Like most kids who grew up in the 1990s, I have at least a tenuous nostalgic connection to “Space Jam,” the 1996 live action/animated hybrid that combined Looney Tunes characters with basketball star Michael Jordan in a story about defeating alien invaders through a basketball game. The movie may not have exactly been a critical success, but it was a box office smash. Personally, I remember the soundtrack—headlined by the massive hit that was R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”—more than the movie itself, which I’m fairly certain was one of those films my elementary school teachers would throw on the TV when they didn’t know what else to do with us, but its zany concept and wild energy somehow perfectly encapsulates that specific time. So you may ask, what would a sequel made 25 years later have to offer?
The answer is exactly nothing, or maybe even somewhere below nothing. “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which is directed by Malcolm D. Lee, swaps out Jordan for LeBron James for a story that, once again, teams up a real life basketball superstar with animated Looney Tunes characters for a match that will decide their fate. Only this time, the sense of humor and modicum of originality that was present in its predecessor is non-existent, substituted for a skeleton of a story that is so strongly built around existing Warner Brothers’ intellectual property as a whole, it actually made me depressed.
For obvious reasons, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” relies on existing IP because it is a sequel. You don’t need to have seen the first movie to understand this one (it stands on its own), but if you have, you’ll notice that the overall plots are nearly identical. The sequel updates the premise to account for changes in technology, for better or for worse (who are we kidding, it’s for worse). The villain of the story is Al-G Rhythm (it’s a play on algorithm, get it?), played by Don Cheadle, who appears to be the only actor really relishing the insanity slash stupidity of this movie. Al is an A.I. developed at the Warner Brothers’ Studio to instantly insert a star, like LeBron, into any movie, but Al has become self-aware and wants more power. So he traps LeBron and his young son Dom (Cedric Joe) inside a virtual space populated by every Warner Brothers’ character imaginable, and tasks him with assembled a basketball team comprised of fictional characters to play in a match against him and his team, the Goon Squad. If Lebron wins, he and Dom will be released. If he loses, he, Dom, and the many viewers Al abducted and brought into the virtual space, will be permanently deleted (I’m still not entirely sure what all Al gets out of this scheme world domination-wise, but we’re moving on).
The first place in the virtual reality that LeBron lands in is Tune World, which, thanks to Al scattering all the characters around, is currently solely populated by Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman). So LeBron recruits Bugs to his cause and, borrowing a spaceship from Marvin the Martian, travel from world to world, tracking down the rest of the Looney Tunes. In perhaps the most soul-sucking sequence I’ve seen in a recently released film, and yet one that perfectly illustrates the current state of Hollywood, each world represents a different WB franchise, with the Tunes inserted into various movies. There are some fairly obvious ones, like DC World and Harry Potter World, but also a completely random string of adult movies and shows that kids watching this movie will likely have never even heard of, much less seen. I’m talking “Game of Thrones.” I’m talking “The Matrix,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Austin Powers.” They even have the audacity to touch “Casablanca.”
The bizarre collection of franchises represented in this movie only gets weirder and more random as it progresses. Throughout the basketball game that dominates the second half of the movie, characters from different films and shows can be spotted in the background, and they range from King Kong and the Iron Giant to the Joker (specifically Jack Nicholson’s Joker) to Pennywise the Clown. None of these franchises have any connection to each other outside of the fact that they are all owned by the same studio. It’s as if the no less than six (!!!) writers credited on this movie were tasked solely with building something out of existing IP. The blatant commercialism perhaps peaks there, but it is evident almost from the very start of the film. When LeBron visits the Warner Brothers’ Studio, before he is sucked into Al’s universe, sweeping aerial views of the studio lot are followed by a shot of a WB executive (played by Sarah Silverman) sitting at her desk, posters of the WB movies “Joker” and “Aquaman” prominently displayed behind her. And when we glimpse Al scheming, we can see that he is inhabiting a virtual space constructed in the distinct shape of the Warner Brothers’ shield—subliminal messaging at its finest.
In my increasingly frustrated attempts to rationalize this movie’s existence, my brain says that “Space Jam: A New Legacy” should be for both adults who grew up with the first film, and young new fans. But I can’t imagine either group either understanding or appreciating the bulk of these cameos, which ultimately take time and focus away from the Tunes. There are a bevy of truly talented actors in this movie too; besides Cheadle and Silverman, there’s Lil Rel Howery and Sonequa Martin-Green, and even Steven Yeun cameos as another WB executive (hey, we all have bills to pay). The voice cast for the animated characters largely nail it too, with the exception of Zendaya, who plays Lola Bunny (and it isn’t for lack of talent, she’s just grossly miscast). LeBron is okay, but having immensely enjoyed in previous film appearances in movies like “Trainwreck,” I expected him to be at least a little more enjoyable in this.
But maybe that’s less the fault of LeBron and more the fault of the writers. With the exception of one amusing cameo, “Space Jam” isn’t really funny, and its attempts to craft a heart-warming father/son story around LeBron and Dom (whose father wants him to play basketball, but who actually wants to make video games) fall flat. The animation of the Tunes is good, but otherwise, “Space Jam” is a visually hideous movie that lacks the color and fun you’d expect from it. In fact, the scenes set during the basketball game look frankly dystopian, with their dark backdrops accentuated with neon lights (it doesn’t help that Pennywise is there lurking in the background).
With any sort of live action/animated hybrid, a lot of suspension of belief is required. This is true of movies that combine distinctly cartoon worlds with the real one, like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the first “Space Jam,” and it’s true of more current movies that combine real actors with more realistic animated characters, like the “Paddington” films. But there’s absolutely nothing charming about the mash-up of mediums and characters in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and its soulless attempt to mine contemporary IP and 90s nostalgia to make a quick buck. It’s self-awareness is not amusingly meta, but depressingly corporate. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” may be one of the worst movies of the year, but it’s also the one that made me weep the most for the current state of the film industry.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until August 15. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG.