Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) Review
READY PLAYER ONE?
In 1996, Warner Bros. Studios released Space Jam, a live action / animated hybrid feature film, during the beginning of the holiday season. Directed by Joe Pytka, the film, which starred NBA superstar Michael Jordan, presents a fictitious account of what happened between Jordan’s initial retirement from the NBA in 1993 and his comeback in 1995, in which the professional basketball player is enlisted by the iconic Looney Tune characters to help them win a basketball matched against a group of aliens who intend to enslave them as attractions for their theme park. Though the movie faced mixed reviews, especially with the concept idea of Jordan interacting with various Looney Tune characters (i.e., Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.), Space Jam found success with many moviegoers, with the technical achievements (for its time) of blending live-action and animation, and was a large box office success, grossing over $250 million worldwide and becoming the tenth highest grossing movie of 1996 as well as the highest grossing basketball movie….and still currently of 2021. In addition, Space Jam found a cult following in the years that followed, with many clamoring for some type of continuation and / or expansion to the original film. The success of the movie prompted the studio to pitch the head a follow-up sequel shortly after the movie’s release, but Jordan declined to return, and the WB cancelled the potential project. Now, twenty-five years after the release of original Space Jam, Warner Bros. Studios, director Malcom D. Lee, and NBA superstar LeBron James return to the concept idea of basketball and Looney Tune characters with the standalone sequel presentation of Space Jam: A New Legacy. Does this long-awaited sequel stand tall and proud and worth the quarter of a century wait or is it a far cry from what the original movie was able to achieve in its “Looney” and memorable way?
Finding a passion and honing his skill at a young age, LeBron “King” James has become a basketball legend; amassing a solid fame or fortune in his career. However, despite all of that, he’s having trouble connecting with his youngest son, Dom (Cedric Joe), a kid who loves video games more than sports, even creating his own basketball game called “Dom Ball”. Visiting the Warner Bros. Studios office with Dom, LeBron sits down to enjoy a potential pitch that’s been prepared by the digital creation mastermind known as Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who desires to digitize the sports star and put him in all sorts of Warner Brothers projects…. dubbing the endeavor as the “Warner 3000” system. When the gig is shot down by LeBron, Al-G loses his cool in the ServerVerse, working to pull James and Dom into his world, which is loaded with Warner Brothers properties existing on their own planets. Challenging LeBron to a basketball game, Al-G sends the NBA superstar to the Looney Tunes world to collect his team of rejects, while the artificial intelligence man works to charm Dom, an intelligent kid who isn’t collecting well with his father, helping Al-G use “Dom Ball” to help stage the ultimate sports showdown. It’s up to LeBron and Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) to gather up the displaced Tunes out there in the ServerVerse and prepare for the game of the century, but the basketball star soon learns that there is more to the game than he can ever know.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Oh, I definitely loved Space Jam. Growing up in the 90s, I remember when Space Jam originally came out and all the hype that surrounded it. I think I was nine at the time, but knowing who Michael Jordan, a professional basketball player for the Chicago Bulls, was and seeing the clashing of ideas of him interacting with such iconic and beloved Looney Tunes character (a popular cartoon series that I grew up watching) with a basketball showdown game for the film’s climatic third act was quite amazing. Yes, I can why the idea can be jarring and quite “far out there” for some of the adult viewers out there, but the movie was a whole lot of fun, very funny (even to this day), and memorable, despite the feature being 25 years told as this review is being written. It’s clear that Space Jam found a cult following (as I mentioned above) and was clearly a great product mid-90s; finding smart balance of self-aware humor, fun basketball cameo appearances, and an entertaining narrative that, while bit of a head scratcher at times, worked for an enjoyable family. It’s clear that the success of the movie was a combination of many times that aligned correctly and at the same exact time; capturing “lightning in a bottle” sort of speak. Thus, for a sequel to work, this needed to be replicated again, but with Jordan declining to return, WB decided to cancel the then planned Space Jam sequel. Personally, the idea of a “next chapter” for the film would’ve been nice, but I think that Space Jam was sort of a “one and done” endeavor; being memorable as a one-shot deal and not so much as potential franchise / sequel. That being said, I would never say no to seeing / viewing a Space Jam 2 feature. In the end, Space Jam was a marvel in its own right. It wasn’t a perfect, but was still a memorable hit of the mid-90s that blends beloved cartoon characters of the past with basketball nuances that ultimately works.
