What is it that you really remember about Space Jam in 1996? For me, it’s not a Hell of a lot. I remember His Airness, the great Michael Jordan, shooting hoops with Bugs Bunny, Lola, Daffy, and the rest of the Looney Tunes crew against a team of Monstars. That’s about it. The film was a marketing dude’s wet dream of merchandising potential; Jordan was at the height of his star power and his merch was literally causing people to shoot one another in the streets. What’s not to love? It’s a piece of nostalgia that many of us will look back to because it was basically a 2-hour Saturday Morning cartoon…with basketball. But did the film really need a sequel? Especially if Jordan isn’t in it?
Space Jam: A New Legacy is totally a LeBron James joint. While there’s no Michael Jordan (Although a funny gag addresses this absence), James, the NBA champ who many see as his equivalent, takes the court in more ways than one. He helped develop this Ready Player One-esque sequel from the start and the story isn’t just based on his incredible b-ball skills. It incorporates his public image, his family, his upbringing, and yes, even his seeming lack of loyalty to his teammates. Hey, Lebron changes teams the way people change their shoes, let’s keep it real.
Space Jam was a damn weird movie. Space Jam: A New Legacy is even weirder, but for all of my cynicism about such an egregious example of extreme product placement, it’s a Hell of a lot of fun. The story finds James struggling to connect with his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe). James is a demanding father who wants his boys to ball like he can, but Dom has aspirations to create video games. The beef between father and son gets worse when they attend a meeting on the Warner Bros. lot, ironically to use James’ image to bastardize the studio’s entire content library. When James shoots the idea down, disgruntled artificial intelligence Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) sucks father and son into the Server-Verse, a digital landscape comprising all of WB’s properties.
And by all, I mean ALL of it. If you wanted to see King Kong hang out with Grape Ape and The Iron Giant, this is the place. Cool on seeing Pennywise high-five the droogs from A Clockwork Orange? Or LeBron James and Bugs Bunny walk through a scene from Casablanca, or get strapped to the hood of a war rig in Mad Max: Fury Road? The Night King from Game of Thrones cheering alongside The Mask? It’s all here. Look close and you’ll see literally thousands of familiar characters: Batman, Robin, Space Ghost, the Animanaiacs, Harry Potter, from the obscure to the blockbuster, Space Jam: A New Legacy is truly Ready Player One on steroids. It doesn’t always work. When some of the older references are blended into the plot, like Granny doing a lame Matrix riff, it reminds you that some of this stuff is best left in the dustbins of cinema history.
However, the film works in that “holy shit did you see?” kind of level, where you’re constantly keeping an eye out for your favorite characters. It can distract you from the plot, however, which basically mirrors the original Space Jam. LeBron must win a basketball game against Al-G’s squad of powered-up superstars. Failure means LeBron and his family are struck in the Server-Verse forever, and the Looney Tunes, who have been drafted into this fight, will be erased.
If you love the Looney Tunes characters, as I do, then you’ll enjoy seeing them get the spotlight again. It’s a shame that so many born after the original Space Jam is unfamiliar with their antics. Of them all, Wile E. Coyote works the best in a b-ball setting, with his doomed ACME devices making for a ton of hilarious sight gags, including one where he accidentally fires thousands of copies of himself into one little b-ball hoop. Zendaya voices a repackaged version of Lola Bunny, the one Looney character who can actually ball. While she was hyper-sexualized in the first movie, here she’s a confident leader and a former Amazon hanging out with Wonder Woman on the isle of Themyscira.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is a nostalgic blast, and I’m surprised/ashamed at myself for liking it as much as I do. But despite the incessant commercialization and pop culture references, James and director Malcolm D. Lee (it was originally to be helmed by experimental filmmaker Terence Nance) have managed to build a winner of a film that embraces our love of movies, TV, and video games. The downside is that it crams so much in from so many different eras that this Legacy won’t be as memorable as the original, but I’ve already bought my Lola Bunny Funko Pop! so its mission is accomplished.
Space Jam: A New Legacy opens in theaters and HBO Max on July 16th.