The team behind Space Jam: A New Legacy has pulled off the impossible. They’ve taken two of the most dynamic and entertaining things on the entire planet and made them boring. One of those is LeBron James, an iconic, generational basketball champion, and the other is the Looney Tunes, a timeless, hilarious, adaptable, and unforgettable set of characters. On their own, each is amazing. Put them together and, apparently, it’s anything but.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Girls Trip) from a script credited to six writers, A New Legacy is the long-awaited sequel to 1996 hit Space Jam, which starred Michael Jordan (as himself) as he was forced to play a basketball game against a bunch of aliens in order to free his friends. In A New Legacy, James similarly has to play a basketball game to free his tech-savvy son, Dom (Cedric Joe), who has been sucked into a place called the Warner Bros. Serververse.
As someone who grew up with Space Jam, I wanted nothing more than to like A New Legacy. I distinctly recall “I Believe I Can Fly” and Air Jordans, and I love watching basketball and sci-fi movies, so on paper, the film is right up my alley. The problem is, the new film is so dense and manic, with a hugely uneven tone, that the end product feels like white noise. A bunch of nothing buzzing across the screen for damn near two hours. How could a movie about basketball and cartoons be dense? Well, partially because the plot is extremely complicated. In the story, Warner Bros.—the company behind this movie in real life—has created an algorithm that creates its own content. That algorithm is personified by Don Cheadle who calls himself Al G. Rhythm (get it?) and his aim is to get James to appear in all sorts of algorithm-created WB content. But when James turns him down, Al kidnaps Dom and forces James to play him in basketball to free him. It seems like a good plan because Dom creates his own video games and understands technology and his father is a no-nonsense, by-the-rules parent, but that’s just the beginning.
Most of this happens in the Serververse, which is basically a digital world where all of WB’s properties live—if you’ve seen the trailers, you know the film makes use of many of them—DC, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Matrix, Casablanca, and on and on. Most importantly though, there are the iconic Looney Tunes, who’ve been separated by Al, leaving Bugs Bunny all by himself. Our lead actor finds Bugs, and Bugs then uses James’ need to put together a team as an excuse to reunite the Tunes, who are scattered all across the Serververse in various different movies and TV shows. It could be fun in the right doses, like the way Teen Titans Go to the Movies went about it; however, it ends up not working that way.
All of this occurs in the film’s second act, which feels like a disjointed Warner Bros. highlight reel. Bugs and James go from franchise to franchise picking up one or two characters with all the excitement of a grocery list. Characters are just put into whatever movie or show they most tangentially fit into, we see them do their signature schtick, and then it’s onto the next one. The extended sequence is repetitive, unfunny, and feels completely separate from the rest of the film’s story. Adding insult to injury, James is animated the whole time. Make no mistake, James isn’t very good in the film, but having a human face alongside the animated characters would be interesting—animated LeBron James and the Looney Tunes feels more like it was made for TV than a big-screen sequel.
Some of this might have been OK if the key friendship in the film between Bugs and James had some heart. It doesn’t. On one hand, you have James, who is trying to put together a team to help free his son, and on the other, you have Bugs, who just wants to get his friends back together. The film makes it pretty clear Bugs is using James—who continues to call this out—but Bugs just keeps going. The dynamic is probably supposed to be funny, but it only creates an unsettling, unspoken disconnect between the leads, making the chances of them having any kind of real, formidable bond impossible.
All of what we’ve just described happens in the first half-ish of the movie if you can believe it. It’s just a never-ending avalanche of plot and excess. Then, almost out of nowhere, the final game starts. And friends, let me tell you, the final game is long. In the original Space Jam, the game was more intense and less drawn out, much more in line with common film structure. Here, it feels like the last two minutes of an NBA game with constant starts and stops, and each of its four quarters being milked to within an inch of its life in a desperate attempt to set up dramatic stakes. The biggest issue is the “New Legacy” of this story is that the game isn’t normal basketball, it’s the son’s game (Domball) which doesn’t really have any rules. Think NBA Jam dialed up to 100. Some baskets are worth two points, some are worth 200. Some dunks get style points, others do not. Different players are seemingly awarded different points randomly. It’s anarchy. As a result, you never quite know how dire the stakes are for either side or what they can do to win, so all drama and interest just goes completely out the window. You’ll spend more time looking in the crowd to see what cameos WB snuck in, which is never a good thing.
The driving force throughout the movie is supposed to be the tension in LeBron and Dom’s relationship. Dom, the kid who would rather play games than basketball, and LeBron, the adult who worked so hard to get where he is that he never had a real childhood. It’s a generational gap we assume is meant to be relatable and poignant, but it all feels very surface. The film is so preoccupied to get to the next cameo or joke, the father/son relationship never gets explored in a meaningful way. We know James is good at basketball and the film shows us that Dom is good at designing video games, but the film never lets those passions come through organically. Plus, the rest of the family (lead by Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green) do little more than stand on the sidelines and scream. It’s all tell and no show, which means even the core of the film doesn’t quite work.
To be fair, during this long (and we do mean long—Warner Bros. says the film is 115 minutes but it feels more like 130) and arduous journey, there are a few really good gags and jokes. The animation, particularly the CG in the final game, is truly beautiful, and a moment that takes place at halftime of the final game is so good, it’s almost worth the price of admission. Almost. Watching Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t exactly the worst experience one could have, but all its references feel so forced in as winks to the adults watching, they never feel like a cohesive part of the film.
Of course, it’s always important to step back and look at the larger context. I’m a 41-year-old white man; yes, I grew up with and loved the original film, I follow the NBA and love sci-fi movies. All of the elements in Space Jam: A New Legacy should, potentially, work for me. Even so, this movie was not made for me. It was made for 12-year-olds who might not get a joke referencing Training Day, but will enjoy a young character who has his own Twitch stream. That person might like this hyper-kinetic, totally nonsensical movie a lot. For me though? It just wasn’t my jam.
Space Jam: A New Legacy opens Friday, July 16 in theaters and HBO Max.
Wondering where our RSS feed went? You can pick the new up one here.