When I watched Space Jam as a kid, I didn’t know it existed because of a series of popular commercials. The movie came out one year after I was born, and I didn’t start watching it until I was around five or six years old. I wasn’t into sports, but I was really into Looney Tunes. I have no memory of how the film first came to me—my parents probably thought it was something I’d like, or it caught my eye at the video store and I asked my dad to rent it. Looney Tunes cartoons were, perhaps, one of my very first pop culture fixations, which helped to shape my now fully-formed, adult personality in which I latch onto shows and movies zealously and become obsessed with them to the point where they’re the only things that I think about. Thus, I have probably watched Space Jam more times than any other movie, and it wasn’t until I got older that I began to understand the implications of its soulless, boardroom-approved existence—one that would pave the way for the brand-centric, IP-slop products of today. Because of my nostalgia for it, I continued to maintain into adulthood (a bit facetiously, mostly earnestly) that if it wasn’t a good movie, it was at least fun from the perspective of having once loved it. It was something I loved more than anything else at one point. How could I ever say it was truly bad?
Space Jam: A New Legacy banks on Millennials still thinking like this. The core audience for Space Jam: A New Legacy is people like me. Not Gen X or Boomers, who hate Space Jam because their kids loved it and forced them to watch it (like my parents), or because they were teens or young adults when it came out and they were forced against their will to endure merely being conscious of its inane existence. The audience is supposed to be today’s kids, who could be courted with the promise of LeBron James and the ubiquitous Looney Tunes characters, but they have no understanding of Mad Max: Fury Road or The Matrix or A Clockwork Orange, or the majority of the Warner Bros. intellectual properties of yesteryear that proliferate this film. No, I would argue that the audience for Space Jam: A New Legacy is me, one of those who stupidly thought they wanted a sequel like this to happen.
So come on and slam, and welcome to the Jam. Except this time around, the framework of the first film is recycled and made far more convoluted than it needs to be, and the soundtrack is far worse. The Looney Tunes are CGI-ified, and they exist in a universe that acts like an unholy, kaleidoscopic hall of IP horrors. “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” wrote Shakespeare, buried long before his species would take gleeful steps towards the very undoing of humanity and of the popular culture he was instrumental in once allowing to flourish. But as my brain begins taking its natural steps towards repressing harmful memories, I am forced to look back on the very thing that I am trying to forget.
In A New Legacy, an all-powerful, all-seeing algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (played by a scenery-chewing Don Cheadle), is tired of seeing his genius go overlooked. But his newest creation for Warner Bros.—the Warner 3000—is on track to get him the recognition he believes he deserves, by enlisting the help of NBA superstar LeBron James (whose acting chops are about on par with Michael Jordan’s, which is to say, not good). The Warner 3000 will essentially be able to scan LeBron, digitally recreate him and place the basketball legend into any popular Warner Bros. property. The only problem is LeBron isn’t hot on the idea. His game designer-hopeful son Dom (Cedric Joe), however, is. So Al G. traps the two of them in his home, the Warner Bros. “Serververse,” and challenges LeBron to a game of basketball. If LeBron wins, Al G. will let LeBron and Dom go. If Al G. wins, the two of them will stay imprisoned in the Serververse forever, allowing Al G. to reap the rewards of his Warner 3000 with LeBron in tow.
Al G. unceremoniously sends LeBron to gather his own team from “the rejects” AKA the Looney Tunes. LeBron becomes acquainted with Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman) and Tune World, rendered entirely destitute save for that wascally wabbit, after Al G. enticed the other Tunes to leave Bugs in favor of other Warner Bros. worlds.
Bugs and LeBron jack Marvin the Martian’s spaceship to go and retrieve the other Tunes and get LeBron the high-powered, fictional players he desires for his team—however, Bugs is intent on seeing his friends, rather than Superman or King Kong, fight for LeBron. Once LeBron is forced to accept that the Tunes are the only ones willing to back him, he is adamant that they play by his rules. But with the help of his own algorithmic tech, Dom is able to recreate the power and likenesses of popular NBA and WNBA superstars, like Anthony Davis and Nneka Ogwumike, in the Serververse and turn them into unstoppable mutants for Al G.’s “Goon Squad,” in the same way the “Nerdluck” aliens from the first film stole NBA players’ talent.
