A quarter of a century ago, cinemagoers witnessed the event of a lifetime: Michael Jordan interacting with Bugs Bunny and his friends on the Big Screen. The public lapped it up, and now, there’s another blockbuster hoping to generate that same euphoria, headlined by Jordan’s modern-day counterpart. It’s a project that looks promising, but unfortunately, fails to capture the original’s magic.
Basketball superstar LeBron James (played by The Man himself) has been tapped by the executives at Warner Bros. to promote and launch the Warner 3000, a piece of software that lets consumers place any person of their choosing into their favourite media. While his young son Dominic (Cedric Joe) takes a keen interest in the proposal, LeBron considers the software to be a ridiculous idea, and tells the executives so. Little does James know that his scathing criticisms have been overheard by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the Artificial Intelligence system that conceptualised both the software and James’ involvement.
Incensed by LeBron’s swift rebuke, Al lures the sporting celebrity to the basement that houses the studio’s servers, then transports him into the digital realm where he is challenged to a game of basketball. What happens next will be familiar to anybody who has seen the first Space Jam: legendary athlete meets with the Looney Tunes gang, unites with them to form a basketball team and competes in a game against a group of super-powered competitors, where he must win in order to reclaim his dignity, return home to his family and save Warner’s beloved cartoon characters from a humiliating fate.
Before delving further into A New Legacy, it’s worth noting how the industry came to this point. The original Space Jam was conceived after the success of a Nike advertising campaign that paired Bugs Bunny with basketballer Michael Jordan, then the world’s most famous sportsman. Released in 1996, the resulting blockbuster went one better and became a cultural phenomenon, with its merchandise saturating the market, the soundtrack going multi-platinum, and many a child making room for the film in their VHS/DVD collection – yours truly included.
Such was the triumph of Space Jam that Warner Bros. pushed hard for a sequel, scaling back their plans when Jordan announced he would not appear in a second feature, then abandoning the project altogether when they couldn’t sign a celebrity of equal calibre. Hopes of a follow-up were only revived when LeBron James emerged as the National Basketball Association’s star player, his statistics and popularity drawing similarity with Jordan’s in the Nineties. A New Legacy recognises this fact, and as such, goes some way to differentiate itself from its precursor.
Where the Jordan-led film paid homage to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts from which the animated characters came, the LeBron-led sequel serves as a celebration of Warner Bros. as a whole, referencing just about every intellectual property that the monolithic media empire owns – and some properties Warner wishes it owned. With that in mind, the movie could best be considered as Ready Player One meets Ralph Breaks the Internet meets a Harlem Globetrotters game, offering allusions blatant (The Matrix, Casablanca) and well-hidden (TV’s Jetsons and Animaniacs) with just a hint of basketball on the side.
Indeed, so prolific are references to other franchises and titles that it’s more surprising what, or who, doesn’t appear in A New Legacy. In terms of Looney Tunes, there’s no appearance from Pepe Le Pew, nor Barnyard Dawg, nor Witch Hazel, nor Rocky the mobster, nor the Drunk Stalk – not even the Frog that sings “The Michigan Rag” is anywhere to be seen, despite his fleeting appearances in both Back in Action and the original Space Jam. Surely, if there’s enough room to incorporate the DC superheroes into the plot, then the film could at least allow the secondary Looney Tunes characters to sit courtside.
Further to the point above, it’s quite bemusing to see which adult-oriented properties Warner Bros. deems appropriate for a family-friendly picture; examples include the violent blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road, HBO’s even-more-graphic Game of Thrones, and the titular protagonists of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty in a bizarre, wasted cameo. All of this begs the question: if Warner is going to exclude characters for the sake of promoting unrelated media, why not go all-out? What’s stopping them from acknowledging releases like Goodfellas, Deliverance or Blazing Saddles, or (more appropriately) the original series they air on Cartoon Network?
Things aren’t much better elsewhere for A New Legacy, with the animation being a particular letdown. Unlike the first Space Jam, which featured live-action personalities interacting with hand-drawn characters a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the second film shows no desire to illude its audience into believing any of its visuals are real, with Bugs Bunny and Co. appearing flat and lifeless in the traditionally-animated segments. The latter half of the film, meanwhile, sees the cartoon protagonists transform into three-dimensional, HD-textured figures that look as unconvincing as their 2D designs.
There are plenty more areas where A New Legacy disappoints when compared to its predecessor, including the soundtrack, which lacks any infectious songs; Don Cheadle’s villain, who is less foreboding and unmemorable when compared to the Danny DeVito-voiced Mr Swackhammer; and the lead actor, who is no more convincing than Michael Jordan was. That’s right – even when contrasted with the underwhelming efforts of Mr Jordan, LeBron James is no thespian, looking stiff and remote whenever he appears on-screen, and sounding just as weak in his voice-work.
Having said all this, there are areas where A New Legacy is a welcome improvement over the original movie. The pacing is slower, smoother and much less likely to give the viewer whiplash; Lola Bunny – who was created specifically for the 1996 film – is a less voluptuous and (slightly) more nuanced figure; and the screenplay contains a heartfelt message about supporting the interests of others, in more ways than one. What’s more, there’s even some light-hearted barbs at LeBron’s expense, which help to offset the feeling that the picture is solely a vanity project for the star.
Sadly though, there is an unshakeable feeling that Warner’s cartoon protagonists aren’t treated with the dignity they deserve. It’s evident in the standard animation, the muted voice-acting, the lazy throwbacks, and especially in the humour, which emulates the zaniness of the gang’s old cartoons yet never outmatches them. Even Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a box-office bomb crafted in the wake of the previous Space Jam, shows more respect and affection for the hand-drawn creations than this movie does.
A feeble imitation of the blockbuster that inspires it, Space Jam: A New Legacy lacks the prestige to leave an impression of its own. The film is not without its merits, but with the visuals, music, performances and plot all rather ordinary, there’s almost no chance of this being fondly remembered in twenty-five years’ time.
2 thoughts on “Space Jam: A New Legacy”
Yo I would’ve killed for a Goodfellas or Blazing Saddles reference tbh. Kinda shocking to me what franchises were deemed ok otherwise. Like The Matrix??? I get that it’s recognizable but this is also a kids movie? And they had Pennywise in the stands? So much of the IP-referencing felt so lazy and lifeless that I’m surprised this even saw the light of day. Maybe WB was hoping Lakers would win another championship to drive the hype?
There were some heartfelt beats that I feel like were Ryan Coogler’s touch as producer. LeBron’s son struggling to live up to his father echoed by Lola Bunny at halftime, that was inspired. The rest of the movie, not so much.
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The examination of LeBron’s father-son relationship was definitely one of the better elements – it’s that kind of heart that was lacking from the first film. Even so, it’s not enough to overcome the many other flaws.