Producers: Ryan Coogler, LeBron James, Maverick Carter and Duncan Henderson Director: Malcolm D. Lee Screenplay: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmeier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon and Celeste Ballard Cast: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Leigh Alexander, Ernie Johnson, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Kyle Kuzma and Chiney Ogwumike, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Bob Bergen and Zendaya Distributor: Warner Bros.
Watching “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is like being trapped in an explosion at a paint store. The experience is visually painful and not at all funny.
A triumph of merchandising rather than moviemaking, the garish follow-up to the 1996 animated/live action team-up of basketball superstar Michel Jordan and many of the characters from the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies stable is a chaotic mess, a misguided combination of drearily sitcomish set-up, saccharine father-and-son bonding, eye-and-ear-splitting CGI-stuffed hoops action and pointless appearances by droves of supposedly iconic figures from the Warners movie-and-TV catalogue.
It’s also a showcase, if that’s the right word, for LeBron James, who replaces Jordan as the human star, whose treatment comes perilously close to idolatry. What passes for the emotional core of the pitiful excuse for a plot concocted by no fewer than six scribes (including Keenan Coogler, the brother of Ryan, who—along with LeBron—is one of the producers) is the strained relationship between LeBron and his movie son Dom (Cedric Joe), who longs to be a video-game creator while his daddy pressures him instead to hone his basketball skills.
Their relationship is brought to the breaking point during an idiotic pitch meeting with some empty-headed Warners executives (an accurate characterization, apparently), who propose inserting “King James” into scads of established studio properties like “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones.” When LeBron calls the idea dumb, he antagonizes its creator, not a real person but an A.I. figure called, in a prime example of the script’s level of “wit,” Al-G Rhythm (played with depressingly manic energy by Don Cheadle, in a performance as bad as his one in “No Sudden Move” was good). As the master of the company’s “Serververse,” Al-G decides to take revenge by seducing Dom to the “dark side” where they will collaborate in creating a flamboyant version of the kid’s own Dom-Ball game in which his father and a “Toon Team” consisting of Bugs Bunny and friends will be beaten and thus, it seems, thrown out of existence by a “Goon Squad” composed of grotesque avatars of some NBA and WNBA stars. Somehow all of this is connected with Al-G’s effort to close down the Toon Town part of the Warners super-server entirely.
As LeBron and Bugs rush around to assemble their team, James is temporarily morphed into a cartoon himself, which frankly improves his performance considerably. The longest of the sequences is a “Wonder Woman” take-off with Bugs’ girlfriend Lola Bunny, who was introduced in the earlier “Jam” and is presented as less of a sexpot this time around and now voiced by Zendaya. She proves okay, if unremarkable. Most of the other voice work, though, is disappointing—you can’t help missing Mel Blanc. Kris Bowers’ music score also makes you yearn for Carl Stalling.
Still, the first half of the movie isn’t appreciably worse than the earlier picture. It’s when it turns to the game itself that things really go wrong. The toon characters, previously done in mediocre 2D, are changed into CGI form, in the process made even more unattractive. And Al-G fills the stands with characters from the Warners catalogue, some people in bad costumes, others, like King Kong, animated. The glimpses we get of them are tedious, but nonetheless preferable to the game action, frantic and filled with bits intended to be hilarious that fall miserably flat. They, along with Cheadle’s hysterical rants and the extravagant visuals, make the whole thing feel endless. And the sentimental reconciliation between LeBron is Dom is incredibly sappy. One finds oneself wishing that Porky would just show up to shut the whole thing down with “That’s all, folks!”
It’s hard to know where to apportion blame. Certainly Malcolm D. Lee’s direction deserves brickbats, but Salvatore Totino’s cinematography, the production design by Kevin Ishioka, and Akin McKenzie and Clint Wallace and Bob Ducsay’s editing are all part of the unhappy mix. Together they’ve managed to assemble a movie that degrades the Warners cartoon catalogue while doing nothing to elevate the James brand.
But though dreadful (with apologies to Sylvester and Daffy, it’s us, not the succotash, that’s sufferin’ this time), “A New Legacy” may not be entirely without value. It might encourage adults, however exhausted they will be by it, to indulge in a bout of nostalgia and seek out the shorts from the golden age of Warners animation from the forties and fifties, and perhaps introduce their kids to them. Anyone who knows the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies characters only from the lesser efforts of the sixties and later (always excepting Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote), or from these “Space Jam” movies, can’t appreciate what minor miracles of animation and humor the earlier cartoons so often were.
And to be fair, there are a couple good gags in the movie. One involves Michael Jordan, or more accurately Jordans. The other comes during the early pitch meeting, when James dryly observes that mixing athletes and acting never goes well—a proposition that the rest of the picture proceeds to prove. But they’re hardly worth sitting through the other 114 minutes for.