Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
Welcome to the Jam!
If you’re an admirer of NBA icon LeBron James or the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a slam dunk! The 1996 original, helmed by Joe Pytka, teamed then-basketball legend Michael Jordan with the WB toons. To save humanity, our heroes needed to beat a bunch of sinister space slugs (named the Nerdlucks) at a match of pro ball, ultimately stopping them from enslaving mankind and using us Earthlings as attractions for their failing amusement park. It was a fun fictitious account of MJ’s initial retirement from the NBA in 1993 and his 1995 comeback. Space Jam was the tenth highest-grossing film of that year and has stood the test of time, the film aging relatively well and attracting a generation of fans over the subsequent years.
Now, twenty-five years on, Space Jam 2 more or less rejigs and repackages this same premise for a new audience, once again giving us a manic mash-up of two worlds. The film explores the lengths some parents will go to connect with their children, highlighting timeless themes of acceptance and family through a father-and-son relationship. It’s a wild, zany, and delightful all-ages entertainer that showcases innovative VFX (2D and CGI animation) while offering comic hijinks aplenty for young viewers, as well as a heap of whacky Toons-laden basketball action. Thankfully, this new Space Jam is a direct sequel (albeit a stand-alone one) and not a remake of the ’96 version, which is still very much revered today. A New Legacy is also the first theatrical film to feature characters from the toon universe since Joe Dante’s underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
LeBron James is a fiercely committed, hardworking basketball athlete — you don’t become four-time champion without dedication. LeBron learned this from an early age. Space Jam: A New Legacy opens with an insightful prologue that shows a young LeBron (Stephen Kankole) in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, ditching his 8-bit Nintendo Game Boy to focus solely on his goal: to become the greatest basketball player of all time. His energy is redirected by his coach (Wood Harris), who teaches LeBron that having a good time and playing video games will only distract him from realizing his full potential.
Fast forward a handful of years — we see LeBron reach basketball greatness through the opening credits via clips of his real-world achievements — and James is at the peak of his professional career, living in a swanky mansion with his loving wife Kamiyah (Sonequa Martin-Green) and their two teenage sons. The problem is, LeBron is pushing his boys to strive for success on the court, despite his younger son Dominic ‘Dom’ James (Cedric Joea playing a fictionalized version of LeBron’s actual son Bryce James) being heavily into computer games; he’d rather attend a camp for videogame design over basketball. This causes LeBron to clash with Dom, who is constantly arguing with his father — “You never let me just … do me,” Dom states.
To try and connect more with Dom, LeBron drags him along to a meeting on the Warner Bros. lot, where eager executives pitch to him Warner 3000, a silly yet ground-breaking new technology that can digitally incorporate LeBron into an endless array of film and television properties. Warner 3000 is the dream creation of computer algorithm AI G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who governs WB’s ‘server-verse’ and presents the multi-project deal to LeBron from inside their supercomputer mainframe. However, LeBron dismisses the idea entirely, labeling it as ‘stupid,’ and instead chooses to prioritize his basketball profession over entertainment. This angers the egomaniacal AI G., who then lures LeBron into his server room by kidnapping Dom, sucking them both into his digital kingdom.
Enraged and humiliated by the rejection of his proposal, AI G. forces ‘King James’ to a winner-takes-all basketball showdown for the ages. If LeBron wins, he is free to exit the digi-domain with his son; otherwise, the James’ are stuck in the server forever. LeBron is then swiftly plunged into the planet of basketball rejects, Tune World, where he becomes a 2D animated version of himself; we see LeBron fall through recognizable Warner Bros. properties reimagined as planets, such as The Matrix, Harry Potter, and The Wizard of Oz, before crashing into toonville.
After adjusting to his screwball new skin and surroundings, LeBron bumps into the carrot-chomping Bugs Bunny, the only remaining citizen in town, where some comical shenanigans ensue. LeBron eventually convinces Bugs to help him build a basketball team to take on the evil algorithm. And so, Bugs steals Marvin the Martian’s spaceship and the duo zip around the WB galaxy recruiting old friends scattered across the server, who’d left Tune World some time ago. Here, classic scenes of Warner Bros. IPs are refitted with the Looney Tunes characters; our heroes drop into DC World (the animated version), where Daffy Duck, who’s posing as Superman, tries to stop a runaway train from colliding into an orphanage; they visit the post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road, where Wile E. Coyote has become a War Boy; plug into The Matrix to round up Granny and Speedy Gonzales (voiced by Gabriel Iglesias); then hop through the comic book pages of Wonder Woman World to enlist Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya), who’s disrupted during her test to become an Amazon Warrior. This montage is an absolute highlight (it had me grinning from ear to ear) and is wholly worth the price of admission. Heck, we see Foghorn Leghorn stand in as Daenerys Targaryen, riding the Dragon from Game of Thrones — what more could you want!?