This, of course, brings me back around to talking about Space Jam: A New Legacy, a 2021 film that is a standalone sequel adventure to the original 1996 Space Jam film. As I said, I think that the first movie worked great and didn’t need a continuation, but I was interested to see where the story would go if one was created. But that idea was dashed and scrapped and rebuilt for the past two decades, with Space Jam 2 being revisited every now and again within WB’s creative mind. With Jordan not returning for the sport star lead role, the project saw various other superstars being thrown the idea room (i.e., Jackie Chan, Tony Hawk, etc.) before landing on NBA star LeBron James. Even with LeBron tied to the project, the road to this long-awaited sequel was long as the project was delayed and delayed; finding rumors that the movie would eventually see the light of day, but not for a long time. Then finally…. a theatrical release date was given and eventually various movie trailers and promotional marketing; showcasing what the film was going to be. From that alone, my interest in Space Jam: A New Legacy was elevated, but I still had a few reservations on this project; fearing that the movie would be a troublesome disappointment like so many “belated” Hollywood sequel endeavors of late. So, I decided to watch Space Jam: A New Legacy in the comforts of my home and viewing the feature on HBO Max instead of going to the movie theater (more of a convenience for me as I’ve been busy of late). And what did I think of it? Well, unfortunately, my thoughts on the movie were disappointing. While the intent is there and there are a few parts that actually work, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a visually messy endeavor that doesn’t live up to its namesake and ends up being more of a misfire than a slam dunk. It has a few redeeming qualities, but not even LeBron James or Bugs Bunny can save this letdown of a movie.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is directed by Malcolm D. Lee, whose previous directorial works include such films like The Best Man, Girls Trip, and Night School. Given his background with directing feature films, Lee makes A New Legacy his most kid-friendly project to date; approaching the movie with a sense of “tweens” viewing aspect in my mind. In that regard, I think that Lee nails that, with the feature aiming for that pre-teen age (much like the first movie) for its targeted demographic. More to the point, Lee makes the movie have more of a modernization with the feature’s story heavily focusing on video games into the main story arc, with various nuances (power boosts, hype bonuses, etc.) being showcased throughout. Again, in this regard, Lee makes the film have a very “visual” appeal to the proceedings and makes the feature have plenty of “eye candy” in almost every scene. Plus, Lee, who’s background is in comedy, keeps the tween vibe going throughout the entire feature; framing A New Legacy with a lighthearted tone and never feeling super-serious and / or weighing the movie down with gravitas drama. That’s not to say that the feature isn’t without its sentiment, with Lee delving into the relationship between father and son (as seeing with LeBron and his youngest son Dom) and bridging the gap between older and newer generations. It’s definitely a nice touch and gives the film some heart within its cartoon-ish moments. Thus, the moral and heart of A New Legacy, while not perfect or revolutionary, is still a nice touch and offers a little bit more urgency to the story than the original Space Jam was able to accomplish.
Of course, the big highlight of the film is the basketball aspect and Lee keeps that in mind with A New Legacy’s “main event”; setting the stage for a grandiose basketball game within the SeverVerse. From an entertainment point of view, this part really does get the movie going and becomes a bit more exciting than the rest. Perhaps this is where Lee wanted to bring the main focus and certainly does to a certain degree; drumming up a lot of visual flair throughout this entire portion of A New Legacy. There’s plenty to see, laugh, and be cinematically entertaining during the basketball sequences showdown and it feels engaging, especially from a visual standpoint. Additionally, it is that this part of the movie (and in the second act as well) where the various cameo appearances of WB properties are scattered throughout the movie. There’s plenty to look at with a multitude of cameos of famous / popular characters from a variety of animated shows, TV, and movies. It’s definitely a mixture of good and bad (more on that below), but I would be lying if I didn’t have surprise smile one or two times when I saw a character or two pop in and out of the main screen.
