Sunday, July 18, 2021

Space Jam: A New Legacy

If you’re reading this, you’ve very likely heard of Space Jam, a 1996 film where Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan team up to defeat a group of aliens in a game of basketball. While it did okay critically, the film proved enough of a financial success that Warner Bros. immediately went into talks for a sequel. However, the project languished in development hell until 2014, when a sequel featuring LeBron James was officially announced, though filming didn’t start until 2019. The final product, whose production was largely unaffected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16, 2021 as part of the slate of day-and-date releases for the platform. Unfortunately, the 25-year gap between films resulted in something less of a real sequel to Space Jam and more of a glorified ad for both Warner Bros. and LeBron James.

LeBron James wants his sons, Darius (Ceyair J. Wright) and Dom (Cedric Joe), to follow in his footsteps and become professional basketball players, but Dom wants to become a video game developer instead. After a failed attempt at connecting with Dom, LeBron goes to the Warner Bros. studio with his family to discuss a movie deal, but backs out. This angers the self-aware algorithm, Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who lures LeBron and Dom into a basement server room and drags them into a virtual reality called the Serververse. While inside, Al-G Rhythm imprisons Dom and won’t free him unless LeBron beats him in a game of basketball. LeBron is then sent to Tune World, the home of the Looney Tunes, where he enlists the aid of Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) to assemble the perfect basketball team.

Al-G Rhythm (Don Chealde, right) seeks revenge against LeBron James (upper left);
Also pictured: Dominic "Dom" James (Cedric Joe, lower left).

Where the original Space Jam was charming and entertaining in spite of its flaws, Space Jam: A New Legacy, despite hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor, feels very cold and calculated. LeBron James’ connection with the Looney Tunes feels forced, including highlighting the Tunes during the opening depicting his childhood, as does the motivation for the central basketball game. In Space Jam, the decision to play basketball came from a natural logical progression, whereas in A New Legacy it comes off as a decision made because the plot needs them to play basketball. So cold is this film, in fact, that it even throws in a generic “be yourself” message and has many poor, cringy attempts at humor, including a reference to Kevin Hart’s height and a random scene where the game stops cold so Porky Pig (Eric Bauza) can roast Al-G Rhythm in a one-sided rap battle.

What doesn’t help, of course, is the massive focus on Warner Bros., especially within the Serververse. LeBron travels to and with Bugs Bunny through or past many worlds in search of his team, all of which contains properties that Warner Bros. either owns or has some rights to, like the studio is just showing off what they have. These include, but are certainly not limited to, The Wizard of Oz, an entire DC-themed world, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Austin Powers and Casablanca (of all things), though the interactions are mostly limited to drawing the Looney Tunes into pre-existing footage. Considering how many characters show up in the background for quick cameos, which are too numerous to properly list here, it wouldn’t be unfair to consider the film either a giant ad for HBO Max or the closest equivalent to Ready Player Two until Warner Bros. inevitably produces that adaptation. The heavy focus on Warner Bros., however, made references to Back to the Future and Star Trek baffling, since Universal and Paramount respectively own both of them.

A New Legacy also features inconsistent internal logic, especially regarding technology. Aside from no longer having the Looney Tunes live in the center of the Earth, the technology shown off stretches the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, including the rather dystopian idea that Warner Bros. would know far more about you than the government, Google and Facebook put together. The climactic basketball game isn’t safe from this, as it uses “video game logic” as a lazy excuse to have the characters do literally anything they want, ignoring that actual video games have their own rules and limitations that the player, or audience in this case, can follow and understand. As is, it demonstrates a more surface-level understanding of game design and results in a sleep-inducing basketball game, even when compared to the original.

Then there’s the question of whether or not LeBron James is good, either on his own merits or as a replacement for Michael Jordan. Sadly, despite having more acting experience, with roles in such films as Smallfoot and Trainwreck, he doesn’t have the same charisma as Michael Jordan or the same chemistry with the Looney Tunes. Comparisons between the two players extend to the depictions of their home life. To wit, although Michael Jordan has a mansion, he’s more relatable since he clearly lives in a more residential area and has a good relationship with his family. LeBron, on the other hand, comes off as a jerk, partly for the sake of giving him a character arc, and his own home pretentiously flexes his wealth. He also comes off less humble, as several characters, including the main villain, don’t stop talking about how great LeBron James is as a basketball player, with no pushback on his part.

Considering the veteran talent brought in for the animated portions of the film, the mixture of 2D and CG actually looks great and the voice talent is on point, though it’s admittedly odd seeing LeBron fully animated after Space Jam had more of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit vibe with Michael Jordan. The soundtrack also isn’t as memorable as the original film and I’ll admit that I was particularly disappointed at the lack of “Space Jam” by Quad City DJ’s, with not even a remix in sight.

The Looney Tunes make a successful transition to 3D.

Of course, I can’t finish this review without bringing up this film’s treatment of Lola Bunny. Desexualizing her was unnecessary, since she wasn’t that overtly sexual in the original, and she noticeably has less muscle definition here, especially in her legs. Additionally, since Lola doesn’t actually do all that much, replacing Kath Soucie with Zendaya, who still did a good job, was also unnecessary and came off as a cynical attempt at getting more star power behind the film to increase ticket sales.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Space Jam, there isn’t much to get excited about with Space Jam: A New Legacy. With a nonsensical storyline and forced plot, inconsistent rules and a bad attempt at copying the already bad internal marketing tactic of Ralph Breaks the Internet, not even the incredible animation can save this film from leaving a legacy of pain. If nothing else, it will only make you want to watch the original again, which you may as well do instead.

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