The kindest reading of Space Jam 2: A New Legacy is that it exists only to extend the brand of NBA superstar and media mogul LeBron James. A more cynical — but likely more accurate view — is that the live-action/animation hybrid was made by Warner Bros. merely to sell merch and HBO Max subscriptions. It clambers to revive the flagging Looney Tunes brand and remind audiences of everything — and I mean everything — that falls under the WB umbrella. The original Space Jam website somehow endured for decades, but it has recently been updated, with the “SHOP” link front and center. Anyone who found fellow IP-extravaganza Ready Player One (2018) a soulless exercise in nostalgia will be even more depressed by what this kids movie does to characters they love, as well as baffled by the presence of ones they never cared about in the first place.
For a film whose central message is “Be yourself,” it can’t help but copy its predecessor in numerous ways. Space Jam: A New Legacy initially follows the blueprint of the 1996 Space Jam (at least according to Wikipedia, because the original is not exactly the most memorable of films itself). It begins in 1998 in Akron, Ohio, where a young LeBron (Stephen Kankole) is chided by his youth basketball coach (Wood Harris) for being distracted by a Game Boy, which he then throws in the trash. The opening credits give us a quick tour through LeBron’s career, both on the court and off, even devoting a moment to his “I will not just shut up and dribble” speech. It hints that this dumb, pointless movie might have something more on its mind, a pump fake that would make the real LeBron James proud.
Fast-forward to present-day Los Angeles, where history repeats itself with grown-up LeBron lecturing his video-game-loving kid Dom (Cedric Joe) about the importance of focus. His dialogue is full of platitudes that will be familiar to anyone that played high school sports or has taken a particularly intense fitness class as an adult. But while Dom doesn’t love playing basketball, he has designed a video game called “Dom Ball” (which sounds like a title that should not be in a kids movie, but nothing here has been given that much thought). The game is inspired by the real sport but with an emphasis on fun over fundamentals.
Meanwhile, LeBron is invited to the Warner Bros. lot to learn about a new business opportunity pitched by an A.I. named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle). When LeBron shoots down the idea, Al goes HAL and sucks LeBron and Dom into the digital Warner Bros. Serververse. (Sure.) He kidnaps Dom and challenges LeBron to a basketball game for the fate of his family, which is where the Looney Tunes characters enter the story. Bugs Bunny (voice of Jeff Bergman) helps recruit all the classic ‘toons to the team for a now-animated LeBron. They’ll have to match up with monsterized versions of NBA and WNBA stars like Anthony Davis and Diana Taurasi if they want LeBron and Dom to go back to the real world.
If it sounds like a lot, it is. Space Jam: A New Legacy is at once too much and so, so boring, packing frames with familiar characters (and Hanna-Barbera randos) to make the audience play the worst game of Where’s Waldo? ever. At least searching through scenes for familiar characters kept me awake. Sequels and spinoffs to Space Jam have been in the works since the original’s successful run, which almost explains how dated many of its references are. Kids won’t get the nods to Austin Powers (1997), and their parents won’t care. It’s unclear who this movie was for, other than the people who profit from licensing deals.
The story is an overcomplicated jumble, credited to six people, including the wildly creative Terence Nance, who was replaced as director on the project by Malcolm D. Lee. A single laugh-out-loud moment acknowledges Michael Jordan and the original 1996 movie, with most of the other jokes meriting a groan at best and an audible blink at worst. You can endlessly debate whether Jordan or James is the better basketball player, but the latter is definitely the better actor. James is fine as his on-screen alter ego, better at the would-be comedic moments and voice work than at the more serious scenes. Meanwhile, Cheadle goes big as the film’s villain, having fun even if the audience isn’t.
A Warner Bros. Studio Store in movie form — and equally as bankrupt —Space Jam: A New Legacy doesn’t so much celebrate the historic brand’s legacy as it exploits it. It takes money to make movies, but business’s triumph over art has rarely been as clear (and uninteresting) as it is here.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is out Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.