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edge staff writer


‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ an airball

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The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

LeBron James is the greatest basketball player in the world. He’s also a dad, hoping his two sons will follow in his footsteps to athletic glory. But while elder son Darius (Ceyair J. Wright, “American Skin”) is definitely in on his dad’s hoop dreams, younger son Dom (Cedric Joe, “Loving Him”) has different ideas – he’s a programming prodigy who has developed his own video game. Despite his efforts, though, he can’t quite get his dad to understand his passions.

Meanwhile, in the *ahem* Serververse, an all-powerful sentient AI calling itself *sigh* Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle, “No Sudden Move”) has hatched a plan, seeking to gain power and recognition for all it has accomplished. But to do this, Al needs the perfect partner – a partner like LeBron James.

(Note: I know none of this makes sense, but buckle up, because it’s going to make even less as we continue forward.)

When LeBron rejects the plan, put forward at Al’s behest by a pair of Warner executives (we all know why Sarah Silverman is here, but you’re better than this, Steven Yeun), a series of convoluted circumstances lead to both LeBron and Dom being Tronned into the Serververse. There, Al challenges LeBron to a basketball game with the highest of stakes: if LeBron wins, he gets his son back and they return home, but if he loses, he’s trapped in the Serververse forever.

So LeBron is launched into the void – a void swarming with various “worlds” that are inspired by WB intellectual property. “Game of Thrones,” “The Matrix,” Harry Potter – even “Casablanca” is in play. He lands on Tune World, now devoid of all activity save Bugs Bunny, who offers to help LeBron put his team together. Obviously, the team will be made of other Looney Tune brethren and sistren, all scattered to the various realms thanks to the machinations of Al. G.

Meanwhile, Al. G is doing his best to undermine Dom’s feelings about his dad and tricking the young prodigy into crafting game characters and handing over tech that will help Al. G execute his own plan going forward.

And then, you know, there’s a basketball game. Kind of; it’s based on Dom’s video game. The crowd is made up of wave after wave of the aforementioned IP. Ever wonder what a White Walker would think about basketball? How about the Iron Giant or Batman or Jabberjaw? The gang’s all here. From there, well … LeBron must try and save the day while also remembering what it was that he loved about basketball in the first place, plus he needs to reconnect with his son. Or something.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” doesn’t work. It manages to be a basic rehash of the original, with a little bit of familial tension mixed in, while seemingly missing the entire point of why people remember the thing fondly in the first place. They capture the structure of the original, but none of the spirit. It feels like nothing so much as a movie-length reminder of the extent of the Warner Brothers catalog; referential humor is fine, but references alone aren’t jokes.

Among the greatest offenders are the Looney Tunes themselves. With a couple of exceptions, we get none of what makes the characters beloved. Instead, we get sight gag after sight gag of them shoehorned into references to other films and franchises, with nothing of the actual character personalities. The Looney Tunes are a lot of things, but ciphers they are not. At least, they shouldn’t be.

Are there some decent gags? Sure. There are a few bits that land. Just not nearly enough. While a film like this doesn’t HAVE to be joke-a-minute (though if you’ve got some of the funniest characters in the last century of pop culture, maybe it should be), it should at least be consistently funny. And this isn’t.

LeBron is decent. He’s a better actor than Michael Jordan ever was, but for whatever reason, Jordan’s raw competitive charisma worked better in this arena. There’s a phoned-in quality to LeBron here that seems out of whack, but he handles his business well enough for what this is. Everyone else is … fine. The folks playing LeBron’s family are perfectly acceptable, enjoying the ride. Cedric Joe is actually pretty good. And then, of course, there’s Don Cheadle, who isn’t just going for it, he is GOING FOR IT. He is next-level over-the-top hammy; it’s a good thing all of his scenes were CGI, because he would have gnawed clean through any set he might have stood upon. Whether you think he was good or bad, there’s no questioning that he was A LOT. The vocal cast – featuring a mix of old-hand voiceover talent, celebs and pro basketball players – generally works; everyone gets done what they need to get done.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is what you get when nostalgia is the guiding force behind a project. It’s not enough simply to remember what was if there’s nothing about what is that is memorable in its own right. This movie could have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s an airball.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 July 2021 13:48


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