PLOT: After being sucked into Warner Bros.’ "Serververse", basketball star LeBron James must team up with the Looney Tunes to stop a vengeful algorithm and get his son back.
REVIEW: In the sequel to 1996’s Space Jam — SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY — the only legacies being lived up to are the original’s shameless self-promotion and the failure to recognize the Looney Tunes shouldn’t be on screen longer than 30 minutes. Whereas the original’s clear attempts were to achieve nothing but selling merchandise linked to star Michael Jordan and theme park tickets, for the new movie starring LeBron James, studio Warner Bros. has decided to push not only merch but their entire slate of owned properties, attempting in no way to cloak its obvious belief that a movie studio is only as strong as the IP it owns and how quickly it can shovel that content down throats of all ages. Oh, and there’s some basketball and a father-son reunion story crammed in there — you know, so all that isn’t as obvious.
But make no mistake; if there is an admittedly stronger core story here than in the first movie, it was likely a conceit given to the filmmakers so as to make them feel like they had control over a movie that was otherwise entirely crafted by a boardroom of Warner Bros. executives plotting out just what among their own properties should get top billing. In fact, the level of corporate self-aggrandizing is so extreme it’s almost admirable as an art form. The ball gets bouncing within the first several minutes, when a young LeBron James (Alex Huerta), is preparing to take the court in school – but instead of getting his head in the ball game – he loses himself in the GameBoy game Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. His very over-dramatic coach then tells him it was this misguided focus on silly games that stopped him from realizing his potential, leading James to toss away the game and choose greatness over fun.
Fast-forward 20+ years later via a montage of James’ career highlights, he’s now a stubborn, fun-hating father of two who pushes his youngest son – Dom (Cedric Joe) – into practicing ball, even though Dom would rather continuing developing his game, Doom Ball. But in attempting to mend that bond, James takes his son to the magical world of the Warner Bros. lot, littered with posters and banners for all their hit movies and shows. Once there, James is pitched an idea from execs played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yuen (whose one-line appearance is one of this movie’s many crimes) and a new fancy algorithm who goes by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), wherein they want to capture James’ likeness so they may place him in any of WB’s shows or movies – a program dubbed Warners 3000. In the smartest move of the movie, James says this is a terrible idea, and as a sentient being inside the digital space, Rhythm feels slighted and is filled with rage. So, he lures James and his son into a server room, where I horrifying orb that’s just sort of there absorbs them into the digital realm, wherein Rhythm tells James he will get his son back if he can beat him in basketball.
Explaining something this stupid is a Herculean effort, having to dodge around the issues that glare even for a movie like this – including how WB is itself the subtextual key villain by having created an A.I. system capable of sucking people and having access to anyone’s data no matter where they are in the first place. Inside, the “Serververse” is illustrated as a series of planets that act as homes to major studio franchises – acting as a sort of amalgam of other IP-centric blockbusters from Warner Bros., The Lego Movie, and Ready Player One. While those movies either had more fun actually poking fun at numerous franchises or acted as commentary about the place pop culture has in the world – Space Jam doesn’t bother to attempt either. Instead, it simply forces viewers to bask in the world that is everything the studio owns, throwing it all at you with such force you might as well be watching the entire Harry Potter series while trapped in a roller coaster.
Soon James arrives in a Looney Tunes area, and recruits the lone inhabitant – Bugs Bunny – to join his team. Whereas the first movie gave solid reason to make the Tunes seek out Jordan to play basketball, this time they’re included simply because Bugs was the first character James ran into, and because the bunny happens to have beef with Rhythm after he whisked the Tunes away with a promise of staying famous by becoming part of other franchises. While this may have been intended to ultimately relate to the main theme of families sticking together, what it really serves in terms of story is giving Bugs and James reason to bounce around the Serververse, looking for the Tunes across various franchises. Of course, the movie nerd in me got a kick out of being whisked away to sequences from Mad Max or The Matrix — only momentarily until I realized what I was watching wasn’t homage but rather some corporate pandering. There was no creative take or skewering of the material – or even loving homage; only Granny doing Trinity’s mid-air kick from the Matrix and Yosemite Sam acting as the Sam of “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca.
The movie can’t even reasonably claim to be a loving ode to the studio’s legendary history. It’s all about the franchises, and the Tunes are whisked away to “lands” like Mad Max (remember, this is a kids movie), The Matrix (still a kids movie), Harry Potter, the DC universe of superheroes, and Game of Thrones (yep, still a kids movie). All of these series have either sequels, prequels, or new entries on the books to come out in the next year or so, so again, you don’t need a Masters in Marketing to know what this movie’s existence for being is. That’s true even given how the first three on that list aren’t series the young viewers this movie can only understandably entertain may have zero familiarity with. So much of this movie seems directly geared towards the parents who have some kind of nostalgia for the original movie, who then aren’t given a story or consistent sense of humor that acknowledges that they’ve grown up. Between the gags designed for only the youngest of viewers and references for only their parents, there were many times I asked myself a single question: “Who the f**k is this movie for?”
Amidst all this chaos, God-tier product placement a story that desperately wants to retread the past – including the Tunes re-learning how to play ball despite acknowledging they’ve done this before – it’s hard to acknowledge the parts that do work. Even the stuff that seems ripped straight from the pages of the Family Film Cliche Book, those moments are a welcome respite from the colorful nonsense and give the movie some heart. As well, James is a better leading man than Jordan was, having a looser vibe and better comedic timing – in spite of how having to act mostly alongside a slew of CGI characters can leave him a little stiff; Cheadle and Sonequa Martin-Green as James’ wife Kamiyah get most of the laughs by doing their best to not make this seem like a paycheck and; despite not being explored in favor of making room for gag after gag, there is an inkling of a strong story about accepting one another and one that could’ve even given the Tunes some dimension beyond their silliness. Peppered between the obvious marketing, there are these nuggets of a more thoughtful movie that in several ways stands above the original.
Even when basketball does begin, it’s an exercise in broad marketing geared towards two audiences at once. On the one hand, there’s the game that nothing but chaos, noise and CGI delirium that – despite a few classic Tunes gags warranting a chuckle – seems strictly geared towards the young crowd with flickering attention spans. Meanwhile, most of the massive crowd is made up of WB characters, most of whom only adults will recognize. Between every bit of masturbatory references and branding from the beginning that coalesces to the final showdown, even the great James and the Tunes and their stories aren’t the stars of the court; Warner Bros. is the star, and every cut to the crowd is a stark reminder. Pro tip: If you’re pointing out the hooligans from A Clockwork Orange to your young kids, you’re doing a bad job.
And yet, even among some clear improvements over the original, and a few good laughs, everything sweet and playful about this movie is bogged down by everything shamelessly pandering. Answering my question of “Who the f**k is this for?” was, in the end, made simple: It’s for everyone – but not in that idyllic way for parents and kids to enjoy on equal footing. It’s for parents, in that it spoon-feeds nostalgia and beloved content that distracts from the realities of modern life and; it’s for kids, not just because it’s goofy and fast-paced, but because little fans become big fans. Young ones may not watch The Matrix now, but soon they will, and when they do they’ll attribute their earliest memories of it to that one movie where LeBron James dunked on a CGI Don Cheadle – a movie they will look forward to showing their kids, and so keeping the wheel churning.