Thus, this sort of leads into the technical presentation category and I do have to say that A New Legacy is certain a visual feast for the eyes. Of course, the visual component is perhaps the best strength that the film has to offer and helps overlook a lot of negative criticism points about this movie. Naturally, the visual effect shots don’t “push the boundaries” of blockbuster entertainment, but certainly feel like the WB put money behind this project and creates a visual-looking feature that looks like it was made during this age of filmmaking (i.e., not looking dated). This includes a wide variety of animation styles and sequences that range from 2D hand-drawing animation to 3D model rendering. All of which I really liked and I kind of wished they implanted it a bit more into the story here and there. Nevertheless, it’s all there and makes A New Legacy “pop” every now and again. Thus, the movie looks very colorful and pleasing to all. Plus, there are a few sequences throughout the movie have some slick cinematography work for some dramatic effect. This, of course, is possible by cinematographer Salvatore Totino and his efforts to make A New Legacy have some slick camera angles and dramatic cinematics throughout. The rest of the standards positions that I usually mention in the technical presentation category (i.e. production design, set decorations, costumes, etc.) are adequate and meet the industry standards of what modern family film. Lastly, while the film boasts plenty of modern musical song selections throughout the movie, the film’s score, which was composed by Kris Bowers, hits all the right musical notes in almost every scene….be it comedic, soft, or bombastic. It’s not the greatest score out there, but it certainly gets the job done….no complaints from me.
Unfortunately, A New Legacy isn’t all that fun and great as the high anticipation surrounding the project hyped it to be, with the feature riddled with problems and sore parts that draw criticism throughout the feature. The biggest problem that I have with the movie is in its multitude of WB product placements that permeates the entire film. How so? Well, while I did mention that earlier in my review the film has plenty of Easter Egg references of a wide variety of pop culture that WB owns. Of course, this can be fun to be utilized in movies such as in 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet (a small section of the film) and in 2018’s Ready Player One (a movie that Warner Bros. produced), but those felt a bit more natural and were handled better. In the case of A New Legacy, however, it’s way overdone and exacerbates the problem with the movie; dropping in characters, references, and cameos everywhere that feel unwanted and / or completely unnecessary to the feature. As I mentioned, a few of them are quite fun and unique, but it becomes tiresome and overwrought with gratuitous cameos that it renders the whole inclusion pointless and in a bad way. What’s worse is that something properties are completely underutilized and could’ve done so much with. Even worse is the simple fact that even the Looney Tunes characters (you know the ones that the movie is supposed to be heavily focused on) sort of get push to aside during many of these moments as the film seems to be more interested in promoting all the properties that WB owns and has in their arsenal on HBO Max. Basically, A New Legacy is one big product placement from WB and, while the gimmick is suppose to be all nuances, it becomes a total groaner and obnoxious very quickly. Totally disappointing as the movie basically feels like a Ready Player One knock-off….and I love that movie!
