Space Jam: A New Legacy review – garish and soulless sequel is a stinker | Animation in film
One might assume that the subtitle of the film Space Jam: A New Legacy refers to LeBron James, seeing as he’s the star, the opening credits run through a highlight reel of his greatest moments, and its wobbly emotional backbone concerns him learning to be a good dad. But one would be wrong.
The legacy in question is that of Warner Bros, the studio responsible for this garish digitized eyesore, and for giving it a deeper existential motivation. WB has always been savvier about its own myth-making than its competitors, having sent the Animaniacs pinballing through a backlot reimagined as a playland of showbiz glitz and inside-baseball Tinseltown humor. Yet none of their self-referential mischief comes close to the brazen aggrandizement of Malcolm D Lee’s new tribute to the C-suite overlords signing the checks that initially slated director Terence Nance came to turn down. (He’s now credited as one of six screenwriters.) The NBA titan known as Bron and his second banana Bugs Bunny lead a worshipful tour through Warner history, invoking the memory of their greatest successes when not engaging in full-on groaner homages to the content portfolio now filling HBO Max’s library. Everyone involved seems unaware that in fixating on the company’s past, they’re losing sight of any future it could possibly have.
Where the first Space Jam film pooled the popularity of Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes with the same cross-promotional congeniality as, say, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the standalone sequel makes both LeBron and the Tune Squad’s celebrity subordinate to that of the almighty Intellectual Property. The studio system’s recent de-emphasis of traditional movie stardom in favor of franchise name-recognition hardens into unsettling text as LeBron brings his gamer son (Cedric Joe) along to a general meeting at Warner Bros HQ, where an executive (Steven Yeun, mostly silent) pitches him a technology capable of computerizing and inserting his image into any scene of their choosing. In Ari Folman’s sci-fi nightmare The Congress, this concept is presented as a person-obliterating horror, and 30 Rock’s TV equivalent SeinfeldVision made it out to be a hacky ratings booster; in this instance, it’s supposed to be a fantasy come true.
Though it’s a hard pass from Bron, he and his kid still get sucked into the ServerVerse, a neon-laced hard-drive galaxy of planets corresponding to Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and other copyrights held by the conglomerate. To escape, they must defeat a malevolent algorithm going by Al G Rhythm (an uncanny valley-ified Don Cheadle) in a game of b-ball, with Tunes gathered from Wonder Woman’s Amazonian jungle, the desert dystopia of Mad Max, et cetera. Based on its touting in the advertisements, this sequence is relatively brief and painless, sparing us the braced-for embarrassment of watching Daffy Duck do TikTok dances with the Khaleesi or somesuch. The climactic game, however, doubles down by filling the CGI stands with a baffling and distracting array of filmic characters including Jane Hudson from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the erotically tormented nuns from The Devils, and Alex’s droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
The core issues of the film – its numbing swirls of rainbow light popping out every which way, the excruciating pop-culture catchphrases passed off as humor, LeBron’s stilted, if game, acting, the half-assedness with which it delivers the dusty moral to be yourself, the fact that it is unaccountably one half-hour longer than its predecessor – all seem minor in comparison with the insidious ulterior intentions that power this fandom dynamo. Unlike Disney or Marvel, which can organize their vast reserves of IP under the logical umbrella of princesses or superheroes, there’s no connecting order to the mashup extravaganza mounted via the Warner Bros aegis. Rick Blaine and Pennywise the Clown don’t belong in the same reality, their only link being their contracted handlers. The younger viewers to whom this film has been ostensibly pitched will only be confused by the desperate effort to make a canon out of a brand.
That a sentient algorithm happens to be the bad guy would suggest a pass at satirical undercutting, a healthy attitude of subversion being part and parcel to the Looney Tune identity. No such luck, and that’s the most unforgivable offense against art of all. The suits at Warner turned their lovable hooligans into cheerleading mascots, and worse still, they’ve remade smartass jester prince Bugs out as a cornball. As commercial propaganda, this isn’t even convincing, portraying the studio it set out to glorify as a fading institution entering its decadent last-days-of-Rome phase. In this display of expensive corporate onanism, we arrive at a creative dead end for a studio reliant on classics that they’ve stopped minting. Gee, ain’t it a stinker?