How ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ lives up to its name with an inclusive cast of star athletes
Even before the opening tipoff, it’s clear that NBA superstar LeBron James and his squad of Looney Tunes are out of their depth in the big game that will determine their fate in “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
The starting lineup for the opposing team includes enhanced CG-animated all-star players White Mamba (Diana Taurasi), Wet-Fire (Klay Thompson), Arachnneka (Nneka Ogwumike) and the Brow (Anthony Davis), as well as James’ son in the film, Dominic James (Cedric Joe), who designed the game.
The Goon Squad easily takes control of the game from the start, flaunting their talents — as well as their mastery of its special rules and power-ups — to quickly rack up a sizable lead.
“I think the most exciting part was seeing everyone’s Goon come to life,” said Sparks player Ogwumike, whose character gets the best of Sylvester, Tweety and even LeBron during the game. “I just really loved how they were able to get everyone’s strengths into a Goon in villainous form.”
Having to face off against top-tier basketball talent is nothing new for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Tune Squad, who teamed up with Michael Jordan against a team of aliens in the 1996 original. But the sequel, “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” out now in theaters and on HBO Max, has been updated for modern sensibilities, and the classic Tunes are up against a more inclusive squad in a sport with a video-game twist.
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.
The new “Space Jam” sees Dom and LeBron transported into a digital realm called the server-verse by a villainous AI with delusions of grandeur. After Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) challenges him to a basketball game, LeBron finds himself scrambling to assemble a powerhouse team out of Warner Bros.’ vast entertainment library with the help of Bugs Bunny.
Bugs, however, is more interested in a Tune Squad reunion, so LeBron is left trying to get characters including Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner to take the game as seriously as he does.
“We wanted to have as much nostalgia of the Tunes as possible,” said director Malcolm D. Lee. “Much respect to Michael Jordan and [the original ‘Space Jam’], but animated films [and] family films have evolved so much in the past 25 years that we had to keep current with that. So we wanted to make sure we honored the first ‘Space Jam’ but also give the audience something that would resonate with them emotionally.”
“Space Jam” marks the first hybrid animation project heavily incorporating special effects for Lee, whose previous films include “Night School,” “Girls Trip” and “Undercover Brother.” His goal was to take basketball and ratchet it up a few notches into a more immersive, video-game-like experience that audiences now gravitate toward in their choice of entertainment.
Another key update was the villains, who are essentially slickly designed video-game avatars created by Dom.
“They have to be formidable,” said Lee. “We’ve got some of the greatest players of this generation in Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Nneka Ogwumike and Diana Taurasi. It’s about how to translate their characteristics to create a Goon-type character.”
According to Lee, transforming the all-stars into scary but family-friendly characters “was a lengthy process but a fun one.”
“They had an emphasis on wanting to do something with my hair, so my hair went through several stages,” said Ogwumike about the process of developing her character. “Based on my game and also, like, my aura, they wanted to make sure that I was villainous but also ravenous in terms of how I played.”
She was blown away by the final design of Arachnneka “because I think that she looks just like me. And they paid attention to what was important to me, which is my hair and also my prowess as a Goon.”
Plus, “my name is in the villain name and that’s huge for me,” said Ogwumike, who watched the original with her younger sisters growing up. “Where I come from, and what I represent, for that to be eternal is pretty amazing.”
Ogwumike is grateful to have been involved in the new “Space Jam,” and she finds it meaningful that women athletes are included.
The original “Space Jam,” released before the WNBA played its first season, really only highlighted male athletes — outside of the Tune Squad’s Lola Bunny. This time, professional female athletes are shown to be just as formidable as the men. Even Lola has been freed from the original film’s overt sexist gaze, which is reflective of its time, through an updated design and a story that gives her more agency.
“Representation matters,” said Lee. “We should include and acknowledge the prowess of women basketball players. They play great in college, they’ve been playing overseas, but they were never acknowledged in a way that was substantial until the WNBA planted its flag in the sand. I wish we could have included more, but Diana and Nneka were great additions to the Goon Squad team. And it’s about time.”
The inclusion of WNBA all-stars in the family-friendly sports comedy can be seen as another marker of the league’s growing cultural footprint. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the WNBA is more popular than ever. The growing media attention around the league in recent years has spotlighted its political advocacy as well as the increasing TV viewership of their games.
“It contributes to the evolution of our game, the evolution of women in sports, the evolution of women in this world for that representation to be there,” said Ogwumike. “It’s way more than ‘Oh, these athletes are in a movie.’ It’s so significant, and I really do believe that ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ lives up insurmountably to its name with that.”
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