In November 1996, Warner Bros. released what would soon be immortalized as a staple of the late-90s cultural zeitgeist. The film, inspired by a pair of popular Super Bowl Nike […]
In November 1996, Warner Bros. released what would soon be immortalized as a staple of the late-90s cultural zeitgeist. The film, inspired by a pair of popular Super Bowl Nike commercials, took basketball superstar Michael Jordan and paired him with the classic Looney Tunes for a wild adventure involving aliens, slavery, toony slapstick, product placements, and, yes, basketball. Despite receiving mixed reviews upon release, the film struck a core with kids, and as those kids bloomed into adulthood, they carried said film deep within their hearts as a cherished relic of a simpler time. So cherished, in fact, that the film’s conceptual flaws are rendered invisible, which is fair. We all have our guilty pleasures, not-so-perfect movies we saw at just the right time in our lives that left a good impression, no matter how blatant their technical and/or moral weakness (mine are the Twilight movies, and I say that with no shame). But after hearing criticism after scathing criticism about this 1996 film’s sequel, I can’t help remind everyone of a cold hard truth.
Space Jam is not a good movie. It never was a good movie, and it never will be a good movie. If you enjoy it for nostalgic reasons, kudos. I don’t mean to take anything away from your experience. But you cannot convince me that it’s an objectively good film. It’s a dumb, flagrant corporate cash grab with awkard acting and no second act, and the popularity it’s accumulated over the years is a testament to how fascinatingly of-its-time it is. As harsh as this sounds, please keep in mind that I don’t hate Space Jam, I just don’t have as strong a connection to it like other 90s kids do. Aside from shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Baby Looney Tunes, I was never really a Looney Tunes person growing up. I’ve also never been a sports fan, and the only reason I was invested in Michael Jordan was because little 6-year-old me mistook him for my father (it’s a long story, I’ll tell you another time). So for me, Space Jam was just a thing that happened at one point in time. The only scene ingrained in my memory is when Jordan gets dragged into Looney Tunes world, mainly because I’ve always loved storylines where an average schmoe is thrust into a fantasy world. What I’m getting at is this- the film is by no means a cinematic masterpiece, so why are people acting like it is, especially in comparison to its sequel?
Even at a glance, it’s pretty clear that Space Jam: A New Legacy shares the same bones as its predecessor. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, this follow-up stars LeBron James, as, well, LeBron James. The story revolves around James and his fictional son, Dom (Cedric Joe) as they get swept up into the Serververse, a digital macrocosm of all the properties owned by Warner Bros. studios. They’re confronted by the studio’s computer algorithm (portrayed by Don Cheadle) who in a desperate bid to be noticed, challenges James to a basketball game. If James loses, he and his son will become servants to the Serververse and the algorithm for all eternity. The clock is ticking, and with help from the Looney Tunes, James must do everything in his power to win this game. Will they succeed? Will they fail? Is water wet? Is the sky blue?
As you can guess, Space Jam: A New Legacy doesn’t have many surprises. It’s exactly what you expect it to be, and plays out exactly how you’d expect it to play out. The acting is awkward, the characters pretty basic, the jokes don’t always land, and it suffers from structural imbalance. Above all else, it’s an obvious cash grab, a shameless exercise in corporate egotism. Though I have to admit, it is a fun shameless exercise in corporate egotism. Compared to its predecessor, the film is neither a downgrade nor vastly superior. It does some things better than the 1996 film, and some things it does worse than the 1996 film. But in the grand scheme of things, both Space Jam movies, I think, occupy the same wavelength.
I give the filmmakers credit for committing to its concept. Sure, a lot of what you see on screen is Warner Bros. showing off how much money they have and how many big-name properties they own. And sure, much of the script involves references for the sake of references. But the film is upfront about its approach and has been since the first trailer dropped. In any other scenario, this kind of egotistical display would make me cringe, but in this film’s case, its tongue-in-cheek attitude makes the pill easier to swallow. So if anyone walks out of this movie flabbergasted by its pandering, I have only one question to ask you- what did you think was going to happen?
That being said, the references are at least worked cleverly within the narrative. When we first enter the Serververse (which honestly should’ve been called the Warnerverse), we encounter a desolate Toon Town. Aside from Bugs Bunnny, all the looney tunes have dispersed, having made new homes for themselves in different WB IPs. It’s up to Bugs and LeBron to get the team back together so to speak, and their hopping from property to property is the best part of the movie. These scenes feature good comedic timing and a fun kinetic energy. Strangely enough, LeBron’s performance works best in this sequence. His acting is better than Michael Jordan’s, albeit not too much better. James at least shows range. As awkward and stilted as he is in the live action scenes, his acting improves in his early scenes with the looney tunes, when he’s in cartoon form. In his defense, however, he’s not the only one whose acting seems off. The majority of the cast- the live action cast I should say- have the same problem. Not cringe worthy enough to be unwatchable, yet not impressive enough to be considered good. The only person who delivers a legitimately good performance is Don Cheadle, who works surprisingly well as the villain. He finds that healthy balance between camp and grounded.
The one thing the first film has over the sequel is the pacing. As structurally incomplete as it was, the 1996 Space Jam told its story in a tight timeframe- a swift 1 hour and 28 minutes. It threw you into the madness, had some fun with it, and then it was over. It didn’t overstay its welcome. The sequel, on the other hand, stews in its madness for longer, stretching about 25 minutes longer than necessary. This additional half-hour could’ve been cut, easily. They’re made up of scenes involving Cheadle and Joe that slow the pace to a crawl whenever they appear. By the time we hit the scene of the big basketball game (which is superbly creative and fun, by the way), I was already wondering how much longer the film had.
At the end of the day, the simple fact is this- Space Jam: A New Legacy is neither better nor worse than its predecessor. It takes the silliness of the first Space Jam and amplifies it to 100, which makes perfect logical sense if you’re making a follow up. You may be wondering, does this mean it’s good or that it’s bad? Honestly, it depends on who you ask. If you loved the first one, you may love (or tolerate) this one. If you hated the first movie, don’t bother shelling out time or money to see this. Personally, as someone whose nostalgic attachment to Space Jam is razor thin, I thought the film was fun despite its flaws. Only time will tell whether Space Jam A New Legacy will garner its own legacy, for lack of a better term. From what I saw, it definitely has the potential.
Cosmic Grade- 3.4/5 Stars