'Space Jam' has manic fun but is no slam dunk

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
Lebron James stars in "Space Jam: A New Legacy." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16 and is streaming on HBO Max.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is nearly impossible to parse, at least in a traditional review.

The first film, “Space Jam,” is a bizarre cultural artifact, a frenzied treatise on the career of basketball legend Michael Jordan as mediated through the hot ‘90s trend of pairing live-action and animation (see: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” music video). But even those who have fond childhood memories of “Space Jam” seem to regard it with a sense of irony, and it’s unclear who exactly was gunning for a sequel 25 years later, except perhaps, Warner Bros. executives who happen to be rich with a century’s worth of intellectual property.

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Yet, with another once-in-a-generation basketball talent ready to step into Jordan’s Jordans in the form of the affable LeBron James, all you have to add are those beloved Looney Tunes characters, gathering dust in a closet somewhere, plus director Malcolm D. Lee and producer Ryan Coogler, and you have yourself a sequel.

What is the lens through which we should view “Space Jam: A New Legacy”? A nostalgic one? An ironic one? The filmmakers try to do both, while also trying to amuse new audiences, and the result is a strange brew, a frenetic piece of filmmaking that is incredibly meta, but deeply lacking in self-awareness. It wants to comment on the algorithms that rule our lives, spewing constantly recycled content at us seemingly at random, but it is exactly the thing that it points to: an upcycled Frankenstein’s monster of intellectual property spraying a stew of Easter eggs and Halloween costumes at the viewer, praying that something sticks.

In fairness, Lee, and everyone on screen, does seem to be having a blast, and that sense of fun is palpable. The film also demonstrates motivational clarity for the characters that is sorely missing from the first film. James plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, as a father who just wants to motivate his kids to put in work on the court. Cedric Joe is Dom, LeBron’s son, an aspiring video game designer who wants to pursue his passion and get some recognition from Dad. Don Cheadle is Al G. Rhythm, a rogue Warner Bros. algorithm who lures Dom and LeBron into the “Warner Bros. Serververse” in order to challenge LeBron to a basketball game and garner fame in the process. Who among us has not learned to connect with our families through being zapped into a digital basketball game?

LeBron James stars in "Space Jam: A New Legacy." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16 and is streaming on HBO Max.

Though frankly, the title is misleading. There is no jam in space. This movie should be called “TRON Jam: ‘Ready Player One,’ Basically,” because once LeBron gets digitized into the Serververse, get ready for the onslaught of IP. He zips around the planets of content with Bugs Bunny in tow, assembling a team of Looney Tunes characters, plucked from fan favorites, classics and then some. There’s DC Comics characters, “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter” and lots of fun surprises for cinephiles. However, we have to give it up for the sheer audacity of the mad genius who populated the crowd at the Tune Squad vs. Goon Squad game. It’s attended by every character that has ever been in any Warner Bros. property ever, from “Scooby Doo,” to “A Clockwork Orange,” to yes, a nun from Ken Russell’s controversial and incredibly rare 1970s church-criticizing masterpiece “The Devils” (her presence feels like a cruel prank, considering that Warner Bros. has yet to restore and rerelease this film).

This game of recognition has its charms, to be sure (there’s the sense of superiority, for one), but it’s ultimately an empty practice, as these beloved movies are flattened into a cheaply rendered catalog to be flipped through, denying their true resonance and undercutting any emotional drama that might play out on this busy, frantic digital court. We’re at a Space Jam, after all!

The Looney Tunes were always a wild, menacing and violent bunch, and they haven’t changed a bit. Despite James’ best efforts, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is just as manic as the first, leaving one feeling as if they’ve been hit by a truck driven by Bugs Bunny, synapses fried by one of Wile E. Coyote’s sticks of dynamite. If that’s the rubric by which we’re measuring success, it’s indeed successful. But when it comes to cinema, it’s a ransom note, not a love letter.

‘SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

Cast: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe, Sonequa Martin-Green

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Rated: PG (for some cartoon violence and some language)

Playing: In theaters and on HBO Max Friday