Space Jam: A New LegacyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/17/21 19:49:55
Even though I have been a passionate fan of the old Warner Brothers cartoons for as long as I have been watching movies (my earliest conscious memory involves my very first movie screening, led off by a Road Runner cartoon) and lived in Chicago during the era when Michael Jordan ascended from basketball phenom to global superstar, I absolutely hated “Space Jam” when it came out in 1996 and my view of it has not mellowed with time. I found it to be a lazy and soulless piece of corporate greed run amok that demonstrated that no one at the studio at that point evidently had any interest in the history or legacy of their animated creations—as the great Chuck Jones himself pointed out at the time, the classic Bugs Bunny would not have required the services of Michael Jordan in order to triumph at anything, even a basketball game—and the nostalgic attitude that people have developed towards it in the quarter-century since its debut only serves as yet another argument backing up the notion that people are idiots. Therefore, when it turned out that I was unable to attend the press screening for the long-gestating semi-sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” I must confess that I was not exactly devastated over the notion of missing it. However, when the early reviews began coming out that seemed to suggest that it was somehow louder, dumber cruder and more contemptuous of its own legacy than the original, the sad and twisted part of my soul that is not only willing to sit through overwhelmingly terrible movies but makes a point of seeking them out (you know anyone else who has pre-ordered the Blu-Ray of “Moment by Moment”?) became more than a little curious. Was it possible that the makers of this film took one of the abominations of contemporary American cinema and somehow made it worse?To cut to the chase—something that this two-hour-long film is not particularly willing to do itself—“A New Legacy” really is worse than its predecessor. For all of its massive flaws, that film at least supplied a couple of laughs courtesy of Bill Murray (“Whoa ho ho! I don’t play defense.”) and one could argue that Jordan’s combination of natural cool and his absolute refusal to do anything that even remotely suggested “acting” made for an interesting screen presence to play alongside the effortlessly laid back Bugs and the far-more manic supporting toon cast. By comparison, “A New Legacy” does not even attempt to provide similar moments of relief amidst the hard-sell chaos and harder-sell brand pushing that is being offered up here in the guise of entertainment. If the first film suggested an elaborate version of the kind of lame in-house video that the promotional department might slap together to commemorate the departure of an executive that no one involved with its making knew particularly well, this one feels like the same thing, only from a company so bereft of ideas that its own existence seems exceptionally tenuous.
Since Jordan elected not to reap for a second film, “A New Legacy” brings in LeBron James, arguably the one current player to rival him in both talent on the court and personal popularity, to essentially take his place. The extremely flimsy premise for the film suggests the existence of something entitled “The Warner 3000 Server-Verse,” a massive digital archive beneath the studio that houses all of the studio’s myriad properties that is the domain of an AI program known as Al-G-Rhythm (Don Cheadle) that is constantly trying to figure out how to maximize and monetize the studio’s core assets. Al-G’s latest brilliant idea is to bring in the iconic LeBron and have him digitally scanned so that he can appear in future WB productions and tap into his enormous fan base. When LeBron arrives at the studio with son Dom (Cedric Joe), whom he is having a rough patch with because he cannot understand why he would want to go to a camp for designing video games over basketball camp, he, to his credit, regards the entire idea as nonsensical and declines the offer.
This opening section is flat, tedious and will no doubt bore younger viewers to tears unless intellectual property discussions are all the rage amongst the kids these days. It is also probably the best part of the film because it at least manages to introduce a couple of potentially interesting ideas—the notion of LeBron struggling to relate to a child who has the same drive and determination that he demonstrated as a kid but who applies it to something different than basketball and the satirical (and not entirely far-fetched) of a studio that sees its artistic legacy as nothing other than a perpetual money-making machine of the crudest variety imaginable—that a more ambitious film might have developed further. Of course, considering the fact that “A New Legacy” itself feels like what might have been conjured up in the Server-Verse (a phrase that I promise you will grow quite tired of before the film ends), it will probably come as little surprise to hear that the film has barely introduced these ideas before it essentially kicks them to the curb for the remainder of the story.
Instead, a furious Al-G zaps both LeBron and Dom into the Server-Verse (see what I mean) and proposes that they settle their differences in the only way imaginable—a basketball game. If LeBron’s team wins, he and Dom will be returned to the real world but if Al-G wins, they will be stuck there forever. While Al-G hides Dom away and tries to play him against his father, LeBron sets off to recruit a team. After running into Bugs Bunny (voice of Jeff Bergman), the two set off across the Server-Verse to recruit the other Looney Tunes characters from the properties they are currently inhabiting. Sylvester and Elmer Fudd are found in an Austin Powers movie, Yosemite Sam is playing the piano for Ingrid Bergman in Rick’s Cafe American and Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) is in Themyscria taking her final test to become a full Amazon warrior. When game time rolls around, LeBron discovers that not only will it be played in front of a massive crowd of innocent bystanders and characters owned by Warners (while the filmmakers made sure to avoid including the semi-rapey Pepe Le Pew this time around, they did inexplicably include the very rapey Droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” among the spectators), they will be playing a full-sized version of the souped-up basketball game that Dom has designed in which Al-G’s teams is comprised of toons imbued with the powers of a number of current basketball greats.
