Space Jam is a beloved 1990s classic, one that you would play on VHS again and again until the tape snapped. The blend of science fiction, sport, and the beloved Looney Tunes characters is a miracle formula that, twenty-five years later, Space Jam: A New Legacy wants to recreate. Although some details differ, the bare bones are basically the same; an NBA superstar (LeBron James this time, stepping into Michael Jordan’s shoes) puts together a crack basketball team of toon characters in order to save both themselves and the world from the clutches of an over-the-top bad guy. It worked a treat in 1996, emerging as a slam dunk cult classic. In 2021? Not so much.
The new premise and its execution are completely uninspired. Looney Tunes’ sharpest jokes would often come from satirising the corporate nature of the entertainment industry. Yet the safe and simple messages of family and trust championed in A New Legacy feel taken straight out of a producers’ board room meeting. The muddled, technophobia-driven plot is one that for a digitalised age feels glaringly predictable, while the magic and the sharp humour that defined Looney Tunes are nowhere to be found. LeBron James is clearly game, but is no Michael Jordan (who even makes a cameo… sort of. It’s one of the better jokes). Don Cheadle, hamming it up as an evil algorithm with a desperate need to be noticed, can’t quite carry the blend of evil and fun that Danny DeVito managed so effortlessly in Space Jam. The most annoying character however, is James’ son Dom (Cedric Joe), somebody who believes his daddy issues justify mass incarceration.
When the toons finally make their entrance, A New Legacy launches into what is by far its strongest sequence: a flurry of scenes that come close to capturing the characters at their wacky, unpredictable best. The toons are blissfully unchanged by the passing of time, still as unique and bewildering as ever. One welcome exception is Lola Bunny, now voiced by Zendaya, who feels refreshingly reinvented from her Bugs Bunny eye candy status in the first film.
An animated LeBron and Bugs meeting for the first time ups the pace considerably, as does a montage where the rest of the classic toons have to be retrieved from inside various film universes residing in Warner Bros’ IP (everything from Casablanca to Mad Max: Fury Road). This is the film at its best – funny and inventive scenarios that dazzlingly blend 2D animation with live-action. It will be a bit bewildering for children, who won’t recognise most of these movies. For the adults however, it is a welcome break from the hum-drum mediocrity. Less convincing is when, towards the end of the film, hundreds of WB-owned characters suddenly descend courtside in a display of movie memorabilia far too overwhelming to actually enjoy.
Visually, the film still manages to pull off some nice tricks, even if the 3D versions of the toons are uncomfortable to look at. But this superficial treatment can’t make up for what too often feels like a soulless effort to recapture some nostalgic magic. The toons might be (almost) effortlessly entertaining, yet even they can’t rescue what ends up feeling like a confused and pointless exercise in flexing studio muscles.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is out in cinemas now.