“Space Jam: A New Legacy,” the LeBron James-led summer blockbuster and successor to the fan-favorite 1996 original, attempts to offer the NBA icon an opportunity for Hollywood stardom, updating the franchise for a younger, more technologically inclined audience. Unfortunately, the attempt proves unsuccessful, playing out more like one big advertisement rather than a film with any real heart.
The film is something of an Oedipal drama, centering its story around the relationship between James (playing himself) and his fictional 12-year old son Dom (Cedric Joe), who struggles to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead wants to pursue his passion for designing video games.
After an argument during a failed pitch meeting at Warner Bros. Studios, the pair is separately transported to and trapped inside the “serververse” by Al G. Rhythm (a villainous artificial intelligence played by an over-the-top Don Cheadle), who attempts to manipulate the two toward a father-son clash in the form of a high-stakes game of “DomBall” — the basketball-themed video game Dom designed — to decide their fate.
With the help of one questionably animated 3D Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman), James reluctantly recruits the Looney Tunes in order to win the game, save his son and escape. And so the stage is set for the central showdown of “Space Jam: A New Legacy”: the Tune Squad versus the Goon Squad, Dom and Al G.’s team made up of superpowered versions of real NBA and WNBA superstars including Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Taurasi (voiced by the actual athletes).
James, though he delivers an expectedly not Oscar-worthy performance, is perfectly serviceable as the film’s lead; during a few sequences featuring more traditional cel animation, it’s clear he’s having a good time with the material, leading to some genuinely goofy moments. But the family drama at the heart of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” requires better than passable performances to be convincing, and the vast majority of the film’s all-star cameos fall remarkably flat. As James ironically points out somewhere in the first third of the film, “Athletes and acting; that never goes well.”
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” boasts a simple premise for a family movie that starts as a slog and — after the first act — quickly reveals itself to function better as a thinly-veiled advertisement opportunity for Warner Bros. to showcase the infinitely recyclable nature of its various intellectual properties.
As James undergoes his mission to round up the team, the film makes a high-speed race through the other realms of the “serververse,” literally inserting Looney Tunes characters into older films in the most bafflingly shameless of ways (i.e. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner racing down “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Yosemite Sam (Bergman) hanging out in “Casablanca,” Granny (Candi Milo) and Speedy Gonzalez (Gabriel Iglesias) facing down the police in “The Matrix.”) Jokes and high jinks fly by at seemingly 1,000 words per minute; very few of them actually land.
The big game, supposedly the film’s biggest selling point, is 30 minutes too long and 80,000 references too many to feel earnest. Taking up nearly half of the film’s run time, the sequence is bogged down by an overload of, well, everything. It’s jarring to witness the droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” stand next to Pennywise from “It,” along with the various iterations of Catwoman, The Mask and various other Warner Bros. intellectual property in the background of nearly every single one of the film’s potentially emotional moments. It’s computer-generated madness that holds little novelty, full of what feels like Warner Bros. marketing, which entirely undercuts the film’s message of authenticity, individualism and self-expression.
Ultimately, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” fouls nearly every bit of its potential: as a heartwarming family film, as a comedy, even as an iconic pop culture moment. With its stacked roster of stars, enormous budget and the cult following of its predecessor, it still manages to fall victim to oversaturation and is little more than mindless, mind-numbing algorithmic entertainment. Unlike the beloved original, it’s as forgettable as its soundtrack. For Warner Bros., it might be the biggest airball you could throw.
Vincent Tran is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].