For a certain generation, 1996’s Space Jam will always hold a special place in their heart. Teaming up Looney Tunes cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Tweety with NBA superstar Michael Jordan was a goofy lark that has endured because of the iconic status of the characters and Jordan, not to mention the memorable song “I Believe I Can Fly” (although the less said about that song’s singer, the better).
Twenty-five years later, there is only one obvious player on which to hinge the property’s return, and that’s LeBron James. That’s not only because he’s arguably the best player in the NBA since Jordan, but because – in limited reps – he’s proven to be an above average actor, most notably in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck.
Space Jam: A New Legacy finds LeBron playing a version of himself, complete with three kids and a wife. The movie LeBron is a bit of an overbearing sports dad, pushing his two sons to work as hard at basketball as he does. One son, Dom (Cedric Joe), is much more interested in creating his own NBA Jam-style video game than actually playing the sport, something that frustrates LeBron to no end.
In the super-synergistic film, the movie studio Warner Bros. is using a computer algorithm to determine what kind of movies they should be making. Personified by Don Cheadle, Al G. Rhythm manages to capture both LeBron and Dom into his server. Once digitized, Al turns Dom against his dad by saying he never believed in him, and blackmails LeBron into playing a suped-up version of Dom’s video game to try to get his son back.
That’s a lot of set-up for what will be a silly basketball game featuring LeBron, Dom, and a bunch of cartoon characters, but you have to give director Malcolm D. Lee and the sextet of screenwriters some credit for at least attempting to tell a story. The family drama between LeBron and Dom is a much better reason to have an NBA superstar playing a fake basketball game than the thin excuse given in the first film.
Of course, LeBron is only half the attraction. The zaniness of the Looney Tunes is what most kids will be interested in, and the full complement of characters – including Bugs, Daffy Duck, Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya), Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd, and more – are as over-the-top as you’d expect. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t (oof, Porky rapping), but none of it is so stupid that it’s unwatchable.
The same goes for the involvement of other basketball stars like Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Diana Taurasi, and Nneka Ogwumike, each of whom is transformed into characters with special powers for the game. The abilities Dom and Al put into the game are borderline incomprehensible, but at least they’re never boring. Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery showing up as announcers for the game is also entertaining.
The biggest negative of the movie is the tidal wave of self-promotion that Warner Bros. does. Not content to just promote their cartoon characters and Space Jam merchandise, the film includes references to every other conceivable Warner Bros. property, not just kid-friendly ones like Harry Potter or Scooby-Doo.
There are nods to The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, King Kong, The Matrix, and Mad Max: Fury Road, among many others. If done in a clever manner, they could have worked, but they’re mostly just dumped on screen in the form of spectators at the game, something that should cause even the least cynical person in the world to roll their eyes.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is mostly shameless in the way it goes about its business, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any fun to be had. LeBron James is a natural star, and the story the film lays out keeps it grounded even when it threatens to spiral out of orbit.
Space Jam: A New Legacy opens in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16.