Space Jam: A New Legacy, 2021.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee.
Starring LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Eric Bauza, Zendaya, Bob Bergen, Gerald ‘Slink’ Johnson, Ceyair J. Wright, Jeff Bergman, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi, Nneka Ogwumike, Candi Milo, Whitney Coleman, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Steven Yeun, Sarah Silverman, Ernie Johnson, Lil Rel Howery, and Michael B. Jordan.
A rogue artificial intelligence kidnaps the son of famed basketball player LeBron James, who then has to work with Bugs Bunny to win a basketball game.
It’s hard not to notice during the opening credits that six writers are credited to Space Jam: A New Legacy, something that’s felt through every thread of what has to be one of the strangest (but not necessarily good) plots ever conceived. In addition to NBA superstar LeBron James stepping in for Hall of Famer Michael Jordan playing basketball alongside the beloved Looney Tunes, there are now teenagers developing video games that people and fictional characters can get sucked inside, your bog-standard family-friendly “be yourself” message between the modern legend and his son Dom (Cedric Joe), and Don Cheadle (I forgive you if you can’t even comprehend what I’m about to say) as a sentient digital algorithm pitching ideas to Warner Bros. that has now decided he wants to be rewarded for his contributions with fame and recognition. Apparently, the best way to do this is by siphoning away the real-life following of LeBron James.
It’s as if each writer was assigned a different section of director Malcolm D. Lee’s convoluted narrative that, even worse, comes across as a desperate attempt at spreading brand awareness for movies and TV shows you can watch for free on HBO Max (for those choosing to see this in theaters, of course). Al G. Rhythm (yes, that’s actually the name of Don Cheadle’s AI living inside the Warner Serververse) sets a plan in motion to trap LeBron and his son inside the digital world as the former visits WB Studios hearing out an offering for a movie role. The plan is more or less a success (it unforgivably takes about 30 minutes before the movie properly gets underway, incredibly frustrating when compared to the scant 88-minute running time of the original Space Jam), leaving King James tossed into the Looney Tunes world (visually, the Serververse takes a page out of the Kingdom Hearts games, showing different worlds for different properties floating in space) and 2D animated.
Meanwhile, Rhythm takes advantage of the rocky relationship between Dom and his father (the boy likes basketball but prefers gaming, so would instead go to a gaming expo rather than a sports camp, something that LeBron can’t quite grasp) to manipulate him into putting his coding and programming skills to work to create a digital basketball arena for a standard game featuring father against son. Naturally, there are more nefarious motives at play. This leaves LeBron (while also adapting to the lack of rules and physics for cartoon characters) making acquaintances with Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman, also playing Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, and some others), who is all alone as the Tune squad left him to explore other worlds under Rhythm’s insistence that they could achieve more, or something along those lines. Not much here makes sense, but it was more manipulation to separate the long-standing friends.
LeBron explains to Bugs that he has to assemble a team to retrieve his son by emerging victorious in a high-stakes basketball game (cue meta-jokes about how some of this seems familiar), who was more than willing to help. The catch is that Bugs is more concerned with finding his friends instead of assembling the best possible team. Amusingly, they trick Marvin the Martian (Eric Bauza, voicing plenty of fan favorites including Daffy Duck and Porky) into landing his spaceship that they hijack for exploration of their own. When it comes to bringing the Looney Tunes back together, Space Jam: A New Legacy does admittedly demonstrate a desire to get playfully fun, briefly taking the characters inside scenes from Mad Max: Fury Road, The Matrix, and a few others with inspired results (Foghorn Leghorn also hilariously recites a Game of Thrones catchphrase).
There’s definitely a decent amount of enjoyment to be found within these interactions, but it’s buried under everything else mentioned. Daffy Duck has several funny lines and great delivery, Zendaya channels the independence and can-do attitude of Lola Bunny (although shame on the marketing for only advertising the celebrity among the voiceover cast), and at one point, Porky gets to freestyle rap. When the game does start, it’s clear that some thought went into the various elemental abilities of the opposing Goons and infusing basketball with shenanigans, cheating, and style (Dom is more interested in arcade-style basketball rather than simulation, something the overly serious LeBron has to overcome if he’s going to lead his team to victory). He has to let the Looney Tunes be themselves just as much as he has to come around towards accepting his son’s hobbies and interpretation of basketball.
However, another set of issues arise as Rhythm decides to upgrade the 2D animated characters into CGI, yielding hideous results (teeth are especially jarring to look at). LeBron can play as a person, although one would think Rhythm would want to keep him out of his comfort zone. Then again, Space Jam: A New Legacy also wants us to believe that LeBron grew up so focused on basketball from a young age that he doesn’t know much else when it comes to entertainment, despite there also being scenes of him ecstatic to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Lil Rel Howery also makes for a funny sports commentator, further proving the mixed bag that is this intergalactic game. If the movie wasn’t weird enough, there’s also a bizarre self-sacrifice that makes about as much sense as the Looney Tunes abandoning Bugs Bunny in the first place.
The tipping point into negative territory comes from the Ready Player One approach to stuffing the game audience with as many properties as possible (the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange never cease to be an unintentionally hilarious distraction). There is no creative spark to do anything with these characters. They solely exist on screen as brand awareness, which combined with some occasionally lame nostalgia (did we really need to see the rabbit season/duck season gag) and Malcolm D. Lee’s inability to sort the overstuffed plot into something more coherent and tighter, sour the taste of this experience that much more. There’s a charm to Space Jam: A New Legacy lost inside corporate shamelessness, generic themes, and too much story that LeBron James, while serviceable in supporting roles, can’t carry here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com