That’s not all, folks! 25 years after the release of the original Space Jam, a sequel has finally dribbled its way into theaters. Michael Jordan and the original filmmakers have long moved on, but A New Legacy sees a new generation of creators and athletes attempting to recreate some of the laughs and excitement that so successfully captured popular culture for a time in the late-90s. However, with a more flagrant and shameless display of marketing, and a timing that doesn’t match its basketball star’s prime quite as well, Space Jam: A New Legacy is far from a slam dunk.
Space Jam started with just a commercial. Basketball icon Michael Jordan was immensely popular during the 1990s, so he was tapped for a large array of branding opportunities. A pair of Super Bowl ads in 1992 and 1993 conceived by ad exec Jim Riswold and directed by Joe Pytka featured Jordan playing basketball with Bugs Bunny to sell Nike sneakers. The success of these spots convinced Warner Bros. that there was still market value for the classic Looney Tunes characters, so they hired Joe Pytka to turn his commercials into a movie, which was released in 1996.
Critics were divided on Space Jam, as they weren’t sold on the artistic merits of combining a star athlete with cartoon characters, but the movie was a hit with fans. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1996. It also helped cement Michael Jordan’s legend status in the pop culture landscape, and it spurned an empire of merchandise, including a soundtrack that went 6-times platinum and featured the massive hit single “I Believe I can Fly” by R. Kelly. The film remains popular today, and it is treated as a classic by the millennial generation who grew up watching it.
The new film aspires to achieve some of the same feats as its predecessor, while also trying to provide some nostalgia for those who have affection for that film. It’s probably going to reach its financial ambitions, but I have grave doubts many fans of the original are going to treat this film in the same way. The first Space Jam managed to be clever and delightful despite its obvious marketing ploys, but the sheer scale of brand solicitation on display in A New Legacy is utterly unprecedented, and the various upgrades to the cartoon cast isn’t going to sit well with some.
But first, you have the premise. Inside the Warner Bros. “server-verse,” which houses all of the studio’s properties, an algorithm (Don Cheadle) has become self-aware. It wishes to expand and gain more recognition. How is it going to do this? With basketball star LeBron James! Why? Stop asking questions. The original had a similarly strange foundation, with aliens wishing to abduct the Looney Tunes so they could be theme park attractions. Since the aliens were small, the Looney Tunes challenged them to a basketball game, for which they recruited Michael Jordan.
The reason for looping the basketball star into the story made more sense in the first. Here, it’s completely arbitrary. “Al-G Rhythm,” as he’s dubbed (get it?), could have chosen any prominent celebrity or sports person, but only chooses LeBron James because this is Space Jam, and it’s supposed to be a basketball movie. The algorithm manipulates a situation for James to visit the Warner Bros. studio, and then abducts him and his son (Joe Cedric) into virtual reality. He then challenges him to a basketball game in order to win his son back. Why? I’m not exactly sure.
Next, LeBron is launched into cyberspace, where a host of different “worlds” are visible which are home to the various Warner Bros. media franchises. He lands in the Looney Tunes world, where we are treated to a rather fun sequence which is fully comprised of traditional animation, and features LeBron struggling his way through the landscape and meeting Bugs Bunny. After explaining the situation, they take Marvin the Martian’s spaceship to travel to the other worlds to locate the other Looney Tunes, which have migrated to homes of other media properties.
We then have a rather amusing montage where LeBron and Bugs travel through Warner Bros. worlds as diverse and contradictory as Austin Powers, Mad Max, DC Comics and Casablanca. At the climactic basketball game, virtually every Warner Bros. character imaginable is present as a spectator of the action. It can be fun to point out all the cameos and references, but again, it doesn’t really feel like Space Jam. Here, the diversions into branding are so distracting, and so far beyond the pale that the film feels more like a commercial than a fun cinematic crossover.
Then, you have the visual effects style. For the early portions of the movie when the Looney Tunes are training, the characters appear as their traditionally animated selves. But for some reason, during the actual basketball game, the producers thought it would be cool to have them appear as computer animated. First of all, when the characters are like this, it negates some of the nostalgia. And second, the characters can’t really be true to their authentic selves. The style feels more weighted, and the Tunes are restricted of their familiar lightning-fast movements.
Next, you have the problem of the antagonists. Sadly, the alien “Monstars” don’t appear, save for a brief cameo. Instead, the opposing team here is the “Goon Squad,” off-putting CGI avatars combining contemporary NBA talents with things such as spiders and snakes. These characters are ugly to look at, and are a far cry from the iconic presences of the original film’s super-sized aliens. Also, there is the problem that Al-G is too powerful. He could literally do whatever he wants with LeBron, but for some reason he has to go through a ruse of a basketball game.
The one area where A New Legacy bests the original Space Jam, however, is in the acting department. LeBron James is no Orson Welles, but he is easily a more natural actor here than Michael Jordan was in the first Space Jam. After receiving praise for his role in 2015’s Trainwreck, LeBron is cast here as a father who tries too hard to push basketball on his son who would rather design video games. LeBron makes for a charming dad, but it’s uncomfortable to watch him be forced to act tough toward his son. Michael Jordan got to be fun the whole time in his movie.
When LeBron’s son Dom spends so much time bonding with the villain while his dad tries for majority of the movie to get him back, things feel so close to the 1991 film Hook that one could say it borders on plagiarism. But the film does nicely use this angle as a way to connect LeBron’s parenting style with his son with his coaching of the Tune Squad and their lack of ability for realistic basketball. What is rather disappointing, though, is that is a stand-alone sequel, and the events of the original film appear to be unknown to Bugs or any of the other characters here.
Michael Jordan, though, does get a name drop, and “almost” a cameo. But not actually, though. You’ll see what I mean. It’s part of rather a clever gag, but one where the absence of Jordan is more of a letdown than anything. Overall, the movie is not as funny as the original, the soundtrack isn’t as memorable, and the run-time is half an hour too long. And the degree of marketing is just offensive. But if you loved the original, you might find it worth seeing for whatever slight degree of nostalgia you can find, or just out of curiosity. But don’t expect much.