This movie had large shoes to fill, and it seemed to know that and not know that at the same time, trying to be big but not knowing what to be big for. A sequel to the classic Space Jam has been brainstormed for decades now. A standalone spy sequel led instead to Looney Tunes: Back In Action, in my opinion the best of the Warner Bros-Bugs Bunny live-action incarnations, if Roger Rabbit doesn’t count in that category. There were ideas for a Space Jam sequel involving golfing and skateboarding after Michael Jordan decided for whatever reason that he wasn’t returning to do another one of these films, and then finally, after years of seeing the demand for more toons playing basketball, a concept Space Jam invented and stood on its own for, they wanted to return with a new big basketball player at the helm. Believe it or not, I was rooting for Space Jam: A New Legacy. It felt like a miracle made due to the dreams and desires of fans. At least, that’s what it was like hearing it was green-lit. The final delivery’s a whole different stadium of its own.
LeBron James puts on Michael Jordan’s shoes, which I’m not surprised about because he has acting experience (from Trainwreck and voice acting in Smallfoot) and a fair bit of behind-the-camera work too. He also was a huge fan of the original. Taking place in what is most likely an alternate virus-free 2021 where Scoob! was to be released that year, James plays a version of himself that used to be a big Looney Tunes fan, and got brief interest in a Game Boy Colour video game of Bugs when he was a kid, before his basketball coach told him he was a once-in-a-lifetime basketball player who had the opportunity to go big, but not if you let distractions overtake you. He’s grown up into the athlete he is, and now has a family with sons and daughters. One of his sons, Dominic (played by an actor, Cedric Joe, rather than an actual son), is not really a basketball player but loves the craft James let go; video games. He’s making a video game based on basketball, but with power-ups and several-button combo moves. One day, LeBron and his family are invited to Warner Bros. for a business proposition, and on their way out, he and Dom end up, perhaps deliberately, taken to the server room where the two of them are transported into Tune World, or Warner Bros. world. You can be a Harry Potter wizard there if you wanted. Dom meets Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) an artifical intelligence, perhaps anyway. He’s definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Al ends up convincing LeBron to challenge him to a basketball game in order for him and Dom to escape back to their home, leading LeBron to find a team (guess who he’ll find?) and Dom to find his own to prove to his dad his video game skills are useful in the world he wants to pursue.
Now, I don’t wanna oversell my love for the original Space Jam, because I don’t really love it. I didn’t grow up with it. I only recently watched it to prepare for this movie, when I realized there’d be references I’d need to know and a comparison I’d just have to do. I will say, however, that it was accepting it had a silly concept, and yet the filmmakers were excited to see what they could come up with. I watched it quickly a few nights ago and thought, “Okay. Probably not going to watch that again anytime soon, but there were a lot of parts that were fun.” I could understand how it became a cult classic. And I can also say with certainty the executives and writers who put this movie together really missed the mark on what they thought would be a good continuation. They at least weren’t cheapskates; this is a $150-million movie, almost twice as much as its predecessor cost. And I’ll give credit where it’s due. There’s some great animation in two dimensions and three. There are some sight gags that are chuckle worthy, especially a beginning prank scene involving an automated basketball server. There’s also a scene with Lola Bunny and Wonder Woman herself that was completely well made. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about those two minutes.
But that all can’t make up for the fact this movie underestimates its audience, and that’s what I mean by not knowing how to fill those large shoes. A New Legacy assumes kids these days are only going to be invigorated and tell their parents they want to go to the movie again if there’s something always flashy and neon in the background, with nods to all the cool apps they visit on their big bright phones. The movie assumes today’s kids aren’t going to be captivated by a regular game of basketball with its rebounds, slam dunks, and jumps through the rings of fire on the players’ motorcycles made of carrot juice. It assumes a similar atmosphere to the first one would be a losing strategy, even to longtime fans, and while branching out is generally good advice, the formula ends up updated beyond recognition.
I never thought I’d say this, as he’s one of my favourite actors, but Don Cheadle was really bad here. Yet I can’t blame him. His material was as beyond repair as a running shoe with its lace tugged off, forcing him to overact and be as maniacal as he is a completely boring villain. And I don’t mean to be a picky grump, but a wager makes it so the Goon Squad (the ones who go up against the Tune Squad) winning this game would mean not so great things for the audience who tunes in to watch. Yet we hear the audience cheering for them when they get the upper hand, as if the movie expects we’ll either forget this fact or we won’t care about the inconsistency.
What’s even worse are the story choices. You’re telling me, after over 20 years of possibilities running around in their heads, the writers went with this story angle? Sequels to cult classics need more care taken than this. For starters, the idea of a wake-up-and-accept-your-son story is not only inarguably typical, it’s out of place for LeBron James. I applaud the movie for putting in James’ statement of refusal to “shut up and dribble” as Laura Ingraham despicably tried to demand. Which brings my point even further. LeBron James has used his fame to be a literal hero for his donations, speeches, and courage to fight corruption. The movie referenced his proclamation he would not “shut up and dribble”, and then it places him in a movie where he’s saying just that to his son. And I’m not done. The movie has the same sort of lame climax as the Scoob movie from last year. Go figure there’s a giant poster of it in a scene at the Warner Bros lot. The heads of that movie must’ve been at the table for this one too. It goes for a tragedy angle we know won’t go that way, because it would be too dark and it’s clearly not that kind of movie. As the characters cry their eyes out, I rolled mine practically out of my head. A plan the team comes up with is honestly genius, and they should’ve left it at that instead of trying to stroke fake tears out of us.
Now, once again, I don’t think the first Space Jam is cinematic art. But what made me enjoy a good chunk of it (just like Back In Action) was it had good pacing. It knew when to tone down the theatrics, when to have a touch of innocent zaniness, and when to let the dynamite’s wick get lit. It knew how to occasionally be slow so the fast moments could be even more exciting and appreciated. It let us have some innocent fun seeing the Looney Tunes characters in the real world, something only Roger Rabbit did at the time eight years prior. The plot was also straightforward, a game of basketball to decide the fate of Tune World against a quintet of mon-star basketball players. This one is plastered in morals, when what Space Jam fans really wanted was just a nice game of, well, ball, and if it’s not saying something grand, it’s running in a hurry to the next scene where there will be something like that. I don’t usually say this, but if the movie stuck to a more plain and uninvolving storyline, it would’ve been better. I could come up with a storyline in five minutes that would’ve done pure wonders on this movie.
A New Legacy has a little bit of spirit, thanks to a lot of fun pop culture references to look for, but because of all the eye candy and overaffection of modern technology, it’s more video game than actual basketball, losing what made the original stand out, and turning what could have been a hug towards those who grew up with Michael Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny into an unoriginal superspeed spinning chair, advertainment disguised as whimsy, algorithm disguised as hot and new.
If you like this, I’d try the first Space Jam, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and Ready Player One (a movie with a similar feel for the eye candy but with a much more polished story to appreciate all of it with)