WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY
This review is paired with my review of the original Space Jam which you can read HERE.
When Warner Bros announced years and years and YEARS ago that they were working on a sequel to 1996’s Space Jam, I was utterly baffled. Why? The original film was a bright spot of my childhood, but I think we can all agree: it’s no Lion King, or Toy Story. It did its schtick and that was it. We love it for that, but it’s not exactly a cinematic classic. In fact, when it first came out, Space Jam BARELY made its budget back in domestic gross. It did gangbusters overseas, but for some reason American audiences weren’t quite as taken with it at the time of its release. It has since gone on to become a cult classic, bolstered by the generation, MY generation, that grew up with it. It’s a niche film made specifically for children of the 90’s. For us, and us alone. It didn’t need any sequels.
So why make another one?
Is this generation clamoring for another showdown between Looney Tunes characters and some new basketball star? Looney Tunes Back in Action (even though it has its fans) wasn’t exactly a critical or commercial success so I can’t believe Warners had faith in the likes of Bugs and Daffy. No, it seems they had more faith in their star - Lebron James. But here’s the problem: as good of a basketball player as Lebron is (and holy hell is he good), he’s still no Michael Jordan. Michael set the basketball scene ablaze. But even more-so, Michael wasn’t just a basketball star; he was a SUPER star in EVERY sense of the word. He played basketball, golf, and baseball (some much better than others), appeared in multiple films, was the spokesman for Hanes, and owns his own athletic shoe and clothing line which has, at this point, become an icon of footwear. That’s just the tip of everything he’s done. And he did all that in less than a decade! You could genuinely argue that at the height of his success, Michael Jordan was more popular on this planet than the Pope.
Compared to that, Lebron is simply a good basketball player. Ouch.
But maybe the studio realized that too, because Warners also stuffed as many characters they own as possible into this film. King Kong, Iron Giant, Neo, Dumbledore, Mad Max, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, Space Ghost, Pennywise, Harry Potter, Gremlins, the cast of Game of Thrones, and every single on-screen iteration of Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, Joker, Superman appear. You could literally spend days of your life pausing the film and counting the number of characters from all over cinema that appear in the crowds. They even included Alex and his Drooges from A Clockwork Orange. You know, the guys from Stanley Kubrick’s twisted sci-fi masterpiece who rape and murder multiple people. I love that film with all my heart; but are those characters appropriate for Space Jam? It also comes across as extremely hypocritical considering the studio allowed these characters to appear, while simultaneously cutting a scene with Pepe Le Pew because his character was deemed “inappropriate”. Where the hell are your priorities at Warner Bros?
Okay, I'm getting bogged down. Let's start at the beginning.
Which is pretty much a direct replica of the opening 5 minutes of the original film. Lebron is a young basketball player and both his mother and his coach tell him that if he practices hard and focuses, he can do anything he wants. Sound familiar? If “I Believe I Can Fly” had begun playing you’d swear you were watching the 1996 original just with a fresh coat of paint. The only difference is the small focus on video games because that will become a major theme throughout this film.
Cut to an exact replica of the opening credits of the original film which follow Lebron’s career up until the present. Did I go back in time? This is all too familiar. Next is a new scene in which Lebron is trying to teach his children, particularly his son Dom, that hard work and practice is what makes you good at basketball. He is also excited for his son to go to basketball camp the following week. The problem is that Dom isn’t into basketball and instead has a passion for video games. Lebron can’t understand and connect with this (maybe because his coach told him video games were a distraction all those years ago). Thus, heads butt. Lebron wants his son to be like him, and his son just wants to be himself. Lebron will learn in this film to accept his son for who he is and let him enjoy his own passions. And if you were unclear about that, the film reminds you about every 6 minutes so you won’t forget. Side note: Lebron's acting is dreadful in this scene. Look, I know he’s a basketball star and not an actor. I also know Michael Jordan isn’t some Oscar winner. But still, this is probably Lebron’s worst scene in the film in terms of acting.
Next we are introduced to Don Cheadle’s AI G. Rhythm. He’s the studio software (that I guess is alive) who puts together and creates all of the ideas within the company. Probably because the executives don’t actually do anything. ZING! Anyway, G. Rhythm comes up with a great idea that will integrate Lebron into pretty much every movie, television show, or music video (basically any media) with the click of a button; making Lebron the icon of all things Warner Bros. That plot sounds eerily similar to the 2013 film The Congress. Does Warner Bros own that film? A PA should check on that before someone gets sued! But jokes aside, it points to a major issue I had in this film. And that is: LEBRON'S EGO.
