It took 25 years for Warner Bros. to get around to making a sequel to their blockbuster hit Space Jam (1996), the live-action/animation hybrid that teamed a squad of Looney Tunes with basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Sadly, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a mostly cold and cynical advert for the studio. Jordan gets replaced with a new basketball legend, LeBron James, which sounds like a decent trade, but his wooden performance is one of the main issues here. Although he stole some laughs in the comedy Trainwreck (2015), James struggles to banter with animated co-stars.
In the opening, which establishes a conflict between a fictionalised James and his pre-teen son, Dom (Cedric Joe), it’s already clear the sportsman’s going to struggle with delivering any emotional depth. Dom’s created his own video game inspired by basketball, but his dad doesn’t understand his son’s creativity in this area, wanting him to instead following in his sporting footsteps on the court.
James then attends a meeting with Warner Bros execs (Sarah Silverman and Steve Yeun, both wasted in glorified cameos), where they reveal the studio’s artificially intelligent algorithm, “Al G. Rhythm” (Don Cheadle), wants to digitise James’s image and insert into various films and TV shows. James is unsure about the whole crazy idea, but later he and Dom get sucked into the Warner Brothers ‘ServerVerse’—a digital world filled with characters from the studio’s extensive archive. It seems Al G. Rhythm is angry James isn’t on board with his pitch, so he challenges the star to a high stakes basketball game, and if he loses he stays trapped inside the ServerVerse forever.
Once James gets hurled into ‘Tune Town’ with the so-called rejects, Space Jam: A New Legacy goes full-blown Ready Player One (2018), with the NBA star and Bugs Bunny teaming up to track down all the other Looney Tunes characters, who’ve been scattered across the ServerVerse. At least during this period James’s voiceover work as a cartoon is less distracting than his live-action self.
The pair race through the ServerVerse together in Marvin the Martian’s flying saucer, visiting DC superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman, stopping for Matrix slow-motion bullet gags and a Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) sketch with Wile E. Coyote, all while busily collecting the other ‘toons. Although there’s the potential for fun in this part of the movie, the crossover segments are truly cringeworthy. It’s unclear who the jokes are aimed at, with clips from the likes of Casablanca (1942) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) being used. Parents will find it awkward, while most kids won’t get most of the references. The gags are obvious but they may please fans of slapstick animation, as the characters flit between classic cartoons, comic-books, and even encounter Rick & Morty.
The action inevitably shifts to the game of hoops, where Al pits father (with the Tune Squad) against his son Dom (who’s become part of the Goon Squad). Only now, updated for the iPhone generation, this game of basketball isn’t just about shooting hoops, it’s about “style points” and “power-ups”. The crowd at the game is also comprised of characters from various Warner Bros IP, including The Droogs from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Bette Davis’ character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and The Flintstones. But it’s hard to focus on the emotional climax of the movie you’re watching when being distracted by Catwoman and The Joker in the background—particularly as they’re not even well done, but look like participants of a low-budget Halloween party.
Space Jam: A New Legacy has no subplots and yet manages to drag its one story out for 115-minutes. While there’s a commendable emotional arc about living for yourself and not to please others, it feels like something’s missing here. The emotional beats between father and son fail to land, not helped by James’s wooden delivery, and the villain’s motivations are thinner than a flattened coyote.
However, while James is clearly no thespian, he’s at least a good sport and handles some of the humorous moments well. Many jokes are made at the NBA superstar’s expense, mocking LeBron’s career and his sport, and the Looney Tunes elicit a laugh or two, even if all their catchphrases get overused. Sports commentator Ernie Johnson Jr. and actor Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), also appear as themselves as game announcers, delivering more laughs in their marginal screen time than anyone else!
The addition of Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home) voicing Lola Bunny is also pointless, underusing a talented actress in a thankless role, while Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery) gets barely more than 10 lines as LeBron’s screen wife. A cartoon bunny in an updated, less sexy outfit is sadly the best representation of women here.
It’s not clear who Space Jam: A New Legacy is for. Every update to the 1996 original fails to work, the makeover from 2D to 3D animation looks creepy on the ‘toons themselves, and the rap battle feels like something only a middle-aged person would think is cool. One also can’t help wondering what Stanley Kubrick would make of his Droogs cheering on a basketball team made up of Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.
Much of the humour is too childish for now-adult fans of the original looking for a hit of ’90s nostalgia, and yet too many of the movie references will go over the heads of contemporary kids. Ready Player One had a better reason to include many of the same characters also seen here. Ultimately, by the time it’s over, you feel like you’ve just watched an extended advert for Warner Bros. rather than a movie to entertain families.
USA | 2021 | 115 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Malcolm D. Lee.
writers: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Googler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon & Celeste Ballard (story by Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Cooler & Terence Nance; based on ‘Space Jam’ by Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod).
starring: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza & Zendaya.