The last few cinematic years of the 20th Century may be seen by historians as containing more than a fair share of odd creative choices. Amongst the most quirky has to be the mixed live action/animated genre that took off with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and encompassed questionable films like Casper, Cool World, and, of course, Michael Jordan’s Space Jam.
Humans can never emulate the wackiness of their drawn counterparts, marking these movies with a tinge of dissonance that is both amusing but also difficult to look past. So it is that, twenty-five years later, the Looney Tunes from the original, mixed style film are back with Space Jam: A New Legacy, a brand new one with hot stuff basketball star, LeBron James.
The problem for this sequel, its recognizable cartoon stars, and its well-meaning superstar, is that this is not the 1990s anymore. If the genre was adorably idiosyncratic back then, it is infuriatingly distracting and even obnoxious today. Still, this being 2021, you would think that at least one element– the focus on the live action Insta-celebrity superstar–would thrive in the age of social media and “trending” fame. But James’ acting chops reach none of the heights that his basketball skills do, and his electricity on the court never translates into fireworks on the big screen. Space Jam: A New Legacy is a bad rethread of its predecessor, which is to say that there is not much to redeem the film at all.
Space Jam: A New Legacy starts in the idyllic James mansion, starring the NBA champ himself alongside a fictionalized version of his family–principally the underused Sonequa Martin-Green as wife Kamiyah and Cedric Joe as youngest son Dom. There is, naturally, a large basketball court where the boys practice their game. The setup features an ill-programmed machine that shoots out balls at the utterance of that word, repeatedly and accidentally knocking people on their head. The robot is there nominally to help LeBron’s kids sharpen their sport skills, but in reality, it is (ill) designed to make us laugh. The plot immediately is as un-relatable as the setup is unfunny—a loving but overly demanding father wants his kids to be as successful in his superstardom as he is. But Dom likes to program basketball video games, not dribble around in them, so the life affirming, love-your-kids-for-who-they-are lesson is laid out as clumsily as the flailing basketballs.
LeBron eventually visits the Warner Bros. Studios, and if for whatever reason you had not yet noticed who produced this movie, this will be knocked into your head as well. Warner execs, played by the very funny but also short-changed Steven Yeun and Sarah Silverman, want the athlete to lend his likeness to a series of Warner franchise reboots. At least that bit is refreshingly self-aware, even though the studio moguls themselves do not realize that they and LeBron are being played by an A.I. unit, named Al G Rhythm (it’s supposed to be a clever pun) gone mad, played by Don Cheadle. Soon, LeBron and Dom are trapped in the Warner 3000 “Server-Verse,” and must play an unfairly stacked game of hoops to escape.
Perhaps the idea behind the film’s premise is to make it more believable that humans would interact with cartoons on the court. Perhaps there’s a clever metaphysical reference to the 21st Century world’s living inside their phones. Or perhaps it is none of the above, and by the time the first cartoon shows up you will realize you are as captive as the film’s own stars are—in a wacky world of make believe animation that is never congruous or rational, and from which the only escape is to genuinely root for the heroes to come out on top of the stacked tournament, just so the madness can stop.
Eventually, of course, Bugs and his pals show up, along with their well-known voice animators, including Jeff Bergman (Bugs, Yogi, Yosemite Sam, and others) and Eric Bauza (Daffy, Porky, Elmer), as well as bolder and mostly effective choices such as Zendaya as Lola Bunny and Jim Cummings as the Tasmanian Devil. Their appearance, along with that of every major character in the Warner Bros. franchise, repeatedly evokes melancholic nostalgia. There is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, except when audiences from 2021 are treated to humor that began in the 1930s for over 90 minutes, the theater seats become suddenly uncomfortable.
Bugs and Daffy as perpetual foils, the Road Runner perennially outsmarting the aptly-named Wile E. Coyote, were effective a long time ago. Space Jam: A New Legacy, with Malcolm D. Lee in the director’s chair, is unable to bring these characters to modern relevance, or to make them appeal to modern sensitivities, for many of the same reasons other Warner franchises—notably their DC Comics adaptations—have failed to do so. A steadfast adherence to the past is never enough, at least not without at least some eye towards modernity.
You know the filmmakers are trying too hard to impress you when they pull as far deep into the Warners library as Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, and as far back as classic lines by the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. It all makes your head spin faster than a LeBron trademark move on the court, but ultimately leaves you with the cold realization that if the focus is so heavily on prized family heirlooms, then maybe there is not much “new” to this “legacy” after all.
Most of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s crafts feel wacky in an unconvincing way. The new soundtrack by Kris Bowers is nowhere near as catchy as the original’s, which came from a time when scoring a movie was given more prominence. The classic animation is of course spotless, until the filmmakers decide to “modernize it” by rendering the Looney Tunes in modern live action-type drawings, virtual avatars if you will. It is yet another jarring contrast between the film’s supposed modern-day existence and its refusal to let go of the old-fashioned. The story’s inability to make up its own mind once and for all about which of the two realities it wishes to occupy is the principal source of its own undoing.
The rest of the film plays out more or less as you can imagine. The Toon Squad must face off against the alliterative Goon Squad (led by Cheadle’s increasingly looney Mr. Rhythm), in order to save LeBron, his son, and their own existence. The who’s who of the Warner family shows up yet again, this time as courtside spectators, though the best part here is actually the real life NBA commentators Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography provides a mostly grating backdrop to the proceedings, alternating imperceptibly between the real and the created, again not in a good way. The game seems to drag on more than the worst basketball match, in no small part because the teams each score over 1000 points based on Dom’s videogame’s Easter eggs. The joke is supposed to be on LeBron for ending up playing in his son’s virtual reality after all. In reality, the joke is on someone else.
Perhaps there was a reason it took 25 years for the studio to come up with a sequel to this franchise. Perhaps there was a reason even Michael Jordan (the ball player, anyway) refused to sign on to the proceedings. Perhaps there is a reason the Looney Tunes exist now mostly as a fun relic for toddlers and not as the cornerstones of the studio they once helped to found.
I cannot exactly pinpoint each and every reason for these realities other than to say they point to their own inevitable but painfully obvious truth about Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Space Jam: A New Legacy will be released into theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting July 16.
All photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.