Credit: Warner Bros.
Blockbuster Beat by Patrick Devitt Featured Film

Space Jam: A New Legacy — Malcolm D. Lee

July 16, 2021

Space Jam 2 musters an engaging mid-film stretch, but it ultimately sinks under the weight of its overbearing corporate IP.

Warner Brothers did their best to persuade Michael Jordan to sign on for Space Jam 2, following the box office success of the 1996 Looney Tunes crossover family hit. Executives developed the idea for a sequel immediately, and even managed to line up Mel Brooks for the voice of the prospective villain. But already in the midst of his second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, the basketball phenom wanted nothing to do with a sequel. The studio continued to explore other avenues in an attempt to get a sequel off the ground, which included: a golf-centered iteration that would star Tiger Woods, a Tony Hawk-led “Skate Jam,” a “Race Jam” with NASCAR sensation Jeff Gordon, and “Spy Jam” starring Jackie Chan (which would later be reworked into Looney Tunes: Back in Action). In 2006, ESPN’s Scoop Jackson reported the first rumor that a LeBron James-led sequel to the cult classic was being explored. Even before the 2002 Sports Illustrated exposé, which infamously dubbed the high-school junior as “The Chosen One,” LeBron was already being mentioned as the “heir to Air Jordan,” and so it was seemingly inevitable that Warner Brothers would eventually consider this charismatic superstar for the lead in a new Space Jam film.

In his first three seasons, LeBron James managed to win Rookie of the Year (in one of the most talented draft classes of all time, no less), sign a $90 million/7-year shoe deal with Nike, and persevere to the Eastern Conference semi-finals alongside a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that left much to be desired. In other words, Bron’s superstardom was fairly cemented early on, but despite the persisting rumors of a LeBron James Space Jam sequel, it wasn’t until 2014 that Warner Brothers publicly announced interest: “When it was brought to us 15 years ago, at that point in time, I didn’t think I was ready to do anything of that magnitude,” James recently remarked to Entertainment Weekly. “I wanted to continue to focus on my game, dedicate myself to the offseason, and give to the game as much as I could. I felt like I owed it to myself, to the game. When it was brought back, the timing was right for us, and we were able to dive into it.” After missing the playoffs in his first two seasons, LeBron then proceeded to reach the postseason 13 consecutive times. Known for rarely missing a game throughout his career, the perennial all-star was met with his first significant injury during his debut season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018-19, which would sideline him for nearly two months. James returned to play for the end of the season, but failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since his sophomore season. In an unfamiliar situation, with an earlier start to his offseason than usual, LeBron James entered production on Space Jam: A New Legacy alongside director Terence Nance and producer Ryan Coogler. Shortly after, Nance was replaced following “creative differences,” and studio-favorite Malcolm D. Lee entered the director’s chair.

So the rumors became reality, and A New Legacy follows LeBron James as a “fictionalized” version of himself, in a mix of live-action, traditional 2D animation, and 3D CGI effects. The story begins with LeBron attempting to bond with his youngest son Dom (played by Cedric Joe). His son is a tech-savvy 12-year-old, working on a video game called “Dom Ball” — reminiscent of NBA Street, set in a gravity-defying cyberspace arena. As father and son sit on the edge of the bed playing against each other, an unexpected glitch occurs that sets development back over an entire week. To help get his mind off things, LeBron brings Dom along to a meeting with the digital team at Warner Brothers. Executives (played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun) attempt to pitch a new technology capable of computerizing and integrating LeBron into any of the studio’s intellectual property. After screening a quick demo reel — a humorous montage that inserts the star into various Warner Brothers IP (such as: “LeBron of Thrones,” “LeBron and the Chamber of Secrets”), he quickly rejects the idea, and comments, “Athletes acting, that never goes well.” This enrages the megalomaniac leader of Warner’s vast digital space, Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who ensnares LeBron and Dom into the “Warner 3000 Server-Verse.” Dom is nowhere to be found, as the tyrannical Al G. Rhythm separates the two, and forces LeBron to win a game of “Dom Ball” in order to leave the Server-Verse.

As he disembarks from the Server-Verse down into the Looney Tunes planet, LeBron crashes straight through the ground, creating a Nike-swoosh-like crater in the landscape. Transitioning from live-action into old-fashioned 2D animation, a 24-hour countdown commences on a Jumbotron floating in the sky upon arrival, as the now-animated protagonist must attempt to assemble a team with the help of Bugs Bunny. After a delightfully entertaining sequence between Bugs and Bron in which the pair wreak havoc across the abandoned town, they then board a spacecraft and travel through the Warner-Verse galaxy. With the Tune Squad scattered throughout separate planets, they must gather the team from various Warner Brothers-owned settings — ranging from classic DC Comics locales like Wonder Woman’s Themyscira or Gotham City, to the bar from Casablanca and even the dystopian desert from Mad Max: Fury Road.

While the onslaught of brands and mashup of random IP becomes exhausting as the film reaches its final act, the team recruitment montage provides more than enough ingenuity to look beyond this obvious attempt to canonize the Warner Brothers catalogue. When the Tune Squad finally assembles, the 2D animation abruptly transitions into an incoherent bombardment of 3D-CGI as the high-stakes basketball showdown approaches. The prolonged face-off between The Tune Squad and The Goon Squad needlessly consumes the entire third act of A New Legacy, as LeBron and the Looney Tunes gang engage in nonsensical competition against Al G. Rhythm’s Goon Squad. The opposing team is encoded with the talents of modern-day basketball stars (such as Damian Lillard, Nneka Ogwumike, Klay Thompson, Diana Taurasi, and Anthony Davis) that immediately intimidates The Tune Squad. As onlookers emerge from the hills, the stands begin to overflow with a generation’s worth of Warner Brothers’ characters — including Jane Hudson from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Alex’s droogs from A Clockwork Orange, and, for some reason, the nuns from Ken Russell’s The Devils. Instead of functioning as an emotional payoff reuniting father and son, the final showdown quickly turns into an extended game of “Where’s Waldo,” as viewers’ remaining emotional investment quickly begins to evaporate. It’s fairly indicative of the film as a whole; when A New Legacy foregrounds its Jordan heir and coterie of Looney Tunes mainstays, a welcome playfulness abounds, but as this gives way to the film’s corporate concerns, much of its easy magic vanishes.

You can currently catch Malcolm D. Lee’s Space Jam: A New Legacy in theaters or streaming on HBO Max.