Review: ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ strands LeBron James in a swirling CGI garbage tornado

LeBron James
LeBron James in the movie “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
(Warner Bros. Entertainment)
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In “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” an increasingly desperate corporate entity has trapped the NBA superstar LeBron James in an elaborate world of ones and zeros, forcing him to interact with loud-mouthed cartoon characters as part of a tiresome scheme to conquer the digital entertainment landscape. Am I summarizing the plot or describing the movie’s origins? As the filmmakers themselves know, that’s a wink-wink distinction without a difference. An early scene, in which King James sits down with a bunch of clueless Warner Bros. executives who want to turn his likeness into an avatar, is meant to make us imagine the real-life pitch meeting and titter in recognition. So why does it feel like the joke’s on us?

Maybe because we’ve heard some version of it before, and an ultra-spiffy technological upgrade aside, it hasn’t improved with age. Bright, shiny, nostalgia-tickling techno-goop for the whole family, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a follow-up to the 1996 live-action/animation hybrid “Space Jam,” which put Michael Jordan on an intergalactic basketball court with Bugs Bunny because — well, why not? Moviegoers more or less responded in kind, turning that wan comedy into a $250 million worldwide hit and setting plans for a franchise in motion. But for any number of reasons — Jordan passed on a sequel and left behind no obvious Air heir apparent, and 2003’s delightful “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” undeservedly crashed and burned like a mail-order Acme rocket — it’s taken 25 years for this reboot to arrive.

An animated LeBron James in a scene from "Space Jam: A New Legacy."
(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Perhaps the correct term is reload, given the sheer number of references to “The Matrix,” among other popular Warner Bros. titles dredged up for this dubious occasion. Unlike the first “Space Jam,” “A New Legacy” doesn’t limit itself to Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. Slickly directed by Malcolm D. Lee (“Girls Trip”) from a script credited to six screenwriters — which, by conservative estimate, comes out to about 25 different IP references per writer — the movie comes at you like a hoops-themed riff on “Ready Player One” or “Wreck-It Ralph.” There are on-screen shoutouts to DC Comics stars Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman; in-house fantasy juggernauts “Game of Thrones” and Harry Potter; blink-and-you-miss-’em faves such as Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and the Iron Giant; and apparently not-at-all-sacrosanct classics including “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

First, though, the movie shows us what ever happened to Baby James. (If you didn’t like that, you might hate “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”) Thirteen-year-old LeBron (Stephen Kankole) is a gifted Ohio baller who early on learns to put away childish things, to throw away his Game Boy and keep his head in the game. And so he grows up to be, well, LeBron James. He also becomes an overbearing dad to his kids, especially his son Dom (Cedric Joe), who, irony alert, is more interested in designing video games than following in his dad’s Nike-imprinted footsteps. With the heart-tugging father-vs.-son, dribbling-vs.-coding tensions thus established, LeBron and Dom find themselves whisked inside the servers at Warner Bros., held captive by a malicious cyber-demon named Al G. Rhythm (get it?) who harbors delusions of synergistic grandeur.

It’s LeBron James, not Tony Hawk, Jackie Chan, Tiger Woods or Jeff Gordon starring in the new ‘Space Jam.’ Lots of what-ifs, but we’re getting the right one.

July 13, 2021

Mr. Rhythm, played by a scarily committed Don Cheadle, seeks to maximize his conglomerate’s reach by challenging LeBron to an impossibly high-stakes basketball game. Forced to do battle with evil superpowered versions of Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Nneka Ogwumike, among other NBA and WNBA stars, LeBron must, like Jordan before him, join forces with the Looney Tunes. But things have changed: Bugs Bunny (voiced, along with several others, by Jeff Bergman) is the last remaining resident of Looney Tunes World, whose hand-drawn forests and deserts suggest a charming throwback to the artistry of the great Chuck Jones.

Some divertingly old-fashioned gags ensue as LeBron, assuming his own two-dimensional animated form, gets a literal crash course in the highly elastic laws of cartoon physics. But soon he and Bugs will set out to track down Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Tweety, Yosemite Sam and the gang, all of whom, we find out, have moved on and are now starring in high-concept cross-branding exercises of their own. Cue an extended mash-up montage that sends “Space Jam: A New Legacy” hurtling from derivative to flat-out depressing in a hurry. How soullessly mercenary can one movie be? To watch as Wile E. Coyote chases the Roadrunner through “Mad Max: Fury Road,” or as Granny reenacts bullet-time martial arts moves from “The Matrix,” is to discover the answer.

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny in the movie "Space Jam: A New Legacy."
(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Once the climactic game begins, LeBron will revert to live-action mode (and the Tunes, to their horror, will become 3-D computer-generated versions of themselves), placing him in direct competition with not just an opposing team but also a fast and relentless visual-effects onslaught. He holds up OK, all things considered. “Athletes acting, that never goes well,” he playfully grouses during that early pitch meeting, but James, an innately likable screen presence, handily disproved that notion years ago. He played and parodied himself, terrifically, in the Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck,” a movie that was just as tailored to his ineffable LeBron-ness as this one. In “Trainwreck,” of course, he had more to interact with — or rather, less — than a mountain of shiny computer-generated junk.

Lighten up, you might think. There’s precedent for this kind of maximalist IP-cribbing spectacle, right? Surely it’s just an extension of something this particular studio has been doing for a while. Just as the Warner Bros. water tower is a fixture of the American comedy landscape, so the studio’s history of sending up its own brands — and also the tight proprietary reins it exercises over those brands — belongs to a proud and glorious entertainment tradition. But there’s a world of difference between, say, the cheeky WB backlot satire of an “Animaniacs” episode — or even the clever content overload of something like “The Lego Movie” — and any five minutes of “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Smartly satirizing and mobilizing your characters, and navigating them past the fourth wall with wit, grace and integrity, requires a genuine love for those characters and an understanding of what they might mean to the audience.

In “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” they’re treated as disposable or, worse, interchangeable — scraps of free-floating pop-cultural DNA to be endlessly and arbitrarily recombined. At no point does the movie’s raid on the Warner Bros. vault appear to have been motivated by a desire to do something genuinely clever or inspired with those properties. The movie is just a big, empty declaration of corporate dominance, a whirling CGI tornado that — like a much stupider Tasmanian Devil — ingests, barely processes and then promptly regurgitates everything in its path. It’s Upchuck Jones.

‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’

Rating: PG, for some cartoon violence and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: Opens July 16 in general release; also streaming on HBO Max