Remember fun? This question is literally asked in Space Jam: A New Legacy, hammering the blunt message that it’s easy to forget that our passions can be more than just work. But as the Warner Bros movie attempts to shove every reference it can into this film as though it’s Ready Player One on steroids, I tried to remember the original Space Jam. What made that film so much fun that it warranted a return with this reboot of sorts? I think what makes me so fascinated by the original was that it even came together at all. A Looney Tunes basketball movie starring Michael Jordan just sounded so absurd that it couldn’t help but be observed for how it came together. A New Legacy, however, is completely believable as a safe bet of a picture.
The best thing I can say about this retooling, however, is that the premise is far stronger than the original Space Jam. Michael Jordan’s necessity to saving the Looney Tunes from aliens via a basketball game just seemed inexplicable and with few stakes for Jordan himself. LeBron James now takes over the Jordan role and he actually has something worth playing ball for. Having learned that basketball requires only focus and work, James has grown up to believe that his son should also focus on basketball to such a degree, even though his kid is far more interested in developing video games. LeBron needs to learn to connect with his son lest he becomes a stifling parent.
Meanwhile, in the Warner Bros servers, there’s a self-aware algorithm played by Don Cheadle who is so lonely and wants to prove himself more an entity who can make deals happen (I guess, his motivations are weirdly vague at times). He assembles a pitch for LeBron James to have his likeness digitized so that he can be digitally inserted into any number of Warner Bros movies. James declines not out of any moral questioning of industry standards in identity but just because it sounds bad. Aggravated by this decision, the algorithm decides to transport LeBron and his son into his digital world, with a basketball match to determine their fate. The algorithm has convinced Dom to play against his father, granting the boy unlimited digital power within the server domain. The only way to save Dom is by beating his team of super-powered NBA mutants with other characters in the WB universe. There’s a lot to choose from but, of course, we all know it’s going to be the Looney Tunes.
That being said, there’s a decent enough excuse given for this choice as well. LeBron has a minor attachment to Bugs Bunny given his childhood affections but Bugs Bunny also has a motive for assembling the team. The algorithm convinced all his friends that they are yesterday’s news and that they should venture into other franchises. Bugs stayed behind to keep up the cartoony brand of slapstick and is hoping to get the whole gang back together again. This leads to Bugs lying to LeBron about their stops around the Warner Bros planets of properties, specifically looking for the likes of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Lola Bunny, Sylvester, Tweety, Sam, Granny, Speedy, Roadrunner, Wil E. Coyote, and that red furry monster thing.
All the motivations are there and the stakes mount higher as the big game looms. That’s a solid foundation but it just doesn’t amount to much of anything all that funny. The original Space Jam always felt as though its roasting humor was a bit more pointed, focusing on Jordan’s questionable career choices and taking wicked jabs at Disney (“What kinda Mickey Mouse operation would name their team The Ducks?”). A New Legacy feels more like it doesn’t want to step on any toes even though it’s literally playing in Warner Bros backyard of properties. The joke with LeBron visiting Harry Potter world is that he’s Hufflepuff. The joke with LeBron being in Game of Thrones is that he rides a dragon. This can’t be the only comedy one can find when surfing around a vast enterprise of geeky IPs.
It becomes clear by the big game for the fate of LeBron that the film merely just wants to use these various references as props. Or, in the case of the basketball game, seat-fillers. Remember in Ready Player One where The Iron Giant bound onto the screen to engage in a battle for the fate of a video game world? Well, he once more bounds but this time to sit and watch a basketball game. For as much as I’d like to get giddy about a film that features characters as adult as The Droogs from Clockwork Orange or as obscure as Frankenstein Jr, this aspect of the movie just feels more like reading a Where’s Waldo book.
So many Looney Tunes gags just fall flat on their faces. The various worlds the Looney Tunes occupy make rather simplistic jokes, where Granny performs kung-fu in The Matrix and Wil E. Coyote merely dons attire of Mad Max: Fury Road. I will say that Sam’s inclusion in Casablanca did have a brilliant bit of dialogue but that’s one gem out of a lot of coal. It should also be noted that the Looney Tunes take themselves way too seriously in this game, even going so far as to have one of them making a heroic and tragic sacrifice that I assume must’ve tested poorly for the last-minute pull up from ending the film on such a downer note. I know this film desperately needed some stakes but does a Looney Tunes film really have to go so far as having one of them die to make the audience feel anything? Even scenes that attempt to be funny are more baffling, as with the rap sequences in which the game literally stops to showcase instead of taking the more believable route of being a half-time show.
Space Jam: A New Legacy just doesn’t find much fun to evoke as it kneecaps much of its humor for the sake of being more commercial friendly. There is one aspect that really bothered me about the premise; this is yet another Looney Tunes live-action hybrid where a part of the plot involves the Looney Tunes being recognized as has-beens in need of a change. Consider that there are new Looney Tunes cartoons being developed on HBO Max that adhere to so much classic slapstick and are ridiculously funny. The Looney Tunes never really went away. In our current media state of reviving old properties, rarely anything goes away. Even the Animaniacs returned with the most biting of parody and satire, something I was reminded of during a scene in the Warner Bros board room where a statue of the Warner sister Dot can be seen. I thought to myself how much better such a film would be if characters like the Animaniacs were present. Then I remembered just how cautious the writing was in this movie and immediately retracted that thought. The last thing a film like this needs is watered-down Animaniacs who say nothing witty.