I wrote this review shortly after Space Jam: A New Legacy came out, but refrained from posting it and disrupting the posterity of Criterion Month. While the film world has already moved on from Space Jam to that beach that makes you old, it still felt appropriate to end Criterion Month with the kind of movie that’s a vital reminder that taking a break from cinematic trash for a month can be a very good thing indeed.
When you spend as much time sifting through the world as pop culture as we do, sometimes you get certain movies or TV shows or franchises attached to you as being specifically “yours”. I had this with Space Jam in recent years, receiving multiple birthday or Christmas gifts from friends consisting of Space Jam merch. Now, one has to ask how a film that was relatively successful 25 years ago and has had no direct sequels, spin-offs, or reboots could garner a veritable amount of merch so long after the fact. I think a lot of this had to do with a mix of millennial nostalgia, half-irony, the ‘90s being a golden age of basketball, and the fact that it was the most successful re-introduction of the Looney Tunes into the zeitgeist in recent memory. Whether any of this has to do with the quality of Space Jam as a film is a little beside the point, though I am not one of those people who will tell you that of course Space Jam: A New Legacy is bad because the original Space Jam is bad.
That isn’t to say that 1996’s Space Jam is anything approaching the level of art. Make no mistake, it is well-made, zippy, highly watchable trash on par with a YouTube compilation video of in-your-face commercials from the ‘90s. This makes sense considering it was directed by a guy whose background was in directing Michael Jordan commercials and the movie is more or less a commercial for both the NBA and Looney Tunes. Yet, that approach to cross-branding seems almost quaint compared to the way that Space Jam: A New Legacy sets itself out to be a giant commercial for all of Warner Brothers’ biggest properties in a way that is both overwhelmingly stimulating and feels completely vapid and soulless.
I’ll try to be brief in describing the plot of Space Jam: A New Legacy, because clearly the plot of a Space Jam movie is just going to be an awkward cross-section of entities that should not be intermingling. Basically, basketball superstar LeBron James has a son, Dom, who is into designing video games. He and Dom get sucked into the internet (and one of Dom’s games) after being shown some demonstration at Warner Bros. studios about being able to put Lebron into any WB movie franchise. Lebron meets up with Bugs Bunny in a desolate Tune Land and the two of them trek through different “franchise planets” to find the Looney Tunes hiding on them (think DC World, Game of Thrones World, Casablanca World to name a few). They then have to team up to defeat Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the lord of the internet world they’re stuck in, at a game of basketball in order to stop him from becoming super powerful in the real world or something.
I honestly had a hard time concentrating on the plot because during the movie’s first half, it strains to fit in so many famous characters and franchises that you constantly lose the thread that it’s a story of a father and son relating more to each other. Which isn’t a terrible road to go down, considering it adds a human element to what would otherwise be the most inhuman story. Also, I appreciate the fact that they make Lebron James more of a hyperfocused jerk who doesn’t understand his son’s interests, rather than the saint-like Michael Jordan from the first Space Jam, despite Jordan being a notoriously hyperfocused jerk in real life. But all of this gets completely lost in the sweaty plot shifts and the fact that I just could not stop being distracted by the background characters from other Warner Bros. properties.
These characters all come out to play in the movie’s “big game” sequence that encompasses the last third or so of Space Jam: A New Legacy in a way that’s very reminiscent of Ready Player One. Though the problem here is that we’re supposed to be focused on the game in a way that is just very hard to pay attention to for a pop culture obsessive like me, since I was far more concerned with spotting Space Ghost, The Mask, Baby Jane Hudson, and the crew from A Clockwork Orange in the background. I have memories as a kid of being so pumped up by the big game in the original Space Jam that it made me want to go repeatedly slam dunk on the mini basketball hoop in my basement. By the end of this one, I was so distracted by what was going on in the background that I forgot that a game of basketball was the focal point of this movie.
So if Space Jam: A New Legacy failed so miserably to evoke the inner child of a lifelong Space Jam apologist like myself, one has to ask who this movie is for. Judging from the tone of the movie, you have to assume it’s for kids. Though the fact that there are so many references that would easily go over kids’ heads and that it’s built around the Looney Tunes — who kids of this generation did not grow up on reruns of — makes this a little harder to believe. What seems more likely is that the film was always meant to be targeted towards people who grew up on the first movie, though the fact that the film seems more indebted to Warner Bros. properties than the original Space Jam makes it a lot more alienating in this regard.
That said, there is one really good cameo-based joke in the movie, even if it’s not the most brilliant or inventive joke ever. Also, Don Cheadle is really giving it his all as the villain, bringing a mix of cartoonishness and straight-faced menace, the kind of which eluded Steve Martin in his embarrassingly bad turn as the villain in Looney Tunes: Back In Action (which is still much better than this movie). Lebron James is also perfectly fine here, even if it really doesn’t help how much we’re forced to spend time with his animated form (I assume as a way of getting around scheduling conflicts). But like pretty much everything in Space Jam: A New Legacy, James is drowned out by the film trying to do way too much when the remarkable thing about the original Space Jam is how well it’s able to streamline so many disparate elements into a nimble 88 minutes.
This brings us to the question: is there any universe in which this is a good movie? I think Space Jam: A New Legacy (as well as its predecessor) points the way toward a few ways in which this might have been possible. As I just mentioned, this movie should not be nearly 2 hours long. If they had cut out some of the bullshit (of which there is plenty), it could’ve made the film a lot more watchable. Additionally, as fun as it is in a Where’s Waldo-y kind of way, they really should have cut out all the recognizable WB characters from the final game. It would’ve gone a long way toward making the father/son dynamic the central part of the film. Also, they probably just should not have gone the way of making this movie so much about Warner Bros. properties. I know it’s kind of fun in a perverse way, but it’s also just kinda gross in an extremely capitalist way. Though if you start separating that from what this movie is, you don’t really have a movie, and then you get yourself back at square one of asking why try to resurrect this franchise in the first place.