Early in Malcolm D. Lee’s sequel to the hit 1996 fantasy film Space Jam, basketball great LeBron James, playing himself, sits down to a meeting with a group of Warner Bros. Pictures executives. They excitedly pitch him something called “Warner 3000,” an algorithm that would enable them to inject him into myriad studio properties past and present. James wisely declines, pointing out, “Athletes acting, that never goes well.”
Unfortunately, the real-life version of James didn’t take his own fictional persona’s advice. The result is Space Jam: A New Legacy, premiering simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, in which he interacts not only with the animated Looney Tune figures from the original but also seemingly every other character ever featured in a Warner Bros. film. They include, and this is a mere representative sampling: King Kong, the Iron Giant, Willy Wonka, Beetlejuice, Austin Powers, Pennywise, the Mask, and characters from The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Flintstones, the D.C. Universe, The Wizard of Oz and even Casablanca.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
To whom this is meant to appeal is anyone’s guess, except presumably the studio’s marketing department. Children are unlikely to recognize many of the fleeting cameo appearances and cinematic references, while adults will be bored silly by the frenetic pacing that makes you feel as if you’re watching somebody else play a video game. It all feels like Warner Bros. ingested an emetic and vomited up all their intellectual property.
The screenplay, which took no less than six writers to concoct, revolves around James and his young son Dom (Cedric Joe) being forcibly inserted into Warners’ “Serververse” by a diabolical A.I. not so cleverly named Al G. Rhythm (get it?). He’s played by Don Cheadle, who leans into his evildoer role with even more gusto than necessary while wearing a series of garishly shiny outfits and making pronouncements like an overcaffeinated Bond villain.
The only way that LeBron can rescue himself and his son is to recruit the Looney Tunes characters to play an epic basketball game against Al G.’s “Goon Squad,” composed of bizarrely digitized versions of well-known, real-life players including Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi, Klay Thompson, Nneka Ogwumike and Damian Lillard. The heavily animated game, which seems to go on forever, takes up nearly the entire second half of the film, without providing a real game’s numerous opportunities for bathroom and refreshment breaks. The arena crowd is filled with Warner Bros. characters, looking like they’ve wandered off the lot while still in costume. There’s even a fleeting glimpse of the homicidal Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, which feels like the sort of in-joke best left on the cutting room floor.
It’s always a pleasure to encounter Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn and all the rest, but the visual and verbal gags they’re given here won’t erase anyone’s memories of the classic cartoons. That is, unless you think it’s hilarious that Yosemite Sam becomes the piano player honoring Ingrid Bergman’s request to “play it” in Casablanca or that Wile E. Coyote is inserted into a chase scene from Fury Road.
Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya), who first appeared in the original Space Jam, makes a return appearance, thankfully less sexualized than before. James also becomes an animated figure at one point, which somehow makes him more convincing in the role. The funniest gag, ironically, involves the hinted reappearance of the original film’s Michael Jordan, which doesn’t turn out as you’d expect.
The animation, consisting of both traditional 2D and CGI, is impressive, and there’s certainly a lot of it. But it never feels as joyful as you’d hope, too often coming across as corporate machination rather than inspired imagination. That becomes particularly apparent when the classic Looney Tune characters are eventually rendered in CGI form, which just feels wrong. Another problem is that James lacks the charismatic appeal of Jordan, who, although no actor, anchored the previous film with his sheer likability.
Arriving a belated 25 years after the original, which was no great shakes to begin with, Space Jam: A New Legacy doesn’t live up to its grandiose, overly optimistic title.