‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ Overflows With Digital Mayhem That Outgames LeBron James

Space Jam: A New Legacy,” the sequel to a popular title from a little over two decades ago, is a rather mixed undertaking. The market is overloaded with sequels and the 1996 original starring Michael Jordan didn’t really point towards one, despite being quite fun. Still, it can be denied there’s a reason why the Looney Tunes have endured for over seven decades. They are the real stars here, despite the presence of LeBron James, the NBA megastar now chosen to go on a zany adventure with Bugs Bunny and the gang. James may be one of the best players to ever grace the hardwood, but his lack of acting chops is painfully present throughout this movie. When it works is precisely when it stays in toonville.

The movie opens in 1998, when a young LeBron James learns through the harsh lessons of his coach that being a real player requires discipline, meaning his Gameboy gets tossed in the garbage. Decades later and James is of course a basketball icon. But the situation at home is a little more tense. His son Dom (Cedric Joe) doesn’t seem to have a knack for the court, unlike Darius (Ceyair J Wright), the older sibling who is a natural on the court. Dom prefers to spend his time designing his own video games. James tries to instill in him discipline for the game but with no results. Meanwhile Warner Bros. is interested in pitching a plan to James where he would be digitized into an entertainment package, where his visage would be used for a whole slew of famous Warner brands. When the athlete turns it down, this enrages Al G (Don Cheadle), the algorithm who designed the “Server-Verse” where James would have been scanned into. So Al G decides to kidnap Dom and hold him hostage until James agrees to play a digital basketball. His teammates will be Bugs Bunny and the usual Looney Tunes lineup, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Speedy Gonzales, Granny and a returning MVP from the ‘96 movie, Lola Bunny Zendaya). But they need LeBron’s magic skills. “Working with LeBron was great,” Wright told Entertainment Voice. “He’s a really cool, chill guy, not riled up at all. “We talked a lot about sports,” said Wright, himself a USC football athlete. “I watched the original movie growing up multiple times. As soon as I got the job I went back to watch it again. It was definitely something I knew very well.”

The original “Space Jam” was an enjoyably simple entertainment that was centered all around the persona of Michael Jordan. The villains were also easier to follow. They were a greedy bunch of aliens who wanted to enslave the Looney Tunes and Jordan in their theme park planet, and to play against a legend like Jordan they simply stole the talents of other famous players like Charles Barkley. The animation was in the style of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and Jordan exhibited some real charm in trying to encourage Bugs and friends to play hard. Any product placement consisted mainly of Jordan sipping a McDonald’s drink in his hotel room. “A New Legacy” is a testament to how much the times have changed in 25 years. Director Michael D. Lee has mostly directed enjoyable comedies like “The Best Man,” but here makes a stuffed movie crammed with digital effects and Ted Talk dialogue. About six writers are credited with the screenplay, which could just mean a sequel has been in the works for ages, but it feels like an idea from each keyboard was kept in. Some of it has the potential of verging on satire, like the villain being an algorithm obsessed with views and likes. Al G wants respect for his genius since algorithms drive so much product placement and advertising these days. 

Much of “A New Legacy” is indeed one giant package of self-promotion. Not for James, who seems like he’s having a good time on camera despite his very stilted acting, but for Warner. There’s some fleeting trivia enjoyment for pop culture fans when Bugs Bunny gives James a tour of different worlds based on Warner franchises, like “Harry Potter World” or “DC World,” where James gets to snatch a Golden Snitch and later dress like Robin. Granny has a scene as Trinity from “The Matrix” and Elmer Fudd becomes Mini-Me in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Once the Tunes and James enter the digital arena, they will face off with Al G’s team, which is led by a manipulated Dom and the digital, monstrous scans of other basketball stars like Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Taursi. “It was great being near these high level athletes, that was one of the joys of being on this set,” said Wright. “I got to combine both of my worlds, acting and athletics, with this job.” But the cartoon stadium itself is a massive outdoor spot where the crowd is all characters from Warner properties. Everyone from Pennywise to the nuns from Ken Russell’s “The Devils” show up. It’s almost distracting from the game when you have the Penguin from “Batman Returns” crammed into the frame with The Mask from “The Mask” and Alex’s Droogs from “A Clockwork Orange.” Distracting, but for a film buff it’s fun for trivia’s sake.

Oddly enough, we live in such a digitized world right now that the sections that are most enjoyable about “A New Legacy” take place in the regular Looney Tunes world that lacks the neon, CGI animation of the arena where they play against Al G. On a big screen the more traditional, colorful frames involving James evading a train from Bugs Bunny or getting excited over the arrival of Marvin the Martian burst with humor and life. The rest of the plot is predictable and recognizable. Al G uses his digital powers to manipulate Dom into thinking he has real freedom inside this server world, but once the big game day arrives, he has to face his own dad. James of course will do everything he can to snatch Dom away from Al G’s brainwashing. On the sidelines are James’s wife (Sonequa Martin-Green) and other kids, including Xosh (Harper Leigh Alexander) cheering him on. Cheadle is also convincing with the dialogue he’s given as a mad scientist, it also helps that he has a cute, bug-eyed floating robot minion. Wright has his own Tunes preference. “I’m a fan of Daffy Duck I have to say,” said Wright, “he’s just so funny and hilarious. I also really like the Road Runner because he’s so fast and super speed is something that I’ve always found to be my favorite super power.”

It’s not that “A New Legacy” is a terrible movie, but more of a package of special effects that struggles to justify itself. The animation is great on its own terms, and there are certain character revisions that go better with our less sexist age, like Lola Bunny acting like a regular basketball player instead of a sexualized temptation for Bugs Bunny. But we all know how the story will end and even LeBron James’s charisma as a pure athlete gets lost in all the digital razzle dazzle, to the point where he could have been played by anyone. The 1996 movie knew how to market the idea of having Michael Jordan hang out with the Looney Tunes. In this one it’s more about showing off all the ways the movie can wink at a Warner Bros. property, although it is fun to see James dressed like Humphrey Bogart when he finds himself inside a scene from “Casablanca.” But we never even get a few memorable tracks as in the first film, where Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” were staples. There are parts of this movie that are fun and enjoyable, but they have to compete with what feels overcooked. It barely misses the basket, but makes a few strong passes. “It’s a family movie, everyone can go watch,” said Wright, “I hope people come out feeling fulfilled, laughing and just having had a good time.”

Space Jam: A New Legacy” releases June 16 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.