Because of this, A New Legacy fails to deliver on the merits of its predecessor and becomes a thinly sketched story from the get-go. Granted, the first Space Jam movie wasn’t exactly “cinematic gold”, but the film utilized its own fictionalized setting and narrative elements that sort of “What if?” scenario when Jordan originally retired back during the 90s. Plus, the film itself was a welcomed sight of fun and entertainment, which was quite a gamble, but it certainly paid off in the long runtime, with 1995’s Space Jam being a somewhat cult classic. A New Legacy just seems like a cobbled-up iteration of ideas by mashing story threads, recycled plots, and a bland narrative path that never truly comes into its own; lacking the necessary balance of nostalgia, humor, and family entertainment. Part of the problem lies with the Lee’s direction. As I mentioned, this was the director’s first attempt to doing a family film and, while his intent is there, it comes off a little wonky. The story is there and its clear as day as to what he wants to achieve with this sequel, but it’s all handle in both a very conventional way (almost to the point of being formulaically predictable) and messy. It all seems that Lee is struggling to decided on who / what is his target audience: older viewers who grew up with the original 1995 film or a new generation. The sad part is that the movie itself never truly figures is out and ends up being somewhere stuck in the middle; making A New Legacy a bad movie and Lee languishing the project in what could’ve been something truly special.
Another problem of this also falls upon the film’s script, which was penned by Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon, and Celeste Ballard. Given the fact it took six film writers to create A New Legacy’s story / script, it’s no wonder why the movie fails to deliver on that front, with the classic “too many cooks in the kitchen” aspect being quite apparent. The script is way to overstuff and needlessly complex in certain areas, but also shaping a story that feels quite generic from start to finish. Yes, the story of a father / son relationship scenario has been done before (many times mind you), but has been done in a way that feel refreshing and creative. Try as it might, A New Legacy disappoints and is woefully generic. Plus, the film’s script is very haphazard and sort of skips a lot of potential narrative beats that could’ve been the making bulk of the feature narrative. A prime of example of this is in seeing LeBron and Bugs going out into the SeverVerse to find all the displaced Looney Tunes characters. This sort of “getting the band back together” narrative component has proven to work in the past on other movies, but the script basically glosses over these sequences in a sort of montage sequence that could’ve been easily expanded upon. Then there is also the film’s humor, which is bland and almost a bit lame at times. Yes, the movie’s target audience is aim at the younger tween crowd, so it get that the film’s various jokes and gags are going to be a bit more juvenile and low-brow, but I barely laughed in the movie. I chuckled and was amused a few parts, but I found myself laughing more at the comedy found in the original Space Jam than this one. Personally, the best parts that I laughed at was the parts of the Looney Tunes classic gags / scenarios. All in all, with the script being very weak and unimaginative and the humor being quite forced, A New Legacy falters more than it takes in stride.
The cast in A New Legacy is a mixture of good and bad, with the talented selected up to the change in making this film’s cartoon-ish narrative work. However, while the acting is fine (for the most part), the characterization of some feels a bit clunky and hollow throughout; squandering the potential to elevate the film’s characters. Headlining the movie is professional basketball superstar LeBron James, who plays himself in the movie and the central protagonist hero character in A New Legacy. Much like what Michael Jordan did in the first film, LeBron acts as the main focal point in the movie, but I think he has more of a better acting talent than Jordan does. However, that’s not to say that LeBron’s acting is great, and I just think that he has a better range and a bit more charismatic than what Jordan was able to achieve. I mean…. there is even a joke that LeBron makes in the movie that pro-athletes are terrible at acting and the two shouldn’t go together. I know that’s part of the self-aware humor of it all and is kind of like in A New Legacy; finding LeBron willing to participate in this wacky and far out idea of playing basketball game with a bunch of Looney Tunes characters, but it’s not exactly cinematic gold; hamming it up with cheesy dialogue and tone-deaf oner-liners. There are those who will “love or hate” LeBron’s involvement on this project, especially with several of the social media comments that he had made that have tarnished his name and some even boycotting the film entirely because of it. While I won’t go into super detailed about it or really discuss it in my review, I think it did tarnish A New Legacy’s reputation. For me, regardless of what he said, I tend not to let that notion obscure my opinion of his involvement in this Space Jam sequel. The problem, however, that I had with LeBron is that the character is almost a bit rehash of Jordan; reluctant to join in the “wacky” nature of the Looney Tunes until latter portion. Thus, the script handling could’ve way better for his character. In the end, I thought LeBron was decent in the movie as I really didn’t think I would be “wowed” over by his performance. It’s definitely serviceable for the film. That being said, no one can out beat Jordan in the original Space Jam.