My God, this man's ego could genuinely challenge Godzilla for the title of "King of the Monsters".
This entire film feels like an ego boost for Lebron. I understand that his nickname on the court and in the basketball scene in “King James”. Now, I don’t have NEARLY enough time to unpack everything that name alone encompasses, but what I will say is that there are millions of people around the globe that do not know this is Lebron’s nickname. It would be one thing if he learned how to be humble throughout the film as part of his character arc, but that doesn’t happen. It would also be acceptable if they mentioned the nickname and then moved on. But no, he is called “King James” thought the entire film. Constantly reminding us all of how he thinks of himself. It comes across as the most arrogant ego boost I have ever witnessed in a film. It actually angered me. As a reviewer, I must put my personal feelings aside when it comes to separating an actor or director from the art itself. But this just irked me in a way few films have.
Lebron says no to G. Rhythm’s deal (because he has to have SOME kind of humility). This angers G. who then sucks Lebron and his son Dom into the computer system. How does he do that? Is there any logic in this film? You’re asking yourself the wrong questions. He does it, that’s what matters. Now that he has them both, G. holds Dom captive and challenges Lebron to a basketball match. If he wins, then he and Dom can go free. But if he loses, then they must both stay in the computer realm forever and do what G. Rhythm wanted Lebron to do ten minutes ago. Why does G. not just force Lebron to do his bidding since he already has him in the computer realm? If he’s going to challenge Lebron to something, why would he make it the very thing (perhaps the ONLY thing) Lebron is good at? Because we need a movie, dammit!
Have you noticed something?
I have written five paragraphs detailing the story of the film and so far not a single Looney Tunes character has arrived. We are well into the film (27 minutes). This film promised Looney Tunes, and that is the one thing we haven't gotten yet. This is one of the major issues with Space Jam: A New Legacy. In the original, the story was about the Tunes needing Michael in order to save their lives. They were a major focus. In this film, Lebron needs their help. Which would be fine, except the Tunes themselves have even less screen time than you would imagine. Why? Well because we need to take you to Casablanca Land and Matrix World and Mad Max Apocalypse and remind you of the million other films that you could be watching right now instead of this one.
Lebron is sent down to the “rejects” and given 24 hours to create a team to play against G’s. The “reject world” is Tune World and there is only one resident left: Bugs Bunny. Bugs is wonderful, and absolutely a bright spot in this debacle. He and all the Tunes are in fine form and their antics still get laughs. It’s a shame the studio didn’t have enough faith in them to carry the whole film. Lebron finds out that all of the other Tunes have taken offers from G. to visit other realms much better than their world. So Bugs uses Lebron’s need for a team to collect his old pals. What follows is a montage of Looney Tunes characters integrated into other Warner Bros films. We have Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner in Mad Max: Fury Road, Yosemite Sam playing the piano in Casablanca, Granny and Speedy Gozales in The Matrix, etc. I laughed really hard seeing Elmer Fudd as Mini Me and Sylvester shaven to be Mr. Bigglesworth in Austin Powers. These integrations are actually more clever than I was expecting. If the entire film was this, I would have actually been very pleased. But not all of the vignettes work, and they all exist in a sequence that is entirely too short.
Meanwhile, G. Rhythm is slowly (as in it takes him one scene) turning Dom against his father; preying on Dom’s frustrations at his father’s disinterest in his dreams. G. also realizes Dom has created the single most important technological discovery known to man. Dom has created a software for his video game that lets him scan people and objects from reality and use them in his game. You read that right: a 14 year old created a software that scans objects, animals, even people, and places their exact image, measurements, color, even bodily skills, perfectly into a computer. G. takes this software, and with a few tweaks, is able to scan individuals from all over the globe into the computer and trap them there forever. G., Dom, the entire film treats this moment like its as mundane as lunch on a Tuesday. It’s the greatest technological discovery of all time and no one addresses it at all. HOW DOES THIS TECHNOLOGY WORK?!!? HOW DID A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD CREATE IT?!?! HOW IS THE WORLD NOT IN CHAOS AS MILLIONS DISAPPEAR INTO COMPUTERS AND PHONES WORLDWIDE?
No one is coming to answer your questions, so best not even ask them.
