From my perspective, there is only one bar that Space Jam: A New Legacy needed to clear. Specifically, it had to be a movie that let its athlete star be an active participant throughout. This was not the case with 1996’s Space Jam, which had a plot that pushed Michael Jordan aside in favor of the Looney Tunes. Sure, that movie starts out like it is Michael’s story. However, it drops the act as soon as it leaves the realm of flesh and blood. But with this sequel, we have a film that actually tries to have a human element. Not only does it give the protagonist a sense of personality, but it also places him in a story that does not allow supporting characters to overshadow him. So in that regard, A New Legacy does qualify as an improvement over the original.
No longer are we following someone who drops into the world of the Tunes out of nowhere. This time, we follow LeBron James as he turns down an offer from studio executives to give them his likeness. Little does he know that lurking in the studio servers is Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), an AI that will do anything to pair his likeness with the rest of the studio’s properties. In this case, “anything” takes the form of placing LeBron in the digital space, kidnapping his son Dominic (Cedric Joe), and challenging LeBron to a basketball game where rules go out the window. And just to make the stakes higher, it turns out that LeBron hasn’t been the greatest father to Dominic in recent years. So in addition to staying in the digital world forever, losing the game means losing his chance to make amends with his son.
To say that I expected a deteriorating father-son dynamic at the center of a Space Jam movie would be a total lie. Nevertheless, I’m glad it’s here because it allows the protagonist to have a sense of flawed humanity. James is no one’s idea of an actor with range, but director Malcolm D. Lee works around this setback. As written, LeBron is a father who has a close-minded view on how one can achieve success. This means that whoever fills this role has to be someone who comes off as emotionally stunted, and Lee does an admirable job of making James fill that role. And in the moments where LeBron interacts with other people, at least James tries to be an attentive scene partner. Contrast this with the first movie, where Jordan exudes the energy of someone who would rather sit on a toilet and read a book.
It’s also reassuring to know that the story has an internal logic this time. A glaring issue with the original Space Jam is how it refuses to give sensible explanations for most of its story beats. For example, it justifies Bill Murray’s last-minute appearance in the climactic game with an aside of “the producer’s a friend of mine” and nothing else. If there is a more obvious example of a deus ex machina in a family film, I haven’t found it. Meanwhile, A New Legacy lays out plot points in a fairly logical way. As a result, every appearance has a justification that makes sense in the film’s world. Keep in mind, we are still in the realm of cartoons. Therefore, there is room for zaniness to take center stage. But when it comes to the fundamentals, it’s not half-bad at establishing a connective tissue.
And that, right there, is everything nice I have to say about A New Legacy. For all of its attempts to make itself a legitimate movie, it is no less of an overlong commercial than its predecessor. If anything, this new installment dives into the concept of exercising brands with even less shame. It’s common knowledge that Space Jam‘s reason for existing was to sell Air Jordans and Looney Tunes merchandise. Still, at least that movie had the decency to not stop dead in its tracks to promote shoes or plush toys. With this movie, audiences are not so lucky. Forget about selling just LeBron James or just the Tunes, this movie has its sights on everything in the Warner Bros. umbrella. As such, properties such as DC and Game of Thrones get extensive shout-outs.
Perhaps the most galling thing about this change in scope is that it’s not even a full-hearted celebration of all things WB. While the narrative opens the opportunity for other franchises to take precedence, it still restricts itself in the Tunes world for most of the runtime. So instead of the movie being a true crossover, most of the properties fade into the background. At most, you get scenes in which the Tunes take part in a WB property. But once it gets to the climactic basketball game, the franchises literally become part of the background. Of course, making icons like Austin Powers into key players wouldn’t make the experience any less pleasant. But at least the boastfulness would better fit the milieu of a brand exercise than the shrugs we see here.
Speaking of the Tunes, A New Legacy does not put them in the best light either. As with its predecessor, it feels the need to bring in all the iconic faces even when there’s little for them to do. Because of that, there are characters that clearly get better dialogue and visual gags than others. On the positive side, you have Wile E. Coyote using a cloning machine that amusingly backfires on him. On the negative side, you have things like Granny flipping around like someone a fraction of her age. And for those who cannot get enough of cringe-worthy attempts to appear hip, you have Porky Pig rapping. These one-note bits would be easier to stomach if these cartoons weren’t major supporting characters. But since the Tunes must be part of the Space Jam formula, we’re stuck with these uneven attempts at comedy.
That said, no joke is as extensive or as aggravating as the one it wears around its sleeve. Simply put, it is a story about individuals trying to defeat Al G. Rhythm in a movie that largely exists due to trends emerging at the perfect time. And how can one see these trends emerge? Hint: take a close look at the antagonist’s name. Anyway, what we have here is a studio trying to poke fun at how it views art as amorphous content. How else does one justify the movie’s desire to name-drop money-making franchises? However, it is impossible to laugh with the filmmakers because many scenes lack that sense of irony. Moments like Granny and Speedy Gonzales re-enacting the opening of The Matrix don’t come off as heartful parodies. They come off as showcases of executives who are good at recognizing imagery and horrible at recognizing context.
I’m honestly at a loss of what to do with A New Legacy. It certainly tries harder to give its protagonist an actual presence. Not to mention, I’m happy to see James hold up well in front of the camera. But being a lackluster WB showcase and a lackluster Looney Tunes showcase is not at all what I would consider as an upgrade. In any case, this is a chore to watch, only offset somewhat thanks to Cheadle’s increasingly goofy performance. There’s a part of me that wants to be kinder to the film since its target audience is full of kids who don’t care about lame gags or shameless marketing. But I also like to think that kids don’t have the patience to sit still for this long, so out goes the kindness… – Mark Tan
Space Jam: A New Legacy is available in theaters and on HBO Max.
The film stars LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, and Zendaya.