Moving Pictures
Jul 15, 2021, 06:27AM

Less a Movie, More a Branding Exercise

Space Jam: A New Legacy is a tired sequel that will satisfy no one. D

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The original Space Jam came out in the fall of 1996. The film, which teamed up Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters, was notable mostly for its R. Kelly theme song ("I Believe I Can Fly"), and for pissing off purists by making Bugs into another character's wingman.

Space Jam was off the cultural radar for a long time, although at some point it became clear that the Millennial generation grew up loving it. Now there’s a sequel, with LeBron James standing in for MJ. And this one is actively bad.

The new Space Jam is less a movie than a branding exercise for LeBron James himself, as well as for WarnerMedia, which makes incongruous out-of-context use of its century-old film library. Like in previous movies such as Ralph Breaks the Internet and Ready Player One, Space Jam: A New Legacy throws its characters into a fictional cyber-realm that puts them into contact with massive amounts of intellectual property. In this case, all of it just happens to be under the corporate umbrella of WarnerMedia.

The film begins with a reel of James' career highlights which includes, surprisingly, The Decision. The father of two boys, including one’s rather be a video game developer than play basketball, LeBron is brought to Warner Brothers studios to be pitched some type of virtual CGI project. After he rejects it, James and his son find themselves zapped into the "Server-verse," which consists of every character from every Warner-owned property.

The villain is an algorithm, named "Al-G Rhythm," who's played by Don Cheadle. He essentially kidnaps LeBron's son and tries to brainwash him against his dad. While the first movie had MJ, Bugs and company up against evil aliens, this time James and the Tunes are battling a team including the algorithm, the son, and grotesque video game versions of basketball stars Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Nneka Ogwumike, and Diana Taurasi. Thompson's part was presumably filmed during the very brief window between his serious knee injuries.

James is given a fictional wife and kids who don't have the same names as his real family, as well as a sidekick who’s meant as a stand-in for his business partner Maverick Carter, although the actual Carter has a much better screen presence than his fictitious counterpart.

LeBron James is fine; he gave a surprisingly funny supporting performance as the best friend character a few years ago in Judd Apatow's Trainwreck. The problem is almost everything else. Space Jam: A New Legacy repeats the first movie's biggest problem, which is that Bugs Bunny is relegated to the role of largely passive sidekick. And the film can't do anything creative with any of the other Looney Tunes characters either.

As for the other characters from the expanse of the WarnerMedia-owned universe, they're for decoration. We see Pennywise the Clown, The Night King from Game of Thrones, and even the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange… standing around at courtside doing nothing. I did get a slight chuckle out of Sam in Casablanca being played by Yosemite Sam, but that's about it. The LEGO Movie did a much better job mining the Warner archives.

There are barely any funny human cameos, with the exception of Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery as the commentators; nothing like Bill Murray’s turn in the Jordan version. But Howery's presence reminds us of the movie Uncle Drew which, while not great, made more creative use of NBA players in a movie setting. And Johnson being there, along with the Inside the NBA music, serves to remind us that Charles Barkley likely passed on participating.

The basketball game, which takes up roughly the movie's entire second half, is a mess. It’s plagued by hard-to-follow CGI, and inexplicable rules, such as when the game turns into a rap battle for a few minutes (you don't want to see Porky Pig rapping). I get that it's supposed to look like a video game, especially one designed by a 15-year-old, but it doesn't work within the context of a movie.

It's also bizarre that the movie makes Warner Brothers a big part of the plot, in a fit of self-mythologizing similar to what Disney frequently does. But it does so in a way that implies that very company’s corporate servers are plagued by an evil algorithm that wants to imprison all of their customers.

There are glaring plot holes. The villain's plan makes little sense. It's implied at the beginning that the other Looney Tunes characters betrayed Bugs, but the movie never returns to that. That Lola Bunny's boobs are less prominent in the new movie was the cause of a multi-day Twitter freakout that included cancel culture charges. That certain commentators shared a version of the "original" Lola that was actually fetish art is much funnier than anything that actually happens on screen in Space Jam: A New Legacy. And R. Kelly is nowhere near the proceedings. Neither is Michael Jordan, although there's a joke about him that's telegraphed from about a mile away.

The movie may appeal to the younger set, even if Bugs Bunny and friends mean nothing to them outside of the first Space Jam. But A New Legacy is an ugly mess.


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