With improved CGI, mixed-media animated sequences, an unnecessarily saccharine and expanded emotional core, and product placement that would impress Happy Madison productions, Space Jam: A New Legacy is really not much different than the first film, even though the inclusion of the Looney Tunes actually makes far more sense here than the idea that Tune World is underneath a golf course (even if the latter is funnier). The film is essentially a “soft reboot,” a film that acts like a sequel, but reuses the same exact plot, thus rebooting the same story for a new audience. The first Space Jam is weirdly never referenced, beyond a sequence that admittedly got a chuckle from me that acts as a bait-and-switch between Michael Jordan and Michael B. Jordan, and the Nerdlucks making two minor appearances as part of the Warner Bros. IP spectators to the climactic game. Space Jam: A New Legacy is dubbed a “standalone sequel,” but it’s still weird that the Tunes retain no memory of the first film’s events at all. There are no throwaway lines from the Tunes that would garner easy comedic points, like “Oh jeez! Do we really have to do this again?” That would’ve been kinda funny!
But if it was something that could’ve potentially been funny, it was clearly just too smart for the film. There is a total of six credited writers for the screenplay and story, including indie director Terence Nance, who was originally signed on to direct before being replaced by Girls Trip’s Malcolm D. Lee. The story isn’t necessarily awful, but it’s mostly boring, stretching itself out to an unwieldy 115 minutes. But the bad pacing, monotonous humor (Daffy Duck looking at the camera and saying “Well, that happened”) and eye-straining, green screen cinematography from Salvatore Totino is hard to directly pin on Lee, due to the film reading less like a film than a brand-sponsored experiment.
Space Jam: A New Legacy preoccupies itself with spending more time with LeBron’s fake family and fleshing out a father-son dynamic that’s neither interesting nor meaningful, urging audiences to be impressed by what it can do with its IP archives (like putting Wile E. Coyote into Mad Max: Fury Road or Elmer Fudd into Austin Powers; or an insane appearance by fucking Rick and Morty), and trying to make Don Cheadle’s goofy Al G. more of an existential threat than Danny DeVito’s power-hungry alien Mr. Swackhammer ever was. They could have made a simple, funny movie about the Looney Tunes, Space Jam sequel or no—but no, that would’ve required some real thinking and creativity, the same kind that was afforded the failed Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which slipped quietly into the forgotten annals of history.
The newest iteration of Tune World is, admittedly, quite cute, and the Tunes themselves aren’t consistently given cringy dialogue like in the first film. The Tunes are actually allowed to be engaging and animated…until they are rendered crass, 3D abominations about midway through the film once the basketball game starts. The film also manages to possess the same minor self-awareness that flickered in the original film, in which a greedy, money-hungry CEO searched for the easiest means to ensure dumb, easily manipulated paying customers would return to his mindless theme park. In the sequel, there is a scene in which an endless hoard of Warner Bros. properties tears across Tune World en-route to the basketball court, literally destroying the landscape in their wake. It’s such an obvious nod to the film’s own self-possessed insanity, but it isn’t so much a cheeky metatextual “wink, wink” than it is a dismal reminder of the current media landscape that studios like Warner Bros. are helping to ravage.
As evidenced by Space Jam: A New Legacy, things in the entertainment world are continuing to get worse. The film exists because of the nostalgia that has allowed Space Jam to endure decades as a beloved fixture of pop culture, the same nostalgia that keeps Hollywood reluctant to expand its creative horizons beyond reboots, remakes and extended universes. And it’s a film for children, sure, but as many tend to use “it’s for children” as a way to let a lack of creativity off the hook in the same way they use “let people enjoy things” to shield criticism towards franchises at large, don’t children deserve something better? Space Jam: A New Legacy operates the facile modern IP culture consumption machine that people in my generation are spellbound by, only seeking the sinister serotonin rush one receives upon recognizing something. This will guarantee that studios like Warner Bros. can continue profiting off a lack of creativity and maintain a death grip on the success of their former ideas. There is no need for artistic integrity or imagination if you can make even more money from exploiting the past. The first Space Jam predicted this. I only wish I’d realized it before it was already too late.
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Writer: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon, Celeste Ballard
Stars: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya
Release Date: July 16, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.