Once the Tune Squad is assembled, they realize that they’re going head-to-head against the formidable Goon Squad, super-enhanced renders of elite ballers and professional athletes who’ve been given deadly new upgrades; the roster includes LA Lakers forward Anthony Davis, playing The Brow, who’s fitted with lethal blue wings; basketball all-star Klay Thompson, who becomes the element-switching Wet/Fire, and creates his own storm on the court; and four-time gold-medalist Diana Taurasi as the snake-like White Mamba. LeBron is also shocked to discover that his son Dom, corrupted by Cheadle’s scheming AI G.Rhythm, has created the superhuman opponents, which are all based on the game he’d been designing at home. Dom is also playing alongside the Goon Squad, having boosted his own skills and abilities too. So, LeBron must learn to adapt on the field and let others be themselves, seeing as his Tune Squad aren’t going to win this game without employing some of their old looney tune tricks — think TNT sticks and bonkers ACME gadgets.
And, folks, that’s part of the movie’s the charm. Director Malcolm D. Lee, Night School (2018), puts the toons front and center and keeps them in focus throughout, reminding us why they’re just so timeless. Given how progressive (and touchy) we’ve become, it’s great to see classic WB characters back in action, doing what they do best: and that’s making audiences laugh — a piano to the noggin still cracks me up every time. The film also features the same showbiz warfare of its predecessor, with the entertainment industry presented as being uber-competitive and cutthroat. The script — written by too many people to mention (check out IMDb for a more comprehensive list) — is witty and whacky but has a ton of emotion and heart, the scribes never forgetting what made the ’96 movie such a colossal hit, organically moving the narrative in zanier and bolder directions.
Space Jam: A New Legacy seamlessly combines elements of live-action, traditional hand-drawn 2D, and CG animation, marrying different filmmaking techniques. This hybrid of styles keeps the proceedings fresh — at several points, the film even switches to black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Remember, this is, first and foremost, a children’s film, so there’s quite a bit of time spent in cartoon, which may irk certain adult viewers. Being 2021, Bugs and his 2D teammates do eventually receive a digital makeover; they also get flashy modern game-time jerseys before the exhibition match, too. Their lively antics and vibrant, energetic animation bolster the action.
The centerpiece basketball game is stunningly crafted and edited. Second-quarter surprise Goon Squad guest Chronos, played by six-time all-star Damien Lillard, has the film’s best in-game sequence. One of Chronos’ moves locks the opposing team into slo-mo, where the speedy clockwork pro-baller runs rings around the Tune Squad à la X-Men’s Quicksilver, only loonier! Fun Fact: Lillard’s character is inspired by his basketball nickname ‘Dame Time.’ And bonus points go to the movie’s soundtrack, which includes a bucketload of bang-on needle drops — a mix of hip hop, R&B, and pop music — plus a bustin’ rap battle between the Notorious P.I.G., otherwise known as Porky Pig, and the film’s bad guys.
Space Jam 2 is loaded with nostalgia. From the old-school WB toons themselves to the plethora of callbacks, cameos, and Easter eggs from much-loved Warner Bros. properties — even unlikely movies like 1942’s Casablanca and ‘71’s A Clockwork Orange get a look-in. An abundance of spectators is called in to cheer on and witness the epic basketball match (some are even transported from our world via scan-in technology), the stadium brimming with fictional famous faces; from King Kong to the Iron Giant to Pennywise the Dancing Clown to Jim Carrey’s The Mask — everyone’s there! Filmmakers have clearly had a ball filling the crowd with a host of recognizable Warner Bros. characters — my personal favorite are the Gremlins. Eagle-eyed audiences are sure to have a blast spotting all the blink-or-you-will-miss-it appearances. On that note, there’s an applause-worthy locker-room cameo that had me in stitches — you’ll know the one!
Interestingly, the premise of taking storied intellectual properties then divorcing them from their original context is becoming a subgenre in itself — think of films like Wreck-It Ralph 2 (2018), Ready Player One (2018) and The Lego Movie (2014). I generally dig the concept of integrating different IPs, if and when it’s done effectively, but understand that it may rub certain viewers the wrong way. From a cynical standpoint, it can be argued that WB is using Space Jam 2 as a branding exercise to advertise its back catalog, the studio trying to plug its own streaming service, HBO MAX. And I fully recognize how this may be grating for some. But, by populating the scores of spectators with fan favorites, filmmakers give Space Jam: A New Legacy an additional kick — I had fun with it. The movie is also plagued with blatant product placement, particularly the Nike Swoosh and LeBron’s personal brand logo, which can get annoying.
While LeBron James is no seasoned movie star, he performs well and possesses similar charisma and appeal to Michael Jordan. He gives a passionate and dedicated turn, and it shows. Don Cheadle, Avengers: Endgame (2019), is dynamite as computer-generated humanoid AL G., the self-proclaimed ruler of the server-verse who’s desperate for fame. Cheadle is having such a good time, and his crazy, explosive act really stands out. Also worthy of note is Khris Davis, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), who scores a 3-pointer in his role as Malik, LeBron’s friend and manager; the guy’s hilarious! Additionally, sportscaster Ernie Johnson and comedian Lil Rel Howery appear briefly as game commentators, and they’re both great! While the real-world stars give fun and committed performances, it’s the Warner Bros. toons that admittedly steal the show.
All up, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a colorful and boisterous celebration of all things Warner, the film blending thrilling basketball action and cartoon shenanigans while telling a heartwarming story centered around a father-son connection. It’s a rollercoaster of a time and certainly worth catching in a theatre. So, what are you waiting for: C’mon and slam, and welcome to the jam!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)