If one wanted to be extremely generous, it could be argued that “A New Legacy” is merely a modern-day version of those films that studios like Warner Brothers used to do back in the day, often as part of the war effort, in which they would recruit as many actors from their respective stables to do bit parts, often spoofing their public personas. Those films, such as “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943) and “Hollywood Canteen” (1944), were hardly deathless cinema but the sight of well-known stars seemingly letting their hair down and goofing on themselves and their films (such as ultimate tough guy Humphrey Bogart being cut down to size and threatened by none other than S.Z.”Cuddles” Sakall) had a certain charm that made them reasonably entertaining. By comparison, “A New Legacy” feels more like an two-hour advertisement for all the things under the WB umbrella that they can see on HBO Max once it is all over. One could theoretically figure out a way of mining real laughs out of the animated characters interacting with the other members of their extended corporate family but neither director Malcolm D. Lee nor the various screenwriters appear to have been stumped for ideas throughout. Instead, we see the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote continuing their eternal chase through the arid landscape of “Fury Road” and a bit of “The Matrix” with Granny turning up as Trinity and Speedy Gonzales demonstrating bullet time. None of this is particularly amusing or interesting in the slightest and while I suppose I was quietly pleased to spot the one and only Jabberjaw in the crowd, these appearances are presented in such a heavy-handed manner that they practically grab you by the lapels and demand that you laugh.
And since the film has no idea of what to do with the decades of characters milling about the edges of the frame at any given time, it is probably no surprise to discover that it is equally inept in its handling of the major players. Although LeBron James proved to be an engaging and surprisingly funny presence playing himself in a brief role in “Trainwreck,” his work here in the central human part does not cut it—unlike the super-cool attitude that Jordan demonstrated throughout “Space Jam, James always seems just a little too eager to please and he becomes notably less interesting as things progress as a result. Cheadle hams it up considerably as Al-G-Rhythm and while that is relatively tolerable—one does not normally expect subtlety from an actor playing the maniacal bad guy in a live-action/animation hybrid—my guess is that he is probably a bit embarrassed that his work here is turning up little more than a week after the release of his genuinely inspired and nuanced performance in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” (which can, perhaps inevitably, also be seen right now on HBO Max).
The greatest dishonor, however, goes to Bugs Bunny, who finds himself being summarily dishonored by the very same studio that he has served and represented for so long. Many complained that the version of the character presented in “Space Jam” bore little resemblance to the brash, bold and always-in-control persona that made him arguably the most beloved of all the classic cartoon characters (even ranking above Mickey Mouse himself since his shorts were actually funny) but that iteration seems practically canonical when compared to the one presented here. This one has no discernible attitude, sly wit or any of the other characteristics that made him so iconic. In fact, he has been reduced to such a non-entity here that when his character pretty much disappears for long stretches during the seemingly endless basketball game that dominates the second half, you hardly even notice his absence. To be fair, the film does flirt with doing something genuinely audacious with the character towards the very end but then nips that idea in the bud just as it is threatening to get slightly interesting.
Whether you are looking at it from the perspective of a longtime fan of the Warner Brothers animation legacy or simply as something to plunk the kids in front of for a couple of hours, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a dismally dully and uninspired piece of hackwork that feels more like a business ledger brought to life, so to speak, than an actual story worth telling. Of course, I pretty much said that about the original “Space Jam” and people didn’t listen to me then. While I concede that these words of warning will probably do very little to keep those determined to see it from reconsidering their position, perhaps I can instead suggest a different title to watch, either after or in lieu of it. That would be “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” Joe Dante’s deliriously delightful 2003 live-action/animated hybrid that evidently came into being when a different iteration of a “Space Jam” sequel fell through but which was everything that movie wasn’t—hilarious, visually inspired and keenly aware of the classic character dynamics that made Bugs, Daffy Duck and the rest so memorable in the first place.Alas, it was a film more interested in honoring its characters than in exploiting them and the studio (which reportedly hated the film precisely because it wasn’t just an empty-headed promotion) pretty much ensured that it would become a dismal and hugely expensive failure that would never be repeated. As a result, we have this film, a work so utterly bankrupt of imagination that it almost makes me want to apologize to “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” for suggesting that it was one of the most mercenary and least necessary sequels ever made—even that gumdrop seems slightly more vital in comparison to this and if that doesn’t serve as an indication of just how bad “A New Legacy” is, you may actually deserve to see it for yourself.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|