While LeBron is the main protagonist, then the character of Al-G Rhythm is A New Legacy’s antagonist character, who is played by actor Don Cheadle. Known for his roles in Crash, Hotel Rwanda, and Ocean’s Eleven, Cheadle is a very skilled actor, and his acting career speaks for itself. Thus, he comes off as one of the more “skilled” acting talents attached to this project and I personally think he did a great job. He definitely chews through his scenes with glee ease and hams it up pretty often, but in a good way. This, of course, makes Al-G a bit “larger-than-life” cartoon-ish villain. Naturally, this what A New Legacy needs for a villain, so it definitely works and I think that Cheadle gets the most laughs (and also being the most memorable character) of the human cast…. more so than LeBron does. The one downside is that the character is quite conventional as a baddie, but that was only a minor quibble. All in all, Cheadle was great in the role.
Looking beyond the central hero and villain of the feature, I would say that young actor Cedric Joe (Loving Him and Modern Family) gives a somewhat decent performance as LeBron’s son Dominic “Dom” James; a fictionalized version of LeBron’s real-life son Bryce James. While playing a pivotal role in the feature’s story, I think that Joe was okay in the role of Dom. That’s pretty much all I can say as the character is a bit conventional and predictable from start to finish and doesn’t have that “large-than-life” bravado like LeBron does. Thus, the character is almost formulaic and Joe’s acting talent is adequate, but nothing extraordinary to make Dom James memorable. I kind of figured this, so it wasn’t that much of a disappointment for me as some people might have.
Outside of Joe’s Dom, the rest of the LeBron family members, including actress / producer Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery and The Walking Dead) as LeBron’s wife Kamiyah James (a fictionalized version of Savannah James), actor Ceyair J. Wright (American Skin and Training Day) as LeBron’s oldest son Darius James (a fictionalized version of LeBron “Bronny” James Jr.), and actress Harper Leigh Alexander (making her debut in the movie) as LeBron’s daughter Xosha James (a fictionalized version of Zhuri James) are woefully bland. That’s not to say that the acting talents of these individuals are terrible and cringeworthy as most are in decent in their respective roles, but the movie struggles to frame these characters the right way and causes them to be both uninteresting and unmemorable.
The rest of the human cast, including actor Khris Davis (Detroit and Judas and the Black Messiah) as LeBron’s childhood friend Malik, actor Wood Harris (The Wire and Remember the Titans) as LeBron’s childhood coach named Coach C, actress Sarah Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph and The Sarah Silverman Project) and Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead and Minari) as WB executives, and professional sportscaster Ernie Johnson Jr. and comedian actor Lil Rei Howery (Uncle Drew and Get Out) as themselves. For the most part, these characters in the movie are mostly minor supporting players and perfectly fine in their respective roles. Can’t really complain about them. There are a couple of cameo appearance of famous basketball players throughout the movie, but I won’t spoil it for you guys. Just be on the lookout for them.
The rest of characters in A New Legacy are compromised of CGI / animated characters, with some being fun appearance from iconic childhood creations (i.e., Looney Tunes) and some for the Al-G’s Goon Squad group. At the head of the pack would have to be the character of Bugs Bunny, who was great in the original Space Jam and is once again terrific in A New Legacy. Replacing voice actor Billy West from the 1996 film, Bugs is voice by Jeff Bergman, who has voice various Looney Tunes throughout his character, but mostly known for infamous trickster rabbit. So, picking someone like Bergman in the role for the movie is almost a forgone conclusion and certainly makes the character memorable throughout A New Legacy. The same can be said for the character of Daffy Duck, who replaces Dee Bradley Baker from the original movie and now voiced by Eric Bauza. I personally laughed the most at almost all of Bauza’s Daffy parts and, like Bugs, provides to be quite effective whenever on-screen.
