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‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ Review: Drafting the best and worst parts of a selectively self-absorbed sequel

This cyberspace-set sequel is less a movie than a feature-length corporate mandate, and so a normal movie review simply won't do.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Let’s face it: You don’t need a review to help you decide whether you’re going to venture to the theater or HBO Max app to watch “Space Jam: A New Legacy." You’ve already made up your mind. You know it, I know it, your kids or younger siblings absolutely know it. There’s only so much I can do to gently nudge you, dear reader, towards one of the finer movie offerings coming out this weekend (might I suggest Nicolas Cage searching for his stolen pig, or the conclusion to Netflix’s ambitious “Fear Street” trilogy, or the moving new Anthony Bourdain documentary?) without sounding patronizing or like I’m getting ahead of those “It’s not a movie for critics!” cries in the comment section. Even if that’s, partially, somewhat, sort of exactly what I’m doing here.

This is all to say, a normal review won’t get me very far when it comes to the almost-review-proof “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which arrives on the 25th anniversary of that fateful matchup between the Tune Squad and Monstars and some guy named Michael Jordan. This sequel is one of those projects for which this humble job holds even less sway than it already does most days in the age of Internet pitchfork mobs.

So let’s toss out the idea of a normal review, at least in terms of structure. I’m willing to meet this overlong, underwhelming and slightly terrifying new display of corporate self-cannibalism halfway and with a surgical-gloved hand—in the spirit of the game, you might say, of both the basketball at the nucleus of this frenetic intellectual-property fantasia and of modern moviemaking’s worst impulses of serving us gruel for ostensible lack of anything more substantive. Thus, what follows is a ranking, NBA-Draft style, of the good, the bad and the horrid prospects “A New Legacy” has to offer viewers.

With the first pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: Animation.

Analysis: A decidedly questionable priority for this movie’s makers as “A New Legacy” reneges on some enchantingly lovely 2-D environments and character models via what can only be called a dizzyingly lifeless CGI merger, effectively cauterizing the movie’s appeal to nostalgia, which, isn’t that why we should be here in the first place? When the visual aesthetic is more a contemporary polishing of classic sensibilities is when “A New Legacy” shines brightest, to say nothing of how an animated LeBron James makes for a smart but only temporary remedy to how the athlete struggles to replicate the same graceful physicality he brings to the court in his acting. 

It’s at the start of the climactic game that those boldly defined parameters of traditional animation are exchanged for a comparatively overwhelming maelstrom of digital distortion, the movie exchanging simpler, bolder pleasures for a reminder that modern CGI is so often motivated by maximalism, not novelty. Chalk up one point for “A New Legacy” being blatantly selective in recognizing where its meta flourishes begin and end.

With the second pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: The comedy.

Analysis: It’s not great when you can count the number of worthwhile jokes in your nearly two-hour comedy on one hand, though I’m sure the chuckles will come a bit more often the younger those in the audience skew. One clever gag pays off its arrival at a pivotal point in the movie’s climactic game between the Tune Squad and Goon Squad, but even your preteens might find themselves lulled to sleep by the low-reaching laughs of a defective ball-throwing machine in the opening minutes. As for the rapping Porky Pig segment, I found myself squirming in my seat more than a Cronenberg flick. At least squirming is that director’s intention.

With the third pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: Plot.

Analysis: Simultaneously a recycling of the 1996 “Space Jam” fundamentals and a cyber-reskinning of that movie’s superstar-stuck-in-Wonderland gimmick, “A New Legacy” tries to wring earnestness from central tensions between father and son despite the movie having all the emotional thrust of a lightweight Super Bowl ad. The Looney Tunes gang finds itself in more existentially dire straits when James catches up to them, having been roped into Warner Brothers’ various other properties, which oh so momentarily sees the company looking at itself and its loop-de-looped commercial priorities in the mirror. Alas, like every other suggestion of self-awareness in the movie, it doesn’t hold water to the fact that “A New Legacy” is gleefully engaging in the same artistic malpractice it purports to frame here as antagonistic.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

With the fourth pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: Performances.

Analysis: It’s hard to submit a more wooden performance than Michael Jordan did in “Space Jam,” and James has teased comedic chops before. He’s not served well here by a screenplay outright ignoring his tight limits as a dramatic actor, though you’ve got to admire the occasional moments when he unleashes his inner looney alongside Bugs, Daffy and Co. At the same time, a mid-movie stretch where James’s performance is strictly vocal indicates how best he might be used in the future.

As the computerized antagonist Al G. Rhythm, it’s Don Cheadle who feigns the best impression of a good time as far as the human performers go, veering between welcomingly warm and conniving. At the very least, his commitment goes somewhat of a distance to distract us from the total lack of logic driving his scheme.

With the fifth pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: Direction.

Analysis: Frenetic, occasionally bouncy and ultimately desperate. Malcolm D. Lee, who helmed the 2016 comedy hit “Girls Trip,” may have had his hands tied by an imperative to blast the audience with either endless CGI fireworks, pop culture references or schmaltzy family-affair sameness in any given scene, but that overzealousness doesn’t keep the 115-minute story from feeling closer to 140. The totality of its elements makes “A New Legacy” better-suited for a theme park ride than an entertaining family movie; here, a jumble of tones and unconvincing application of Internet lingo makes it all seem like a distraction for itself. And not a very entrancing one at that. It’s a silly movie, but it could have stood to be far sillier in the right places. 

With the sixth pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: The nostalgia factor.

Analysis: Strangely ill-equipped by Lee and his writers, considering how “Space Jam” is one of those movies for which melancholy has proven a durable defense against admitting how messy a story it is. In reality, the nostalgia here boils down to the Looney Tunes themselves – that golden gang of yestercentury animation – but too much of “A New Legacy” restrains the characters’ endearingly chaotic spirit for the sake of reminding you which shows and movies you’ll have at your fingertips by subscribing to HBO Max, which this movie is effectively a feature-length ad for.

In a sense, much of that will make you wish for simpler rabbit-hunting days of yore. But it’s in its ceaseless pilfering of the Warner Bros. catalogue that the movie unintentionally yet wholeheartedly embraces how nostalgia is merely another tasty worm by which to bait eyeballs.

With the seventh and final pick in the “Space Jam: A New Legacy” Draft, KENS 5 selects: Self-awareness.

Analysis: I’m sure this movie’s team of half a dozen writers think they’re paying homage when the characters of “A New Legacy” traipse randomly into scenes from Warner Brothers’s vast stable of intellectual property, including (but not limited to) “Harry Potter,” “Mad Max,” “Casablanca,” “Game of Thrones,” the DC universe, “King Kong,” “The Mask” and “Austin Powers.” But the only thing we are to understand that unites any and all these worlds – visualized as planets in the movie’s vast “Serververse” – is that they’re under the Warner Brothers umbrella, and the curious thing is there isn’t nearly enough of that universe-hopping in the movie’s middle section to collect us into the thrill of anticipating what may be next.

So how can it be anything more than lazy, overindulgent copy-and-pasting? It isn’t self-referential how “A New Legacy” is dipping into its coffers, it’s self-defacing, at best. At worst, it’s a harbinger of the limits of big-budget moviemaking that we might already be nearing. Suddenly a car rocketing into orbit feels like a vision David Lean might’ve once had.

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" is rated PG for some cartoon violence and some language. It's now screening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Starring: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe, Khris Davis

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

2021

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