Space Jam: A New Legacy is exactly what it looks like. Nobody thought it looked like a well-written movie, or anything more than an expensive, gaudy distraction to keep the kids’ attention for two hours, right? But it’s hard, and futile, to get angry at a movie for being the thing it proclaims. The entire message of the movie — the same message as every lazily written kids movie — is “be yourself.” At that, the film succeeds. At least it doesn’t resort to gross-out or bathroom humor in its bag of pandering tricks. Unless bad cartoon teeth count as a gross-out.
Ironically, or so one might think, the film’s villain is a self-aware algorithm that wants to maximize Warner Bros’ media footprint by digitally inserting LeBron James into all of the company’s IP. The movie, in effect, is that, but unlike the master control program played by Don Cheadle, never even becomes self-aware enough to make that a key joke. And unlike in the movie, LeBron James clearly didn’t reject it as a bad idea.
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All of which is a set-up to zap James, Tron-style, inside the Warner Bros. servers, in which a universe that looks exactly like the Oasis from Ready Player One exists. And naturally, he will have to play basketball with the Looney Tunes characters to save the day. The title “Cyberspace Jam” was right there, but the movie’s not even witty enough for that.
It takes altogether too long to get James into the computer universe, but like the first Space Jam, the sequel feels the need for a pointless flashback and a career montage, presumably for the benefit of overseas audiences unfamiliar with LeBron James or basketball. Then the relationship between LeBron and his fictional youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe) takes time to set up. All of which could have been handled in quick flashback or throwaway lines later. But an algorithm probably wrote this movie too.
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On the plus side, this spiritual, indirect sequel to Space Jam comes across less annoying than its predecessor. That one, lest we forget, was explicitly based on Nike commercials. Maybe it’s because James offers a more modest, self-deprecating performance than Michael Jordan. Or maybe it’s that expensive feature film animation looks much better in 2021 than 1996. In any case, the animators are this film’s real heroes. The story may falter, but fun things to look at abound, and rebound. A montage of Looney Tunes characters in other movies is a standout sequence, particularly in one comic book movie that looks like a literal comic book.
Interspersed between expensive, CG recreations of Hanna Barbera characters and the like, we also see crowds of extras essentially clad in Spirit Halloween costumes of other famous characters. It’s one thing to blink and miss a cheap White Walker mask, but quite another to give camera time to a Batman and Robin Mr. Freeze mugging like Arnold Schwarzenegger while very clearly not being him.
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In both Ready Player One and The LEGO Movie, Warner Bros. won acclaim from fans and critics alike for the clever way the stories integrate characters and iconography from other properties. However, Space Jam: A New Legacy proves that the third time isn’t always the charm. What audiences actually liked about those movies and mash-ups was the storytelling. It’s not enough to just say, “Look at that thing you know!” And in a movie that’s strictly likely to appeal to kids, who exactly is a Training Day joke for?
Don Cheadle makes the most of his moments. The veteran actor adds layers to, and implies backstory for a villain who doesn’t seem written to have either. As for the other name actors and athletes who make cameos, we can only hope they got well-paid. Lola Bunny takes center stage among the Tunes, either because of her partly creepy cult fanbase, or the fact that she’s voiced here by Zendaya. It’s a nice touch and a fun reversal that she and Granny, as the only women on their team, are also depicted as the only legitimate cartoon athletes. If they wind up inspiring a new generation of girls to get good at sports, Space Jam: A New Legacy may have a real-life happy ending after all.
For everyone else, consider Teen Titans Go! To the Movies instead. It has the same kind of IP-hopping by pop culture icons, only it’s witty and fun as well.
Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres in theaters and on HBO Max July 16th.
Recommended Viewing: Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (Blu-ray)
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