6/10 Production for Space Jam: A New Legacy ran June to September 2019, pre-pandemic, so this movie that seems like a purpose-built advertisement for Warner Bros.’ post-pandemic business model never had the pandemic as the reasoning behind it. Was this the plan all along?
In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James (himself, also serving as producer) turns down a deal to be the spokesperson for Warner Bros.’ new multimedia platform, insulting the idea. In revenge, the algorithm who came up with it, anthropomorphized and self-styled as Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), sucks him and his son Dom (a fictionalized version of LeBron’s youngest son, Bryce, played by Cedric Joe) into the studio’s universe of beloved media properties, which is literalized as a pocket solar system with different planets for Harry Potter and DC and Game of Thrones and so forth. The algorithm gives LeBron 24 hours to assemble a basketball team to defeat him, or promises to trap him and his son among WB’s star-studded lineup forever.
As LeBron assembles his team of classic Looney Tunes characters who have been scattered cinematically across Warner Bros.’ impressive list of franchise offerings, the algorithm grooms and turns his son against him by nurturing the interest in video game development his father had pushed aside, and when LeBron and the Tunes engage, it isn’t a traditional game of basketball, but the alternative-rules game Dom James has been working on, to be played against horrible half-human monsters of his own design.
In this sea of movies that are defacto cartoons, it’s so great to return to the genuine world of Looney Tunes, where there are no backstories or franchise send-ups, things don’t have to look convincing and nothing has to make sense. The only rule is to keep the gags coming, and Space Jam: A New Legacy holds up its end of that bargain.
The frame gets quite busy, but never in a way that interferes with viewing. The Ready Player One-inspired mass of CGI media icons stays tactfully in the background, there to be sifted through by anyone who really cares but never more obtrusive than that. The CGI is quite good overall, at least when it stays in the background – the Goon Squad looks half-finished, and obviously the Looney Tunes should never, ever be rendered in 3D. Most of it isn’t meant to look real at all, it’s just shapes in the formless programming space.
Cheadle is heroic as the algorithm. A lot – far too much – of modern moviemaking has actors spending most of their time in large green rooms with nothing to act against, told to react to drawn events they do not see on sets they are not on. It’s become the main challenge of modern acting and can represent the pinnacle of acting from a certain point of view, the ability to deliver a convincing performance without any external stimuli whatsoever. Cheadle doesn’t just convincingly interact with his environment, he convincingly rules it. His performance is a master class in this particular niche of acting, which is often written off by performers and limited to movies that are often written off by critics – such as Space Jam itself.
Seeing the shocking list of six credited screenwriters on the announcement trailer, I was prepared for a movie that basically didn’t have a script, but Space Jam: A New Legacy is quite thoughtfully put together. LeBron’s conflicts with his son, Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman, who voices several of the Tunes) and the algorithm all bleed into a singular conflict about living in the moment and not being so rigidly focused on the habits that have brought success to him specifically. This applies to his conflicts with his son and the Tunes, who he tries to force into his own routines and playing style, and the algorithm, which takes away the environment where those habits served him.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is a metatextual basket case that makes me wonder how long Warner Bros.’ move to release all of its movies same-day on HBOmax was planned. The suddenness of the announcement made it look poorly thought out – well, the fact that it was a stupid financial decision by any measure and they clearly hadn’t spoken to all interested parties, leading to an immediate and still ongoing public mutiny from the studio’s most important talent, made it seem poorly thought out – but Space Jam: A New Legacy was clearly always meant to be HBOmax: The Movie. The collection of franchises is fleshed out as a pocket solar system quite similar to Toonami from the 2000s, which, through presentation, elevated its media from just a collection of similar shows to a lifestyle, and even goes so far as to humanize the presenter in Cheadle’s algorithm character.
It stars LeBron as a strange hybrid of himself that is both fictionalized and necessarily real. The inciting incident is him refusing to star in, essentially, the film he’s currently starring in, and he learns the kind of simplistic personal lesson an actor would already have to know by hand to sign on in the first place. The role positions him as the authoritative cultural successor Michael Jordan, the ubiquitous ‘90s basketball star who led the first Space Jam and to whom LeBron has been compared his entire career.
Space Jam: A New Legacy shocked the film industry when it supplanted Black Widow for no. 1 at the box office after just a week in release despite being available to stream the same day, and it sports one of those ugly Rotten Tomatoes splits between critics and audiences, one of the biggest splits I’ve ever seen, and I’ve looked. This makes perfect sense, of course, because another of the biggest critic/viewer splits in history is over the original Space Jam.
There’s a nostalgia at play here that’s stronger and older even than the current superhero wave, which I argue traces back to the Spider-Man and X-Men movies at the turn of the millennium more than it does to older comic book adaptations. It’s tough to measure it’s worthiness as a successor when the real question is whether or not a successor to Space Jam, and a successor to Jordan personally, should exist at all.
As a film, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a fine, mostly safe remake that hews closely to an enjoyable classic. Since production, the pandemic and the horrifying public lynching of George Floyd, LeBron has put all of his public weight behind voting rights advocacy, and his new legacy may lie outside of media entirely.