Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Screenwriters: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon, Celeste Ballard
Starring: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya
Space Jam: A New Legacy takes itself too seriously. That’s our fault. Film critics demand that story and character offer us profound insight into humanity, to question the world around us, to give audiences a real emotional connection. Movie fans demand modern technology, iconic villains, and paratextual and intertextual expansion. The result of these expectations is a bloated, bland film that is more about Warner Bros. and its media properties than the premise of the Looney Tunes teaming up with the world’s best basketball player.
Space Jam: A New Legacy follows LeBron James and his fictional son, Dom. Dom is a computer whiz who creates his own basketball game, and he really wants to attend game design camp. However, LeBron wants Dom to focus on basketball, to “put in the work” (a phrase which is repeated ad nauseum). Meanwhile, Al-G. Rhythm, a nefarious algorithm played by Don Cheadle, wants to trap LeBron (and some portion of humanity) in cyberspace – specifically the Warner Bros. “Serververse” which contains all the media they own. He pits Dom and LeBron against each other inside of Dom’s video game, and LeBron must assemble a squad to help him beat Dom, Al-G, and the “Goon Squad.”
The over-serious aspects of the plot and story are what bog Space Jam down. This is supposed to be a goofy movie, where cartoon characters fight against all odds to win a basketball game. We don’t need strong emotional beats between father and son, or resolutions to serious conflict. There’s no tension from the jump, and the attempts to add stakes and emotion detract from the experience because they’re either too flimsy or too contrived.
This is especially a problem when it comes to LeBron’s performance. The man is the best basketball player on the planet, and has been for over a decade now, but this performance rarely rises above “athlete in a commercial” levels of acting. LeBron’s arc revolves around him paying more attention to Dom and his interests, but LeBron is stiff in the serious moments. It doesn’t help that the writing has failed him, too.
There’s a scene where LeBron’s wife asks him to talk to Dom about something other than basketball, and he responds indignantly, “like what?” It’s hard to buy that a real-life father of three can’t think of something to discuss with his son other than his career, and it’s hard to buy that a basketball player wouldn’t have fun playing the game. The way to maximize the talent LeBron does have is to give him moments to be energetic and funny – instead, he’s often stuck playing the straight man to the fun and nonsense. LeBron is fun when he gets a chance to be goofy though, and he seems at home turning down pitches in boardroom meetings… perhaps he should’ve reacted similarly to this script.
The rest of the human performances are hit and miss. Don Cheadle feels incredibly natural as an over-the-top villain, some of his lines even feel as if they were improvised. Cedric Joe is passable as Dom James, but he feels underutilized in portions of the film, which gives an uneven feeling overall. Khris Davis’ Malik is a pointless comic relief character – at least Bill Murray was actually kind of involved in the plot of the original and, more importantly, is Bill Murray. The role of LeBron’s friend could’ve gone to a great comedian, or the role could’ve had some meat to it, but instead the film did neither. LeBron’s wife and daughter are more set pieces than characters; why even bother including them? Unsurprisingly, Space Jam: A New Legacy also fails the Bechdel test, though it comes close to passing in a scene with Lola Bunny and Wonder Woman.
The Looney Tunes are pretty funny, and bring back all their classic gags. There’s a long legacy to live up to, so it’s a plus when the characters are able to maintain the wacky rhythm audiences have been accustomed to their entire lives. On the downside, the photorealistic Looney Tunes look weird. The animation in this film looks perfectly fine by modern standards, and it makes sense for the characters to inhabit their natural form without the film building in a way for them to receive a graphical “upgrade.”
It may also be possible that this Space Jam film is too outlandish. In the first film, the Looney Tunes challenge cartoon aliens to basketball, and recruit Michael Jordan to help them win when the aliens steal the powers of professional basketball players – it’s easy to digest. Space Jam: A New Legacy incorporates non-existent human technology into its plot, such as a device that can perfectly scan any object into a computer program, or a portal that brings human bodies into cyberspace. The original Space Jam also explores the trials faced by the players whose powers were stolen, while this one lacks any level of philosophical dimension despite its overreliance on sci-fi. Sure, it’s a kids film, but why not get into what it means that human bodies are zapped into cyberspace when storing human consciousness in computers is an idea that actually exists? Why not focus on the problems algorithms pose to the diversity of human understanding of reality through the internet? Why not include some hollow criticism of big corporations and the overreliance of movie studios on franchises and properties? Give audiences something to chew on if you’re going to force them to sit through something that isn’t just ninety minutes of Looney Tunes gags with basketball thrown in.
The worst part of the film is, by far, the way so many Warner Bros. properties are crammed in. The movie mentions the studio more than this review does. Imagine if Marvel characters began discussing Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it’s tantamount to corporate masturbation to insert LeBron into Harry Potter, ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the DC… whatever they’re calling it. Posters of Joker and Aquaman are clearly seen in the background of a scene for a while so you know who brought you those non-financial flops. Characters from A Clockwork Orange, the original ‘Batman’ series, and The Wizard of Oz are reduced to background Easter eggs that will surely produce countless movie detail posts. The movie feels like a giant ad that reminds you of the logo that popped up at the beginning of the film, and it’s surprising Daffy Duck doesn’t try to sell us on the perks HBO Max. On top of all that, the original Space Jam is real in this reality and happened to the Looney Tunes, but 1) that brings up logistical problems regarding how they existed in the world but now exist in the “Serververse,” and 2) how LeBron and Dom never mention how what’s happening to them is a lot like that movie Space Jam.
At the end of the day, this is a movie for kids, designed to get the adults who loved Space Jam to take their kids to the movie theater. However, Space Jam is a unique entity that sprang up at the right time because of Michael Jordan’s singular greatness. Jordan changed the game, popularized the NBA in American culture, and the film became a perfectly-crafted piece of 90s culture that really only holds nostalgia value. In a way, Space Jam: A New Legacy will be a good artefact of 2021 culture – it is corporatized entertainment that can’t stop exploiting properties and pandering to the lowest common denominator of film viewer. The only problem is that no one will remember it.