The other standout Looney Tunes character would have to be Lola, who originally debuted / created with the original Space Jam movie. While voiced by Kath Souice in the first film, Lola is voiced by Zendaya in this new movie, and I think that she does well; bringing the only “big name” voice talent ticket for the feature. Some people didn’t like Zendaya doing the voice for Lola, but I actually liked her as the voice. No complaining for me. What I would complain about is that there isn’t much to Lola in A New Legacy. There is some groundwork that the feature’s story setups, but it all seems half-baked and never fully address. I guess choke this up to the poor handling of the Looney Tunes character. Still, for better or worse, Zendaya’s Lola in A New Legacy is both good and frustrating as the potential to elevate is a misfire. The other iconic Looney Tunes characters such as Tweety, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Granny, Speedy Gonzales, Elmer Fudd, and Marvin the Martian as well as non-speaking characters (i.e., Road Runner, Wild E. Coyote) appear in the movie and, like Bugs, Daffy, and Lola, are voice respectfully. To me, that was the best apart to seeing all these beloved Looney Tunes characters once again on the big screen. However, much like what I said above, their involvement in A New Legacy gets shortchanged and pushes aside for large portion of the movie, which is hugely disappointing to me.
For the Goon Squad, this includes a male-harpy called The Brow, a time-bending robot named Chronos, an elemental hybrid named Wet-Fire, a snake / naga-like female called White Mamba, and a spider-like female named Arachnneka. It would ruin the surprise of who plays the voice / character likeness of these members of the Goon Squad, which is why I didn’t write the names, but, much like the Monstars in the original Space Jam, they are fantastical visual personification of pro-basketball players. Lastly, actress Rosario Dawson (Rent and The LEGO Batman Movie) does a cameo-like appearance as Wonder Woman. While it’s a small part in the grand scheme of A New Legacy and that Dawson is good in the role, I kind of wish that WB, who owns DC, would gotten actress Gal Gadot to play the role. I know that sounds like stupid / pointless point to complain about, but heck…the even play the Wonder Woman song during this sequence!
To save his son and escape the Serververse, LeBron “King” James teams up with the wacky (and totally Looney) Looney Tunes characters and defeat the nefarious Al-G Rhythm and his Goon Squad basketball squad in the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy. Director Malcolm D. Lee’s latest film takes the somewhat framework to the 1996 live-action / CGI hybrid narrative and revamps it for the modern age; puncturing the movie with translation for a new generation of visual appeal and video game nuances for this intended sequel. Unfortunately, despite the attempt being made to elevate the movie with its kid-friendly vibe and its colorful vision, the film itself feels too underwhelming and ham-fisted to fully get behind within cinematic entertainment, especially considering the overwrought (and almost annoying) WB product placement, wonky narrative beats, bland live-action characters, and underutilized Looney Tunes characters. Personally, I was disappointed with this movie. It’s not a total dumpster fire misfire endeavor that some are criticizing it to be, but it’s far from being a total slam dunk project that many were expecting it to be. This is made even worse when considering how long a Space Jam sequel was in development. I mean…. some part worked, but those were overshadowed by the poor execution of the feature. Such a disappointment. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is solid “skip it” as older views (those who grew up with the original film) will probably hold some disdain and newer viewers (or rather younger viewers) might get something out of it, but there are far better projects out there to distract them for two hours to sit through. There are talks of third Space Jam installment in the works at WB, but I hope that they don’t or rather have a better grasp on going “back to basics” with movie (if it ever does materialize). In the end, Space Jam: A New Legacy might seem like a good family fun movie to watch, but is hampered by its inability surpass its predecessor and ends up being a messy misfire rather than a celebrated victory for this long-awaited sequel.
2.4 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: July 16th, 2021
Reviewed On: August 6th, 2021
Space Jam: A New Legacy is 120 minutes and is rated PG for some cartoon violence and some language