G. has now turned Dom against his father and creates a basketball team consisting of NBA players with crazy augmentations (like turning from water to fire, being half snake, or a time robot) in order to crush his father into submission and prove he is his own man.
We have officially reached over an hour into the film and not only have the Tunes had a combined total of maybe 20 minutes of screen time, but not a single basketball game has even started. At roughly the hour mark, G. builds the stadium and fills it with all the Warners characters and kidnapped pedestrians he can fit on screen. I was under the impression that this meant the game was about to start, but no.
The film then meanders for 10 minutes before finally starting the basketball game.
Just so you know, this film is 1 hour 55 minutes long (entirely too long in the first place, but that’s besides the point), with the credits starting at 1 hour 48 minutes. The wrap-up of this film takes about 10 minutes. So that leaves 32 minutes for the game itself. The game in the original film was only about 20 minutes long, so 32 minutes should be plenty of time. But when you take into account the amount of time outs, clock stops, and celebration stops, the actual game itself only takes up 19 minutes. So pretty much the same length as the game in the first film. So why does it feel like I got LESS basketball this time around? That would be due to those constant stops. The original Space Jam only stopped the game for the short half-time scene. The rest was constant basketball/Looney Tunes action. By breaking up the action so much, this sequel makes you feel like you have less game time even thought it takes up more of the film’s actual runtime.
Once the basketball game actually does start, there is some fun to be had.
The game is based on Dom’s video game, so there are power ups and super powers and such. These trip up Lebron, who is used to more traditional basketball. That is until he can learn to embrace his team’s “looniness”. This helps him realize he needs to embrace his son for who he is. A passionate speech later, and Dom is now on Lebron’s side playing against G. Rhythm. All is well with the Lebron family. Personally I think telling my son that the game has sucked everyone into the computer, and that G. intends to trap everyone for eternity would be enough, but hey, I didn’t write the film. Hell, he could even tell Dom to go speak to his mother (who is also trapped in the game) to confirm the danger they’re all in. But no, this needs to be resolved through a basketball game. In the final seconds, Lebron uses a cheat code that crashed Dom’s game earlier and is able to defeat G. Rhythm and propel everyone home for a happy ending. In the end, Lebron surprises his son by sending him to computer camp instead of basketball camp. Though with it being a surprise, his son definitely packed for basketball camp. But it’s the thought that counts right?
Oh, and BUGS BUNNY DIES.
You read that right. Bugs Bunny sacrifices himself to save Lebron since the cheat code will delete the character using it. You may be wondering why I didn’t make a bigger deal of this at the beginning. That is because his death is utterly meaningless. It comes out of nowhere, it doesn’t make sense, and then Bugs just appears alive again (and in reality?!) at the end of the film anyway; so his sacrifice literally means nothing. I felt cheated. Bugs Bunny is a cultural icon and if you kill him off in a film it had better mean something. But nah. The film just does it because it can.
So there you have it. That’s the basic plot. So now let’s talk about everything else. Yes, the Tunes are in 3D CGI for the last act of the film. Yes, they actually translate to 3D animation rather well. But is it really needed? I know CGI is the way of the world now, but Looney Tunes has always been a throwback to classic 2D animation of old. They’ve always gone the way of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There is a certain charm seeing real 3D people interacting with 2D cartoon characters. That charm is lost when the cartoons become 3D.
There is a section of the film that is completely classic 2D animation and this happens to be the best part of the film. Lebron does much better as a Voice Over actor than a regular one. The animation is crisp and bright. Marvin the Martian even shows up! He’s my favorite Looney Tunes character so I was very pleased to see him be one of the first to arrive. This was probably my favorite section of the film because it let the Looney Tunes characters truly be themselves. If the film had remained mostly 2D animation, I think it could have been something interesting and different.
But Warner Bros doesn’t trust that the audience wants the Tunes on their own. So they quickly throw other “high profile” films such as The Matrix, Casablanca, and Mad Max into the mix. And once the stadium is set up, everything goes back to 3D, bringing the Tunes with it.
That being said, the CGI animation is solid for the most part. As I mentioned above, the Tunes look rather good in 3D. The Goon Squad also looks appropriately cool and villainous. However, once Don Cheadle takes over the game, he becomes a horrible CGI monstrosity. It’s truly one of the worst digital characters I’ve ever seen. Everything about it seems off. The lighting, the skin tone, the proportions, the movements, everything. I guess at that point the money had been spent other places.
This film had six writers. SIX!
