Film Review – Space Jam: A New Legacy
Space Jam: A New Legacy
The cringe runs deep throughout Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021). Not only for the non-stop nostalgia factor, but for how Warner Brothers shamelessly pats itself on the back. The film constantly references its parent studio, inserting characters and scenes from a vast array of titles. We get callbacks and Easter Eggs from the likes of Casablanca (1942) to The Matrix (1999). This – of course – includes the Looney Tunes characters, which themselves act as mascots for the studio. The result feels less like a cohesive story and more like a feature length advertisement.
We get this sense immediately, as an opening shot hovers over the Warner Brothers’ lot, with the famous “WB” water tower in full view. Relying on nostalgia is not always a bad thing. Familiarity generates comfort, and in tough times audiences often turn to what they know as a form of escape. However, in this context A New Legacy makes a disastrous choice in trying to subvert that idea. It makes specific points about the pitfalls of nostalgia and commercialism, but the satire is so flat that it creates the complete opposite effect. The material is badly mishandled. At one point The Droogs (a group of criminal rapists) from A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Pennywise (a killer clown monster) from It (2017) make appearances…in a movie targeted toward families.
The story is more of an outline than anything else. Basketball superstar LeBron James (playing a version of himself) gets sucked into the WB mainframe, interacting with the cinematic worlds (or the “Warner Server-verse”) inside. He ends up in the cartoon land of The Looney Tunes, where he recruits Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) and his friends for help with a mission. The rogue Artificial Intelligence named – sigh – Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) has kidnapped LeBron’s son, Dom (Cedric Joe). To save Dom, LeBron must compete in a high stakes basketball game, where his “Toon Squad” goes head to head with Rhythm’s “Goon Squad.” The Goon Squad is made up of other basketball stars such as Sue Bird, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, and Diana Taurasi.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is basically the same plot as the first Space Jam (1996). In that, it was Michael Jordan who took center stage as the basketball icon. Even with LeBron James “taking over the mantle” with this latest iteration, the result is basically the same: neither film is very good. The screwball ingenuity that cemented The Looney Tunes as a facet of pop culture is missing. The wackiness is still there, but it’s held back by some very bad comedic writing. The jokes lack humor, instead heavily relying on referencing Warner Brothers’ films as their punchlines. Like the worst of the Friedberg/Seltzer parodies, A New Legacy inserts brand recognition as though it alone were meant to be funny. Yes, we recognize Harry Potter, Batman and Superman, but so what? The production does nothing clever with these properties other than simply splashing them on screen. In one scene, we see Lola Bunny (Zendaya) try to run the obstacle course from Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) – complete with Hans Zimmer’s familiar score. The scene comes and goes with little fanfare and is never mentioned again.
You might be thinking, “Well, this is just for kids, it just needs to be bright and colorful and entertaining.” In this instance, that thinking does a disservice to kids. Just because something is meant for children does not mean it can’t be smart or have strong characters or a well-structured story. Entertainment and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. It’s almost shocking that Malcolm D. Lee, who directed comedies that balanced both sides – see Girls Trip (2017) and The Best Man (1999) – would helm something that felt like a product of an ad agency.
LeBron James is not an experienced actor and…it shows. But we can’t blame him, as he is tasked to react to imaginary characters. Even the most experienced actors have trouble overcoming that challenge. LeBron does exude a charm that goes beyond his acting ability, and the scenes he shares with Dom show a father/son dynamic that seems to come from an earnest place. At the very least, he isn’t walking around completely disinterested. This works in contrast to Don Cheadle’s antagonist, who pushes way too far to get a reaction. Cheadle tries just about everything to breathe life and charisma into a character that is absent of both. Whether it is dressing up in Steve Jobs cosplay or acting like a goofball as the Goon Squad’s head coach, Cheadle tosses whatever he can up against the wall to see what sticks – sadly, not much does.
What else is there to say? Space Jam: A New Legacy is a corporate entity more concerned with product placement than in telling a good story. It exists simply to sell the studio and nothing more. As the immortal words say, “That’s all folks.”