Film

Review: Space Jam: A New Legacy Is a Mess of IP, Flat Jokes and Cringe-Worthy Performances

I want to call everyone’s attention to one very significant fact about Space Jam: A New Legacy, and that is: it took five people to write Space Jam: A New Legacy. Five. People.

And after having watched this animated/live-action hybrid work (not unlike the 1996 original Space Jam), I’m wondering if some of those writers were Warner Bros. corporate plants who made sure to cram in as much WB IP as they possibly could, which leads to some truly awkward moments and cameos in the film. From director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Girls Trip, Night School), the new Space Jam stars LeBron James as a version of himself trying to raise two boys, including a younger son Dom (Cedric Joe), who isn’t as interested in being a great ball player like his father and is far more interested in designing video games and attending a video game conference the same week as his basketball camp. LeBron is hard on his son, but wife Kamiyah (Sonequa Martin-Green) encourages her husband to encourage the boy no matter what his interests are.

Space Jam

Image courtesy of WB

Not at all by coincidence, a rogue algorithm living in the Warner Bros. server (oh-so-cleverly named Al G. Rhythm, played by Don Cheadle hamming it up so poorly, it’s going to leave a blight on his permanent record) has decided his great ideas are not getting enough attention, and he decides to create a video game that uses LeBron’s image, hoping the player will promote the idea to his millions of social media followers. The idea is pitched to James by WB execs played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun (!), and LeBron rejects them outright, ticking off the algorithm and triggering him to zap LeBron and Dom into the server, where LeBron comes face-to-face with Bugs Bunny, who for some reason is alone in the Tune World, having lost all of the other Looney Tunes characters to other WB franchises, like “Game of Thrones,” The Matrix, Harry Potter, DC superheroes, and even Mad Max: Fury Road. As bad as that sounds, inserting characters into Casablanca might be the ultimate sacrilege.

Rhythm convinces Dom to use the template for his video game as the basis for an all-or-nothing basketball confrontation between LeBron and the Tunes and Dom and his hand-picked team called the Goons. The Goons consists of animated versions of male and female legends like Anthony Davis, Damian Lillar, Klay Thompson, Nneka Ogwumike, and Diana Taurasi, all of whom have souped-up features and know the rules of Dom’s altered version of basketball better than anyone on James’ team. The film’s set up and the game itself aren’t all that bad, actually, but when you begin to scan the audience members in the background, you begin to see just how bizarre this movie can get. King Kong and Iron Giant are the most obvious. Then there’s Pennywise the Clown, Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters (Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Space Ghost, and the list goes on and on), the druids from Clockwork Orange, various Harry Potter characters, White Walkers from “Game of Thrones,” the 1960s versions of Batman and Robin—the list feels infinite. Some of it makes sense, some of it does not, and if it wasn’t done in such a blatant, corporate, celebratory manner, it might be seen as simply in poor taste (some of it certainly is, but not as much as you think).

If you walk into A New Legacy expecting pure, uncompromising entertainment, I want what you’re smoking. The film makes non-stop jokes about the obvious, in-your-face WB plugs and promotion, so much so that it takes the sting out of some of what we’re seeing. It’s meant to be stupid and ridiculous and an assault to your senses, and that’s what it is most of the time. Other times, the jokes land flat; Cheadle should be outright ashamed of his performance here (he genuinely looks embarrassed to be a part of this). Does any of this make the film any better? Absolutely not, but it’s hardly the horror show some are clutching their pearls about. I can’t totally see a young kid getting a kick out of the visuals and some of the characters who show up; the film’s biggest flaw is attempting to appeal to adults, which normally I wouldn’t argue with, but seriously? Clockwork Orange?

Once the game enters its second half, the film just becomes a series of impossible basketball shots and crowd reaction shots. It’s a highlight reel, and the highlights aren’t that impressive, especially with lame commentary from announcers Ernie Johnson Jr. and Lil Rel Howery, only adding to the stockpile of lousy jokes. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there are no surprises in Space Jam: The New Legacy, so the film simply prattles on to its inevitable conclusion, with everyone repairing whatever relationships need repairing and learning the appropriate lessons along the way. The batshit crazy nature of the WB cameos (including a very familiar person with the initials MJ) is actually the only thing I liked about the film, but those sorts of turns are supposed to be garnish, not the main course.

Among the film’s producers are the likes of Justin Lin, Ryan Coogler, and even Ivan Reitman, but even their influence can’t save this remarkably disappointing mess. If it helps at all, I did like Zendaya voicing a revamped Lola Bunny, the only talented Tune player on LeBron’s team. I know it’s not much, but you grab the pluses where you can.

The film is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

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