Six people and they still ran out of ideas and at one point just resort to Porky Pig rapping (groan). In fact, I knew I was in trouble the second I saw so many people credited for the script in the opening credits. When you see a simple film like Space Jam have that many writers, it means something went wrong and the studio had a hard time making it work. It’s a warning sign.
So it took six writers to give us not enough Looney Tunes. Six writers to remind us of Lebron’s immense ego. Six writers to give us a 1 hour and 48 minute commercial for Warner Bros. This film banks on your nostalgia and love of things from the past to trick you into thinking it’s good. Seeing Adam West’s 1960s Batman next to Michael Keaton’s 1989 Batman while Burgess Meredith's Penguin squawks with Danny DeVito's feathery fink is a DC nerd's dream come true. We even spend a few minutes in the world of the classic animated shows Batman the Animated Series and Superman the Animated Series (that scene is wonderful by the way). But I came here for Looney Tunes not ALL OF WARNER BROS. I understand the need to outdo one’s self when making a sequel or remake (and I’m sure using footage from movies they already owned saved them a ton of money) but this is overkill. The Tunes get lost in it all.
It’s not like the film didn’t make me laugh. There are certainly some good gags here. Ernie Johnson and Lil Ren Howery bring in some of the biggest laughs. In some ways, this film was better than I expected. It’s slicker, and certainly better paced than the original. Lebron has a stronger arc than Michael did, and I'll be honest, he's even a better actor. The integration of the Tunes into other live action films was also very fun. As was the 2D section of the film. But as a whole, Space Jam: A New Legacy can’t escape the fact that it feels like a company decision to stroke their own ego and the ego of their lead actor. Nearly every turn in the film (plot related or emotional) feels manufactured, and devoid of any actual love or charisma.
But all of the good in the world wouldn’t be able to undo this film’s most egregious mistake.
This mistake takes the form of a single joke that I’m sure is very funny on paper. However, when viewed, it comes across as a huge “fuck you” to fans of the original Space Jam. The film is nearing the end. It's half-time and the Tune Squad is losing. Everyone is bummed when Sylvester bursts in saying that he found Michael Jordan in the audience!
Suddenly, I was filled with utter joy.
In an instant I forgot about all of the bad parts I had suffered through at the mere thought of seeing Lebron James and Michael Jordan playing basketball together, with Bugs Bunny no less. And then Michael B. Jordan walked into frame and my joy was replaced with seething anger. Look, it’s a classic “mistaken identity” joke (Michael Jordan and Michael B. Jordan), I get it. In a vacuum, it’s pretty funny. But I had this nagging question: who is this joke for? It’s certainly not for fans of the original like myself; as my outburst of anger can conclude. I also doubt it is for big basketball fans; as I’m sure the promise of seeing two greats play together would be even more tantalizing to them as it was for me. In addition, I'm not sure if the younger generation watching this film would be completely aware of Michael Jordan and his status. So I ask again: who is this joke for? This seems like a joke written for average parents who are aware of the original film, but don’t actually like it enough to be offended. Parents who were dragged to the theater by their kids and got a laugh out of the mix-up. But for those of us who did enjoy the original film, this joke is like a slap in the face. It made me angrier then it probably should have.
“Okay Brett, but you’re a 30-year-old man. The movie clearly wasn’t made for you.”
And you’re right. To a degree. Your average youngster will almost certainly enjoy this film. They’ll like the bright colors, the animation, and the antics of Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang. They will also most certainly enjoy picking out all of the classic characters they’re aware of. And I’m sure some parents will enjoy finding all the characters they know from past movies as well. But at some point, the fun of seeing people you recognize wains and you realize that’s pretty much all this film has to offer. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a quality product. The Pixar films alone have shown that just because a film is intended for children, doesn’t mean it has to be of lesser quality.
Bottom line: younger kids and casual viewers will probably find enough here to enjoy a single viewing. But the stars of the show (the Looney Tunes themselves) are left woefully underused. Passed over so Warner Bros can show you the Knight King in a desperate attempt to make you forget the final season of Game of Thrones was an utter disappointment. And yet, even with all the flashy new effects and characters, structurally this is almost exactly the same film from 1996; just lacking in any charm or passion. Instead replaced by an overbearing producer that demands you enjoy it simply because it features stuff you also like. This film is 1/3 ego, 1/3 commercial, 1/3 Looney Tunes. And that is simply not enough Looney Tunes. Stick to the original.