Review – Space Jam: A New Legacy

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Overview

Synopsis Superstar LeBron James and his young son, Dom, get trapped in digital space by a rogue AI. To get home safely, LeBron teams up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang for a high-stakes basketball game against the AI's digitized champions of the court -- a powered-up roster called the Goon Squad.

Length 1 hour, 55 minutes

Release Date July 16, 2021

 

Rating PG

Distribution Warner Bros. (theatrical), HBO Max (VOD)

Directing Malcolm D. Lee

Writing Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon, Celeste Ballard

Composition Kris Bowers

Starring LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya

In the weeks I spent slowly mulling over this review, I decided to revisit the original 1996 Space Jam as a refresher for what was a major box office hit, even though it’s never been much of a talking topic for critics.  As pedestrian, ill-conceived, and spectacularly broken as the film that curiously granted Bugs Bunny top billing (not his voice actor, Billy West), I had to come to terms with the fact this movie lives in my brain wholesale and rent-free.

There is something to be said about whether a product that was clearly intended to be nothing more than a soulless corporate commercial cash cow can be legitimately received as genuine art by the audience.  Similar considerations have been debated with regard to other cynical feature-length commercials posing as works of cinema (the 1986 Transformers movie comes to mind), but for now, I’m more concerned with how many times that trick can be pulled convincingly. 

Regardless of its artistic merits – or lack thereof – the original Space Jam was a financial success, and left a mark on the cultural psyche of the time that can’t be denied.  A sequel has been in the works for longer than most would like to admit, but this time, we’ve already heard the joke once.  How are they gonna pull it off this time?  Is that even the goal?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Cartoon/slapstick violence without injury: Characters get hit by heavy objects and are blown up, smacked, shocked, etc. Yosemite Sam shoots his pistols at an inanimate object; Marvin the Martian shoots his ray gun. Villain displays mean behavior and holds a child hostage, although the child isn’t completely aware that he’s being kept away from his family and doesn’t perceive that he’s in danger. Characters in peril. Goon Squad are humans turned into animated monsters whose bodies and voices are distorted; they may be scary for very young children. Hostile conversation/threats. 

Language/Crude Humor: A couple of uses of “h*ll” and an instance of bleeping out a lengthy part of a sentence for comedic effect (the intended foul language is indiscernible). Insulting language includes “dum-dums.” Hostile conversation with threats.

Drug/Alcohol References:  Scene in a saloon shows Bugs Bunny drinking carrot juice and acting drunk for the duration of one sentence. Animated character is seen drinking martinis and is called out for doing it frequently.

Sexual Content:  None.

Spiritual content:  None.

Other negative themes: Uneasy family tensions.

Positive Content: Your success comes from being yourself. To be great, you’ve got to put in the work. Teamwork matters. Parents should support their children in exploring their own interests. James LeBron is already known as a real-life role model as both an athlete and philanthropist; here, we see him as a loving and caring father who’s willing to grow and learn.

Review

Tell me, dear reader:

Have you ever had a lucid dream?  Have you been lulled into a state of unconscious defenselessness, silently being entertained by the flashy and ephemeral imagery that your mind was both creating and perceiving, only to realize that you were stuck in a feedback loop?  Have you ever tried to maintain the illusion because, however hollow and transitory, at least it was fun to experience?

Tell me, what would make you want to break that sweet lie?  For me at least, knowing that the subterfuge wasn’t actually of my own making would make me look upon it with grave suspicion, followed by a deep consideration of my “blue pill; red pill” options.  At least, I would like to think that I was possessed of such integrity to do so.

The original Space Jam released in 1996 in many ways feels like a fever dream spawned out of the collective psyche of the 90s.  An entire film effort borne from a Superbowl commercial featuring two of the most famous figures in sports and cartoons at the time is outrageous enough.  The fact that it was a massive box office success even more surreal.  I decided to revisit the animation/live action hybrid title recently, and was forced to come to terms with what had occupied so much of my young and developing mind in the late 90s while I was residing in Japan.

The plot was choppy and discordant.  The writing was subpar at best.  Michael Jordan and the other athletes could only phone in their performances.  The whole thing stunk of cynical commercialism, to the point that it doesn’t surprise me that the director’s oeuvre otherwise consists entirely of commercials.  It even shows in the way he edits and handles his staging and camera work.  There were multiple times where Space Jam felt like it wanted to end but just wasn’t allowed by the powers that be. 

With all that said, I also had to comes to terms the fact that no matter how callow, hokey, disingenuous, and artistically flaccid as Space Jam is, it is an inalienable segment of my young psyche, and I can’t say that I resent its company.  It was product of my time, and it’s really not good practice to resent your formative years, warts and all.  To add to the surrealism, the movie tie-in soundtrack reached six-time platinum in sales.  If I’m not mistaken, that’s never happened before or since then.

While a sequel has been in the works for a number of decades now, in order for the lightning to strike twice, the incumbent follow-up would also have to be a “product of its time”.  Unfortunately, the times now change faster than just about any film production cycle can get a handle on.  Had this film tried to produce itself from whatever time in which it happened to find a director, it would have been dated before the final cut was even a thought.

