In Space Jam: A New Legacy, a desperate corporate entity has trapped NBA superstar LeBron James in an elaborate world of ones and zeros, forcing him to interact with cartoon characters as part of a tiresome scheme to conquer the digital entertainment landscape. Now whether that describes the film’s plot or its literal origins remains to be seen. But the filmmakers themselves seem to possibly know the distinction: an early scene, in which King James sits down with a bunch of clueless Warner Bros. executives who want to turn his likeness into an avatar, is means to make us imagine the real-life pitch meeting and smirk in recognition.
So why does it feel like the joke’s on us? Maybe it’s because we’ve heard some version of it before, and a new tech upgrade hasn’t really made it improve with age. Bright, nostalgia-pushing technological slop, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a follow-up to the 1996 live-action/animation hybrid Space Jam, which put Michael Jordan on an intergalactic basketball court with Bugs Bunny because — well, why not? Moviegoers more or less responded, turning that trash heap into a $250 million worldwide hit and setting plans for a franchise in motion. But for a couple reasons — Jordan passed on a sequel and 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action undeservedly crashed and burned — it’s taken twenty-five years for this reboot to arrive.
Or maybe the term reload is a bit more accurate, given the sheer number of references to The Matrix, among other popular Warner Bros. titles mentioned in this. Unlike the first Space Jam, A New Legacy doesn’t limit itself to Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a script credited to six screenwriters, the movie comes at you like a hoops-themed riff on Ready Player One. There are on-screen shoutouts to DC Comics stars Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman; in-house fantasy juggernauts Game of Thrones and Harry Potter; blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and the Iron Giant; and apparently not-at-all-sacred classics including Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz. First though, the movie shows us a young James, as thirteen-year-old LeBron (Stephen Kankole) who’s a gifted Ohio athlete who early on learns to put away childish things, to throw away his Game Boy and keep his head in the game. And so he grows up to be, well, LeBron James. He also becomes an overbearing dad to his kids, especially his son Dom (Cedric Joe), who, irony alert, is more interested in designing video games than following in his dad’s Nike-imprinted footsteps. With the father-vs.-son tensions established, LeBron and Dom find themselves whisked inside the servers at Warner Bros., held captive by a malicious force named Al G. Rhythm (get it?) who wants full control of digital entertainment.
Mr. Rhythm, played by Don Cheadle, seeks to maximize his conglomerate’s reach by challenging LeBron to an impossibly high-stakes basketball game. Forced to do battle with evil superpowered versions of Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Taurasi, among other NBA and WNBA stars, LeBron must, like Jordan before him, join forces with the Looney Tunes. But things have changed: Bugs Bunny (voiced, along with many others, by Jeff Bergman) is the last remaining resident of Looney Tunes World. Some divertingly old-fashioned gags ensue as LeBron, assuming his own two-dimensional animated form, gets a literal crash course in the elastic laws of cartoon physics. But soon he and Bugs will set out to track down Daffy Duck, Tweety, Yosemite Sam and the gang, all of whom, we find out, have moved on and are now starring in high-concept cross-branding exercises of their own. Cue an extended mash-up montage that sends Space Jam: A New Legacy hurtling from derivative to flat-out abysmal in a hurry. How soullessly greedy can one movie be? To watch Wile E. Coyote chase the Roadrunner through Mad Max: Fury Road, or see Granny reenact bullet-time martial arts moves from The Matrix, is to find and see the answer.
Once the climactic game begins, LeBron will revert to live-action mode (and the Tunes into 3D computer-generated versions of themselves), placing him in direct competition with not just an opposing team but also a fast and relentless visual-effects onslaught. Yet, as LeBron might’ve showed to be decent at parodying himself in the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, his overall acting chops don’t look much more natural than MJ did trading banter with green-screened tennis balls back in the day. But for both of those superstars their movie’s were each just shameless product. The original Space Jam limped to eighty-eight minutes with detours into Jordan’s swanky mansion and forced its cartoon cavalry to compete for screen time against Wayne Knight and a bunch of basketball players who delivered their lines much less confidently than their athletic skills could attest. Worse still, it turned some of the most beloved characters in the history of animation into NBA mascots, their slapstick personalities “comically” replaced with sports-gear cool. But if that modest hit took inspiration from a series of commercials, A New Legacy basically is a commercial. What it’s selling is Warner Bros. itself, via a brand-crossover jamboree with all the fun and creativity of a stockholders meeting. A tour of corporate synergy, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a CGI cacophony of crass, soulless, IP-driven commercialism.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is playing in Theaters nationwide and available to stream on HBO Max, as of July 16