A Feature-Length Commercial For HBO Max

My ten-year-old son enjoyed Space Jam: A New Legacy. Not only did he enjoy the vividly-animated and relentlessly colorful PG-rated comedy, but he also indeed laughed at some of the more blatant pop culture references even for movies and television which he has not seen. I bring that up right at the start to argue a contrary viewpoint to the notion that A New Legacy, which is filled with explicit riffs on adult-skewing Warner Bros. IP like Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones, isn’t really aimed at kids. I’m not saying the Malcom D. Lee-directed film is good. In some ways, it is awfully bad and everything we feared from the get-go about a newfangled riff on Space Jam in a world where IP exploitation and nostalgia-specific kid flicks are par for the course. But your kids don’t need to have seen The Matrix to giggle when Granny does wire-fu.

Truth be told, the $150 million animated/live-action hybrid almost works on its own terms, felled not by the very concept of the project itself but by specific artistic (or commercial) choices that render it often painful for those aware enough of the industry as it exists to realize what’s at play. First, the film is a painfully awkward self-lionization of its top-billed star. Second, yes, the film often devolves into a glorified commercial for the Warner Bros. IP library, acting as a 107-minute (plus end credits) advertisement for HBO Max. There’s a way to do the latter with at least some acknowledgment of the crass commercialism at play, as even Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (itself an absolutely kid-friendly animated romp) was able to have its cake and eat it too. Alas, the toothless and generic screenplay (credited to six writers) is too busy buttering up the King.

 This is not a criticism of LeBron James himself, a guy who A) came from my hometown, B) is one of the greatest basketball players of all time and C) has been far more politically active and publicly charitable than Mr. “Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too” (who, to be fair, eventually saw the light). However, Space Jam 2 has been a passion project for James for the last several years, and the film spends ridiculous amounts of time telling us how glorious he is. Moreover, James is not that good of an actor. I’m not arguing that the first Space Jam is a masterpiece, but A) it offered up a “humbled” Michael Jordan during a career crossroad and B) the basketball legend knew to play it low-key and not try to steal scenes from Daffy Duck. Even Steve Martin tried and failed at this in the otherwise terrific Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

And, yes, almost from the start, the picture acts as an endless plug for the Warner Bros. library. You can make similar statements about IP-melting pot fantasies like The LEGO Movie and Ready Player One, but those films (especially the latter) used their IP to subtly criticize our brand-obsessed pop culture and question the legacy of the generations which grew up consuming them. That’s especially true of the Spielberg flick, which ends up as a mournful and somber reflection as the man who helped define modern pop culture takes stock in the world which his first generation of fans helped create. Space Jam: A New Legacy has no such inclinations toward self-criticism or even self-satire. It plays its IP buffet shockingly straight, turning the film into a game of “Hey, I recognize and have consumed that content!” without any snide commentary even on par with Looney Tunes or Animaniacs.

The film concerns LeBron James and his son being sucked into a computer world, with the latter forced to play Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle, clearly relishing the opportunity to vamp it up) in a fantastical basketball game. That’s an inversion of the first film, during which Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes had to recruit Michael Jordan to fend off alien invaders. That’s not an automatic problem, but it also renders the core notion of Bugs and James racing around the Warner Bros. server to recruit the Looney Tunes somewhat contradictory. Yes, Bugs wants to get the band back together (shades of Jason Seagal’s dynamite Muppets movie) but considering that the fate of thousands of human (and not-so-human) lives are at stake, Bugs is potentially committing an act of genocidal selfishness. Kids probably won’t care, but it’s clear that Bugs is recruiting Looney Tunes because that’s how the first movie played out.

The tunes provide the expected slapstick comedy. Except, alas, for Zendaya’s Lola Bunny. Yes, she’s less sexualized in this film, but the issue with the first Space Jam was not Lola but rather how all of the other male characters treated her (in terms of viewing her entirely as a sex object). “Fixing” her implies that bad male behavior was Lola’s fault (see also: Walt Disney “fixing” Belle in the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake). Moreover, this version of Lola is painfully boring and barely allowed to crack a joke. She’s “strong” and “skilled,” but she’s also not allowed to cut loose. Fans of the 2011 Looney Tunes episodic know that Lola (voiced there by Kristen Wiig) can be both non-sexualized and ghoulishly funny. It’s not an either/or situation. Otherwise, the toons are essentially the toons, even if the Animaniacs are inexplicably confined to background attendees at the big game.

However, while I liked that James and friends are forced to compete in a version of his son’s video game, it also renders much of the gameplay entirely arbitrary and lacking in the kind of almost logical Rube Goldberg-ish humor that makes the actual Merry Melodies such a kick. Your mind may end up drifting from the game and find solace playing Where’s Waldo with the countless Warner Bros. characters, mostly villains, making up the audience in attendance. The stakes for the game are inexplicably high, another example of how now every big movie has to be about essentially saving a world, but I won’t pretend that the surface-level visuals aren’t occasionally glorious. It’s maddening that Warner Bros. spent $150 million on a 25-years-later Space Jam sequel (the first barely cracked $250 million on a $90 million budget in 1996), but the money is often on the screen.

Would I be less grouchy about this film if this were still 1996, when a movie like Space Jam was A) unique unto itself and B) surrounded by a wider variety of big-budget studio films like Ransom, The Crucible, Jerry Maguire and Scream? Quite possibly, as Space Jam: A New Legacy is a classic example of “IP for the sake of IP,” a brand extension that exists not because audiences want it but because a studio (and/or the film’s star) wants it to continue. It’s a mentality that’s upending the entire entertainment industry, even polluting the streaming platforms which are now making the same mistakes (IP-branded, four-quadrant, kid-friendly tentpoles above all else) that allowed TV and streaming to get a leg up on theatrical movies in the first place. It’s telling that while Al G. Rhythm is the villain, the algorithm that calls for movies like this to exist is rendered innocent.

Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t anywhere near good enough to artistically justify its crassly commercial existence. It’s primarily concerned with lionizing LeBron James himself and touting the Warner Bros. IP library. I enjoyed the Hook-like scenes of Cheadle bonding with a captive Dom James (Cedric Joe). The “let your kids be their own person” moral is valuable enough, and I’m guessing that’s what got producer Ryan Coogler’s attention. It’s also hammered home so brutally in the opening reel that it risks turning James into a G-rated “Great Santini,” but I’m guessing kids won’t mind. That this film finally exists and now is burdened with helping “save” movie theaters in the first phase of a pandemic-era recovery feels like a grim cosmic joke aimed directly at me. But I’d be lying if I said it was the worst movie ever made. Like The Emoji Movie, it’s a two-star film with zero-star motivations.

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