Space Jam: A New Legacy review: A sequel that should’ve stayed on the bench

When Space Jam arrived in theaters 25 years ago, the mash-up of live-action filming and animation that brought Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters together was deservedly celebrated as a technical triumph. Its grand experiment in blending complicated (and time-consuming) filmmaking techniques paid off at the box office and was rightfully lauded for its technical achievement.

And yet, it was never really considered a good movie.

Visually impressive? Definitely. Fun? Absolutely. Funny? Sure. (The presence of Bill Murray and Bugs Bunny made certain of that.) But an across-the-board, high-quality film? Not quite, doc.

The original Space Jam did a lot of things right, and it did so in smart ways that covered up many of its shortcomings and ensured its commercial success. That experiment continues with Space Jam: A New Legacy, a film that attempts to replicate the success of the 1996 film in many ways, but opts to lean into some of its weakest elements instead of hiding them, and ultimately feels less like a Dream Team and more like a disappointing vanity project.

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

The return of the Tune Squad

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (The Best ManGirls Trip), Space Jam: A New Legacy has NBA icon LeBron James portray a fictionalized version of himself who’s transported into the Warner Bros. servers by the malevolent artificial intelligence Al-G Rhythm (Get it? He’s an algorithm!), played by Don Cheadle.

In order to free his son from the WB servers, James is forced to team up with Looney Tunes characters to play a basketball game against a monstrous squad created by Al-G Rhythm with the abilities of various NBA and WNBA stars. Before he can do so, however, he has to travel through the universe of WB franchises with Bugs Bunny to recruit his Tune teammates.

While LeBron’s journey into the animated world, the zany antics of the Looney Tunes characters, and the big game against Al-G Rhythm’s “Goon Squad” are ostensibly the focus of the film, A New Legacy diverges from its predecessor by adding another narrative layer to the mix: LeBron’s efforts to connect with his youngest son, Dom (Cedric Joe), an aspiring video game designer who doesn’t share his father’s love for basketball. Al-G Rhythm plays on Dom’s frustration with his father in order to trap LeBron in his digital universe, making LeBron’s efforts to defeat the villainous A.I. not just a game of basketball, but a quest to repair the bond between father and son.

Cedric Joe, LeBron James, and Don Cheadle in a scene from Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Taking a shot

James delivered an excellent performance in 2015’s Trainwreck playing a dry-humored, warm version of himself in a relatively small, supporting role that earned him some well-deserved praise. In A New Legacy, he’s asked to carry the film, playing a fully fleshed-out lead character whose emotional journey is both the foundation for the film’s story and its most prominent narrative thread instead of just the fish-out-of-water NBA superstar Jordan was in the 1996 movie.

Unlike the 1996 film, A New Legacy is less about the novelty of a sports icon stuck in the Looney Tunes world and more about the personal, transformative experience James has with his son inside the WB servers. And sadly, the decision to go all-in on that dramatic aspect of the story is a gamble that never pays off.

That’s not to say James can’t act. At times, he’s a funny, relatable presence in A New Legacy that plays off Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Tune Squad in entertaining ways, but those moments are few and far between in a film that seems frustratingly opposed to letting its cast of characters get too, well… loony. Where Jordan’s interactions with the Tune Squad were always played for laughs and a sort of self-aware silliness, A New Legacy plays up the emotional beats with James so intensely and so often that his predicament comes off as more sad than zany.

It doesn’t help that James never quite musters the gravitas to sell the plight he’s in, despite an admirable effort. The film is frustratingly intent on having him carry an emotional weight that doesn’t come across in his performance, and keeps feeding him dramatic moments to play up instead of the silly mash-up opportunities this sort of studio-wide, cross-franchise event offers.

Lola Bunny celebrating in a scene from Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Property placement

Fortunately, when A New Legacy does dip into the WB vault, it finds some entertaining, unexpected ways to use the studio’s vast archive of franchises.

Everything from Mad Max: Fury Road and Rick and Morty to Austin Powers and Harry Potter get playful — and occasionally really clever, in the case of Fury Road — nods and call-outs in James’ adventure through the WB servers. The film does so with the sort of over-the-top, throw-everything-at-the-wall gusto that’s likely to earn equal amounts of criticism and applause from audiences, but feels right at home in the Space Jam universe.

Looney Tunes characters have always been fond of breaking the fourth wall, and their cartoon adventures have always shown some level of self-awareness while commenting on or playing off real-world events and people. In the last 25 years, audiences have grown more sensitive to companies’ marketing ploys, though, so there’s a good chance many audiences won’t see James’ franchise-hopping trip through the WB vault to recruit his Tune teammates as the lighthearted crossover it’s intended to be.

Those that do enjoy a silly crossover, though, will have lots of laughs as Bugs and James pinball from one franchise to the next.

LeBron James and Tweety Bird in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

No free throws

We’ve come a long way since 1996, so it’s reasonable to expect a project like Space Jam: A New Legacy to — at the very least — offer a similar level of fun as the original film, even if it falls short of being as technically groundbreaking as its predecessor.

Unfortunately, while the visual effects and animation do indeed feel fresh and modern in A New Legacy, the decision to pivot away from the silliness and visual spectacle of the first film and toward a more emotional, dramatic story arc at the heart of the story ends up hurting the film overall. By making the film more about James’ journey and less about the sheer ridiculousness of sending a world-famous sports icon into the world of Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes, A New Legacy relegates one of the key elements in the first film’s success to a backup role this time around.

And although James is immensely talented both on the court and off, the screen time he’s given in A New Legacy demands a bit more from him than he’s able to deliver at this early stage of his acting career.

There’s a good chance that younger audiences will still find plenty to enjoy about Space Jam: A New Legacy, but ultimately, James’ trip to Tune World feels like it learned all the wrong lessons from the original film.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters on HBO Max streaming service.

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