Space Jam: A New Legacy, the much-belated sequel to the 1996 pseudo-classic has many boxes it has to check. First and foremost, it must work as children’s entertainment that introduces the Looney Tunes to a new generation of kids; it also needs to satisfy aging millennials’ nostalgia for the Michael Jordan-led original; and finally, it must serve as an extension of the brand of basketball superstar LeBron James, and thereby also inevitably contribute to the ongoing, never-ending debate over who is better between Jordan and James. If that wasn’t enough, Warner Bros. decided that the new film must also serve as a commercial for their IP catalog. Easy enough, right?
Unsurprisingly, not quite. Space Jam: A New Legacy cannot help but be bogged down by corporate mandates and needless CGI excess despite featuring a story that’s both thematically richer and more poignant than the original. The new Jam finds James struggling to connect with his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe). The father tries to extol the same virtues of hard work and dedication to athletics that he clung to as a kid growing up in a tough situation, but Dom’s passion and gifts differ from his father’s. Examining fatherhood through the lens of LeBron James is already more of an interesting idea than anything presented in the original film, and even if the film doesn’t quite reach the depths that it could have mined, it’s an emotional hook that works.
While visiting Warner Bros. to receive a pitch for Warner 3000, an algorithm set to create new film ideas (did Warner Bros. just explain how they conceived of this movie?), James and his son are sucked into the Serververse, ruled by rogue artificial intelligence Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). Rhythm kidnaps Dom for his game developing skills and challenges LeBron to a game of basketball to get the boy back. This leads to LeBron recruiting Bugs Bunny as a teammate, and the pair must scour Warner Bros. properties to reunite the Looney Tunes, field a team, and win the game.
If that sounds overly complicated for a Space Jam movie, that’s because it is. Still, having other Warner properties shoehorned into the film works better than expected. That’s mostly because the references to Harry Potter, the DC Universe, and others are quick and occasionally funny, even if it doesn’t allow the Looney Tunes, who really should be a priority here, enough time to shine on their own. Still, the dalliances with other worlds allows for some fun explorations of different animation styles, with a Wonder Woman-themed sequence being specifically memorable.
It’s impossible not to compare the new Space Jam to the old, just as pundits have found it impossible not to compare James to Jordan. While the original worked around Jordan’s lack of acting ability by having Bill Murray do a lot of heavy-lifting, A New Legacy caters to James’ limitations as an actor by having the King animated for a long portion of the film. LeBron is certainly a better actor than Jordan, but he’s still no thespian. It turns out that when it comes to acting, James is better used as a sixth man; he’ll give you some quality minutes off the bench, but he can’t shoulder the weight of the entire team. The choice to keep him as a voice actor for large portions of the film is savvy, even if it feels a bit like a cheat.
Space Jam 2’s biggest problem is that, like Dom, it shows little passion for basketball. Many of the original film’s best moments were just watching Jordan play the game set to cool music, or watching the B-plot in which NBA stars grapple with not being able to play the game that they love (A New Legacy is far too busy for a B-plot, but still oddly could have used one). The original felt like it was evangelizing for the game in a way that this new film wouldn’t even understand. The big game in Space Jam 2 is more like a video game than actual basketball, but perhaps that’s a move to cater to what young audiences care about these days. The other superstar player cameos are so anonymous and caked under CGI that they don’t feel much like cameos at all (however, there is one surprise cameo that scored a big laugh).
All of that being said, this isn’t a completely flawed endeavor. The Looney Tunes are timeless treasures that can charm and elicit a chuckle from even the biggest curmudgeons. All it takes is Bugs dismissively referring to James as Cleveland or Daffy Duck letting out a classically exasperated “Mother” to get a warm laugh out of parents and kids alike. Their antics during the big game do not disappoint. Kudos also must be given to LeBron James for being so open to mockery. Lots of jokes are made at the King’s expense; Jordan allowed folks to mock his baseball career, but he would have demanded a revenge game if they took this many jabs at him in the original.
The reason Space Jam: A New Legacy doesn’t fall off of the wheels is because the film has a clear message for kids, a satisfying character arc for James, and an emotional climax that is acted well enough by the four-time MVP. That’s more than His Airness’ version gave us. At the end of the day, this is a movie for kids, and they’ll likely be pulled into its world like the characters themselves. While Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t a perfect outing, it still manages to feel like a W, corporate objectives be damned.
Space Jam 2 premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, July 16.
Editor’s note: Nick Harley is a Cleveland native. LeBron James played basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers, bringing the city of Cleveland its first Championship in over 50 years. Nick Harley cried tears of joy.