard to believe that any of their characters could possibly lack any confidence at all.
There was just an inherent purpose built in at the center of the original; one that connected the dots between MJ’s initial retirement, brief foray into baseball, and subsequent return to the NBA two years later. It fictionalized his epiphany and even mirrored events that showed his love for the game; a love for the game that subtextualized everything else that the film did. It spoke as much to fellow basketball fanatics as it did to kids who just wanted goofy, and looney, entertainment.
Space Jam: A New Legacy speaks more to fans of Hollywood (specifically Warner Bros. movies) than it does fans of basketball. It would have made more sense if they had leaned into this “movie realm” premise, if that’s what they wanted to do. Maybe cast somebody else and have them team up with Bugs Bunny in order to locate “missing” movie characters or something along those lines. The basketball content not only takes up an hour of the film, but doesn’t ever seem to want to be there to begin with.
Originally published at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/space-jam-a-new-legacy-2021/