Nostalgia is a powerful weapon these days, and on the surface Space Jam: A New Legacy seems ideally poised to wield it better than perhaps any movie in recent memory. It’s the sequel to a beloved family film that hit theaters 25 summers ago, and has gone on to enjoy enduring popularity among audiences of a certain generation, even if it doesn’t hold up anywhere near as well as you might think.
On top of that, it’s a flashy and heavily effects-driven family film with plenty of garish visuals to appeal to the younger demographic, many of whom will have parents just as excited to see a new Space Jam as they are. Throw in the presence of LeBron James, one of the most recognizable marketable athletes on the planet, and it’s easy to see how those three boxes being ticked could combine for a big, fun summer blockbuster. The only problem is that A New Legacy is pretty terrible.
Given the constant comparisons made between James and his Space Jam predecessor that have been rumbling along in the background of the sporting discourse for almost two decades, you’d have thought the subtitle of the film would have been referring to the leading man, who follows His Airness as the latest multi-time MVP and championship winner to team up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes to win a basketball game with the fate of the universe at stake. Unfortunately, and more than a little terrifyingly, the only legacy on display is that of Warner Bros.
It doesn’t start out that way, though, but the family angle of the narrative is botched almost immediately. You see, King James encourages his son to follow in his daunting footsteps to play ball, but young Dom wants to continue developing his own video game and forego basketball camp for E3 gaming camp. His old man isn’t pleased about this, and can’t seem to understand in a conversation with his wife why the youngster wants to follow his own dreams instead of being pushed in the complete opposite direction by his father. It’s a strange way to establish the core family dynamic at the heart of the story, and nobody’s even bothered to tell Dom that the game he’s hedging his future on is pretty much NBA Jam, the arcade favorite that first arrived in 1993.
From there, we head to Warner Bros., where Steven Yeun and Sarah Silverman show up for five minutes and a paycheck as Warner Bros. executives, pitching LeBron with an algorithm that can airdrop him into any Warner Bros. property of his choosing, thanks to a sentient AI and a newfangled virtual world known as the Warner Bros. ServerVerse. You may have noticed the repeated use of the studio’s name in that previous sentence, which is in effect the very essence of Space Jam: A New Legacy. It wouldn’t be too harsh to call it a marketing exercise designed to brainwash audiences into shelling out for an HBO Max subscription, and it would probably even be fair to call it a WB circle jerk.
James turns down the offer, but his tech-savvy son is nonetheless scurried into the ServerVerse by Al G. Rhythm, and the villain’s name is about the smartest piece of writing A New Legacy has to offer. It’s an exposition-heavy role that could have been a chore in the wrong hands, so it’s time to lavish praise upon Don Cheadle, the most consistently and reliably entertaining thing about the entire endeavor. Anybody could have turned up to play a character with a stupid name, who dresses in stupid clothes and go through the motions, and it’s lucky that Cheadle filmed almost all of his scenes against a green screen, otherwise he’d have devoured the scenery whole. He puts his back into being as hammy and over-the-top as humanly possibly, and deserves credit for it.
As for James, he’s a much better actor than Michael Jordan, but that’s not saying a great deal. However, he’s more than happy to poke fun at himself in a way docuseries The Last Dance made abundantly clear that Jordan would never allow, and he’s got just about enough natural charisma to hold your attention as he runs through the entire emotional spectrum with a range that goes from A to almost B.
The plot, for all that it matters, sees the Looney Tunes scattered across the ServerVerse, for no other reason than it allows A New Legacy to visit some of the biggest properties in the Warner Bros. catalogue, with absolutely no reasoning behind it. This is a film ostensibly designed for children, so naturally we pitch up in the R-rated Mad Max: Fury Road, The Matrix and 1942’s Casablanca, which all of the kids love. The DC Universe at least makes some degree of sense, even if the animated Justice League show up for all of one second, and Lola Bunny’s Themyscira-set sequence with Wonder Woman sort of goes against everything both characters stand for when she turns her back on completing her Amazonian trials to save two men who showed up out of nowhere, asked for help and then needed rescuing.
Admittedly, the extended and climactic basketball sequence is fitfully entertaining in parts and offers up enough dazzling CGI and eye-popping visuals to provide a distraction, but the backgrounds full of Warner Bros. characters ranging from the rapist, murdering Droogs of A Clockwork Orange to It‘s child-eating inter-dimensional clown Pennywise via the sexually-repressed nuns of Ken Russell’s 1971 effort The Devils and the Night King from Game of Thrones make you wonder who these cameos are actually for, or what they’re supposed to accomplish.
It’s as if someone decided to create a two-hour, $160 million advertisement for the Warner Bros. back catalogue, only to messily dump a Space Jam sequel somewhere in the middle. It’s hollow, soulless and cynical, which is even more infuriating when you consider that the studio have already delivered almost the exact same premise before in The LEGO Movie and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, except on those occasions it worked because the IP served the story, and not the other way around.
The Looney Tunes are nothing more than passengers that never really get the chance to indulge in their timeless brand of anarchic comedy bar a few grace notes, and they only exist as a device to beat you over the head with the reminder that Warner Bros. have a deep bench of brands and properties at their disposal. The concept is ripe for biting satire at how super-serving content can often by detrimental to art and creativity, but instead Space Jam: A New Legacy is a briefly and all-too-infrequently enjoyable hybrid of sports comedy and family drama that doubles as egregious product placement on the largest possible scale.