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‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ Review: That’s Not Quite All, Folks

The Looney Tunes characters are back on the court, this time with LeBron James, in this update to the 1996 live action/animation hybrid.

The 1996 live-action/animation mash-up comedy “Space Jam,” in which Michael Jordan met the Looney Tunes crew, has a settled reputation as one of those pictures everybody saw but few critics found satisfactory. (One noteworthy positive review to the contrary.) This did not dissuade Warner Media from constructing a starring vehicle for contemporary basketball titan LeBron James around the same conceit. Only hypertrophied. Naturally.

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Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a script by six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” has a bit more on its hectic mind than its predecessor did. Here James is given a fictional family, in which younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) is more interested in designing video games than in working on layups on the basketball court of the James palace.

Space Jam: A New Legacy

  • Director: Malcolm D. Lee
  • Writers: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon, Celeste Ballard
  • Stars: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green
  • Rating:PG
  • Running Time: 1h 55m
  • Genres: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Sport

This conflict catches the eye of a near-omniscient, sociopathic (but aren’t they all?) algorithm within the Warner “server-verse” in Burbank (where James is being courted by the media giant). Incarnated by Don Cheadle, the ambitious creature (who is called Al G. Rhythm) sucks Dom and LeBron into the vast world of Warner intellectual properties and sets up a high-stakes basketball duel. Hoping to sink the father’s chances, Al saddles LeBron with the beloved zanies Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester et al.

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The fevered Oedipal drama strikes some disquieting notes, and Cheadle eventually generates real menace the more he comes to resemble a certain finger snapping supervillain not under Warner copyright. There’s a nearly astute satire of the app-driven life bubbling under the meta high jinks. And the movie throws so many gags at the screen that several jokes actually stick. But the purposeful sensory overload mostly yields head-spinning stupefaction, leaving a viewer feeling like Wile E. Coyote after hitting a mesa wall.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Review

  1. How you feel about the original Space Jam — the film which (finally!) brought together basketball legend Michael Jordan and Looney Tunes hero Bugs Bunny — slightly depends on your age.
  2.  The film might not have dated especially well for some (R. Kelly is all over the soundtrack, for one thing), but for the generation who still have a beloved, worn-out VHS copy.
  3.  It is a shot of pure-’90s nostalgic joy: funny, weird and electrically entertaining, even if you couldn’t tell a jump hook from a dribble. 
  4. Something about that strange alchemy of cartoons and sports (plus a well-placed Bill Murray cameo) made for a remarkably self-aware postmodern slam-dunk.

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It’s this nostalgia that Warner Bros. is clearly hoping to tap into. But save for a time-honoured Bugs Bunny look-to-camera, and a cameo from the aliens of the previous entry, this is an entirely new adventure, the original film largely unacknowledged. The key ingredients — basketball star finds himself in the Looney Tunes world and must play a game of basketball to win the Tunes’ freedom — are both there, but the film stretches and contorts itself to make that happen, like a Wile E. Coyote stunt gone wrong.

This just feels like a two-hour advert.

In fact, it’s a full half-hour until we actually see any Looney Tunes. In that opening act, we’re left with Don Cheadle — hamming it up on a green-screen stage in various sparkle suits, as new baddie Al-G Rhythm — to carry us through a thick gloop of exposition. Incoming b-ball hero LeBron James — a charismatic presence, but not an actor, as he himself self-deprecating jokes in the film — is simply left to pull confused faces.

Despite that lengthy set-up, the villain’s motivations are thinner than a boulder-flattened coyote. Al-G seems to be an all-powerful algorithm, but still insists on a game of basketball to decide everyone’s fate, for reasons never made clear. Even less obvious, narratively speaking, is why every character who has ever appeared in a Warner Bros. film needs to be in there too. Having the Looney Tunes rub shoulders with the likes of Mad Max and Austin Powers is, frankly, a baffling choice: soul-suckingly unfunny for adults, and head-scratching confusing for children, for whom those characters will be totally unfamiliar. Spielberg did much the same vault-raiding only three years ago with Ready Player One (and with a lot of the same characters). At least with that film there were solid story reasons to include them all. This just feels like a two-hour advert. What on earth would Kubrick think of the droogs from A Clockwork Orange hanging out with Daffy Duck?

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If there’s one positive, the animation and effects are mostly impressive, thanks to the experienced Warner Animation Group flitting skilfully between the charming 2D style used by the Looney Tunes’ recent TV revival, an uncanny 3D version when the characters are ‘upgraded’, and some dazzling CG bells and whistles during the climactic game itself. But the Looney Tunes series was always more than just inventive visuals — it was underpinned by good writing and sharp jokes.

Lessons about focus, success and family are all fine, but feel a bit like the kind of thing Disney would do and Looney Tunes would take the mickey out of. The cheeky, chaotic spirit of directors like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery seems lost, replaced by a slightly cynical boardroom-concocted corporate synergy. When it comes to the Looney Tunes, let’s hope that’s not all, folks.

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