Space Jam: A New Legacy goes against the promise of its title and offers us a whole lot of what came before.  In fact, it’s nothing if not an overblown cavalcade of what came before – at least everything of what came before that Warner Bros. can legally show us.  Whereas the original Space Jam centered on the Looney Tunes forcibly recruiting a top basketball player to help them win their freedom from alien invaders in a game of hoops, Space Jam: A New Legacy centers on a top basketball player recruiting the Looney Tunes to get him get his son back from a malicious algorithm in a video game.

The film’s first act is dotted with hints of comical self-awareness.  LeBron states early on that athletes are not actors, and his allowing himself to become a media franchise brand would be ill-advised.  This hardly amounts a drop in the bucket for what follows.  After satirically waxing about how bad an idea the movie itself is, it proceeds to deliver all that and worse.

The film attempts to rekindle some of the old charm in its opening, with a young LeBron James (Stephen Kankole) being grilled for the distraction of handheld games.  This sequence definitely seemed fabricated in more ways than one (some of those ways are a little too nerdy for me to get into here), and sets the tone for a string of further asinine contrivances. 

Through a series of unfortunate events, LeBron’s falling out with his own son Dom (not played by any of his actual children, but by Cedric Joe) draws both LeBron and his son into the Warner 3000, a “server-verse” populated by the entirety of the Warner Bros. intellectual property library.  Both Space Jam titles are curiously oriented around sucking the star player – and, by extension, the audience – into a world under the ownership of Warner Bros, which colors the entire experience in a somewhat nefarious light.

Mind you, every good movie experience is supposed to draw you in, but the way in which you’re supposed to resonate with it is to be on your terms and you are to leave on your own terms.  With both the original Space Jam and A New Legacy, the corporate ownership imposes too strongly upon the production, and we are constantly being told, at times in blatantly explicit fashion, that we are in the realm of the WB’s ownership so long as we’re here.  In a stroke of irony, A New Legacy embodies the act of trapping a captive audience in a corporate IP library in its villain, but any semblance of self-awareness as to how the film is doing this as well is lost.

The film’s antagonist comes by way of Don Cheadle’s cleverly named Al G. Rhythm, a sentient algorithm with plans to take over operations of Warner Bros.’ entire entertainment wing.  After having his ideas snubbed by LeBron and seeing potential in LeBron’s son Dom – who’s shown prodigious skill in digital game development and software engineering – Al G. gives clandestine promises of fulfillment to Dom, telling LeBron that the only way he can get his son back is by winning against him and his team in a game of basketball.  The film assumes that everyone watching this has been here before, so if you’re too young to have been there in 1996, then this will be problem in a number of ways.

Modern information technology has always played a rather esoteric role in sci-fi filmmaking.  Whether it be “mainframes”, “zoom/enhance” technology, or now algorithms, Hollywood seems to enjoy giving credence to Arthur C. Clarke’s old wisdom that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Al G. seldom if ever does anything that an actual algorithm is supposed to do – namely perform operations to solve problems and give data returns based on data inputs.  But I can see the angle at which algorithms can be seen as a villainous entity even outside of the context of a feature-length commercial.

After watching the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, I was made aware of how the automatic operations suggesting content to us in a self-validating feedback loop on the regular are not only responding to our choices, but have a strong hand in shaping those choices.  In this way, Al G.’s scheme to trap not only LeBron and his son, but all of his online social media followers in a solar system of Warner Brothers’ IPs is a cynical, but frighteningly plausible description of what the true aim of Space Jam: A New Legacy seems to be – namely a means of getting the audience to stay absorbed in the streaming service of HBO Max, owned by the WB.

In this regard, A New Legacy could be seen as something of an “IP dystopia”.  It’s not marketed as a horror movie or even a thriller, but the existential nightmare is palpable all the same.  Mind you, if you’re resilient enough to treat it as a temporary distraction, dear reader, it’s not all bad.  Sure, Warner Bros. basically channeling Karl Urban’s performance in Thor: Ragnarok (“Behold! My stuff…”) has a tang of charm to it, and seeing Foghorn Leghorn cosplay as Queen Daenerys I Targaryen from Game of Thrones is riotously entertaining.  At the same time, what exactly is a show like Game of Thrones doing in a film meant for family viewing? 

There was a controversy some time ago around the fact that Looney Tunes’ French skunk lothario Pepé Le Pew was to have his scene cut from the movie for his being too sexually aggressive and violative a character in the age of MeToo.  In light of that, why exactly are the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, a fictional rape gang, featured among the cameos?  Game of Thrones has more than its fair share of depictions of nonconsensual sexual encounters, but characters from that series take up quite a bit of on-screen space throughout the runtime.  Even the title characters from Rick and Morty take a scene.

But hey, if Space Jam: A New Legacy is saying anything at all, it’s talking out of both sides of its mouth anyway.  The ultimate message is supposedly to “be yourself” at face value.  LeBron comes to terms with the fact that he needed to let his son’s natural talents blossom, and Dom learns to appreciate his father’s commitment and efforts.  That part works as well as it does.  That it’s smothered in an abyss of self-referencing corporate cynicism and waste makes it hard to appreciate the little value on offer.  It almost feels that if this film gains any kind of real success, it may mean that old Al G. won after all.

Keep on dreaming, I suppose.

Positives

+ Solid special effects
+ Fun animation

Negatives

- Terrible writing
- Oppressively commercial
- Aimless
- Inconsequential

The Bottom Line

The first film turned a commercial into a movie. This one turned a movie into a commercial. Take that as you will.

 

4.7

Tyrone Barnes

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