How Space Jam 2 Director Brings Looney Tunes to New Generation

Space Jam: A New Legacy director Malcolm D. Lee opens up about working in animation for the first time, and with a game talent like LeBron James.

LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director Malcolm D. Lee has several films in his filmography that authentically capture Black American experiences. For years movies like The Best Man, Roll Bounce, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, and more recently Girls Trip, have showcased a wide range of Blackness on the big screen. 

His newest project, Space Jam: A New Legacy, is no different. The LeBron James-led film takes elements from its predecessor and makes them feel familiar and refreshing at the same time. At its core, the movie is built around a relatable story about a Black father and son who are still learning from each other. The focus on the nuances of their relationship –  even though the movie is set in this cartoony and outrageous world – is what makes New Legacy a Malcolm D. Lee film. 

We recently spoke to the director about how he approached Space Jam: A New Legacy and hopes the movie will resonate with audiences. 

There are some of the same Looney Tunes favorites in Space Jam: A New Legacy, but a whole new basketball superstar. What was it like directing LeBron James in his first on-screen leading role?

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LeBron is great. I’m a fan, I’ve been a fan for a long time. He’s open to direction. He likes to have fun. He likes to be funny. He likes to be directed. Has no ego about, you know, takes notes that are given, knows what different things I might want. So it was great to work with him because we had established a bond of trust where he felt like I could tell him something and he could just accept and then perform.

Don Cheadle is the big bad of Space Jam: A New Legacy. What was it like directing him in a role that required him to lean into being as villainous as possible?

Listen, Don Cheadle is one of the best actors on the planet and the best character on the planet. He can do anything. I think you relish the idea of playing a villain because it comes from a real place, whatever the motivations are. 

It took us a little while to figure out who Al-G was, what he wanted, and whatnot. It was never clear until like the very, very end we were able to put together. But being the professional that he is, and being a director, writer, and producer in his own right, he was able to roll with the punches and say, okay, this is working, this isn’t working, let’s maybe try to be a little bit more heightened here. Because it’s a cartoon, and he is a little bit of an animated character himself, you have to push the envelope in some regards. So working with Don was another dream collaboration.

Animation provides a chance to really step outside of the box. Space Jam: A New Legacy definitely takes advantage of that aspect in the best way. Do you recall any moments while filming that made you go “this might sound wild, but what if we did this?”

Nothing that’s specific that I can recall. The good thing about LeBron is he’s kind of game for anything. He doesn’t mind being silly…particularly when you’re doing animation. You’re in the booth trying to just do the voice, you have to push it a little bit. So if he’s screaming or if he’s running away from something, that always fun to see him do that kind of stuff because this is not his usual personality. 

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He was so game to do anything and everything. Like get down with it all the way to the voice actors who were voicing the Looney Tunes. I think being around them helped influence his performance as well.

This was your first time working with animation, what was that experience like overall?

It is my first time working with animation. I was petrified to work with animation and this level of visual effects. But once you get over the hurdle of saying, “well, I don’t know how to, what I’m doing here,” well, there’s other people that do know what they’re doing and they can show you things and educate you on how this works and show you on your screen, what it’s gonna look like. You got all that support. It makes your job that much easier to achieve your vision for the movie because all these people are here to help you achieve your vision for the movie. So it’s just one of those storytelling tools that I came to find out and it was fantastic.

Would you be open to working with animation again in the future. 

I mean it opens up a whole other world of possibilities of storytelling. The way visual effects are now, you can put the camera pretty much anywhere. You can travel through  the smallest hole in a fence or whatever. You can look at it from the perspective of an insect. Animation allows you to do all those things and more. 

Much has changed as far as what kids are into since the first Space Jam debuted. With that in mind, did that have any impact on how you approached bringing the Looney Tunes’ world to life? 

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I tried to go back to their essence that I fell in love with as a child. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s watching them on Saturday morning cartoons. So what resonated with me, these are classic rhythms of comedy and physical comedy: the set up, the  pay off, repetition. The rule of three is all in the comedy of Looney Tunes. Their style of comedy has tentacles throughout comedy today. 

So yes, it’s going to be relatable because everyone else is using it. You bring the Looney Tunes through a modern era with their essence. We wanted it as part of our story. While there is a lot of 3D animation, by the end they are at the core of who they are. 

On the surface, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a lot different than the other films you’ve directed. However, after watching it, it’s still very much a Malcom D. Lee film because of the focus on this very Black father and son relationship between LeBron and his son, Dominic. How did you approach exploring the relationship between them in New Legacy? What do you want audiences to take away from their father/son dynamic? 

Well, that’s the first thing that drew me to the movie, besides the spectacle of animation and visual effects. I wanted that to resonate and make sure their relationship was the emotional core of our movie. I knew that I could add something to that and play with the tone that was set while directing the actors.  

It’s always been my goal to make movies that have African Americans at their core in mainstream movies. And this is a universal story. What’s more universal than a parent and a child? How we were raised, how we tried to raise them, and how we interacted with our parents. Even if you don’t have children, you’ve had a parent. You know of a father figure or a mother figure that tells you how to live your life. Someone who tries to guide you along your way. And you may agree with them. You may not. So,  how do you negotiate that? I wanted to make sure that resonated with the audiences.