Even before its release, commentary around Space Jam: A New Legacy was a minefield of low-stakes virtue signaling and straw-men arguments: criticism-to-come of the sequel was deemed symptomatic of a chronic inability to appreciate the greatness of LeBron James on his own terms, and any praise for the original Space Jam was derided as the consequence of a generational media indoctrination that left millennials incapable of distinguishing quality of a film from the number of recognizable things in said film.
While I would love to dismiss those charges out of hand, they’re not entirely unfounded. As always, though, the truth has a bit more gray to it:
I am a millennial nostalgia-junkie whose love of Space Jam is as much informed by its familiarity as it is by the genuinely well-crafted meta-humor and brilliant Bill Murray performance secreted inside its 80-minute-long, toy-commercial exterior. I do not, however, think it is a perfect movie (even prior to disqualification for prominently featuring noted sexual offenders R. Kelly and Pepé Le Pew).
I am not a LeBron fan, even as I have always been in awe of his unparalleled abilities, and unable to deny his positive impact on the NBA and beyond. Nonetheless, in spite of my tendency to root for those on the opposite side of the court from him, even I can admit that he’s closer to number one than two on the all-time list.
I preface so extensively for this reason: when I say that Space Jam: A New Legacy is a terrible movie (perhaps the worst of 2021 thus far), I do so not because I have been champing at the bit for a reason to slander the King, or because of some rabid and immutable commitment to its predecessor.
I say it because Space Jam: New Legacy, as a film, fails on its own terms. Indeed, it fails on nearly every front a film can fail on.
Let’s start with some facts about this latest installment in the hoop-movie canon:
Based loosely on 1996’s ad-agency-helmed, combination Michael-Jordan-propaganda-vehicle and Warner-Bro’s-merchandising-machine of nearly the same name, Space Jam: A New Legacy debuted in theaters and on HBO Max this past Friday, after nearly a decade in development hell. Across its two-but-feels-like-ten hour runtime, the sequel follows NBA living legend, LeBron James, as he attempts to save his son from the clutches of an evil Don Cheadle-shaped algorithm, hell-bent on doing something I honestly entirely forgot about by minute twenty-seven (which coincidentally is the first time a Looney Tune makes an on-screen appearance in the film).
The film is by definition metatextual: an intellectual property-obsessed piece of intellectual property, commenting on both the lasting importance and vapid impermanence of IP. If you’re hoping for that contradiction to be unpacked in a measured and meaningful way, I’m confused as to how you found yourself watching Space Jam: A New Legacy.
If, instead, you came looking to be battered against the rocks of modern entertainment by a deluge of empty-calorie, disconnected WB-character cameos, all haphazardly cobbled together by a team of editors operating under a D’antoni-esque “10 seconds or less” edict: you have found your Citizen Kane.
A New Legacy is not entirely devoid of humor, but its best moments are often whatever meta-bits are left sticking to the wall after the hundreds of other throw-away gimmicks have hit the floor: a Wile-E-Coyote sign-based inversion of Mad Max: Fury Road’s “witness me” tradition earned one of my few laughs out loud, and an unexpected “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” halftime speech from a surprise guest-star had me cheering in spite of myself.
More often than not, though, the bits lack the substance to justify their innately pandering nature. The result (as may well be the intent of the marketing department) is a constant reminder of the better, more fully realized versions of these hacked-to-bits Warner Bros properties that you would much rather be watching than Space Jam–the sense that not only is this an empty vessel, but one insistent on directing your attention to what it is lacking (or, in the consistently more precise words of my editor Dave, “like watching a movie-length commercial for better movies”).
Much like its predecessor, A New Legacy features the acting talents of both the titular Tunes and a cohort of contemporary basketball and comedy icons. Unlike its predecessor, however, the Space Jam sequel centers the dramatic chops of its hall-of-famer protagonist, asking him to do much of the thespian heavy lifting through extended Tune-less segments–and though LeBron’s abilities far outshine Jordan’s signature “am I reading this cue card correctly?” performance, here they fall short of the responsibility demanded of them.
That is as much an indictment of James as an actor as it is of the misguided injection of emotional stakes into a movie whose ultimate objective–to circumvent the cap and pay Anthony Davis extra to play in Los Angeles– was not designed to bear their weight. Quandaries about the nature of parenting and self-determination, investigations of the wearing loneliness of absent friends and family, even a genuinely tragic (if ultimately undone) “death” scene all fall flat absent the commitment to true exploration of the topics, a well-crafted script to justify their inclusion or the dramatic talents to sell them.
For a man as meticulous about curating legacy as LeBron is at this stage in his career, it’s unclear what he wants Space Jam: A New Legacy to say about him. The King shifts through personas from moment to moment, with all the narrative intention of checking off a to-do list. Though his transition from the fundamentals-over-everything-even-my-own-son’s-dreams father to the family-first team leader championing the video-gamification of modern basketball has all the hallmarks of your dime-a-dozen character arc, its rendering here feels less like a cohesive journey and more like the appeals to two generationally-distinct fan-bases simultaneously. By film’s close, we are left with a disjointed protagonist, unconvincingly juggling old-head stature and cool-dad energy, neither fully believable.
The same is true of the film writ large, jam-packed with both unintended and deliberate contradictions: corporate algorithms are presented as diametrically opposed to the very concepts of teamwork and family…and can only be defeated by a team of algorithmically determined characters under the same corporate banner; ham-fisted jabs at Big Tech spiral quickly into misguided whole-cloth critiques of younger generations; LeBron’s repeated critiques of modern “@houseofhighlights > fundamentals of the game” fandom go hand in hand with his insistence that his son master a dribble-step-back move that appears frequently on @houseofhighlights. At every turn, A New Legacy seems determined to have it both ways while refusing to allow for any nuance.
What A New Legacy’s 1996 predecessor lacked in substance, it made up for tenfold by knowing exactly what it wanted to be: a double-length episode of Looney Tunes peppered with clever cameos from contemporary hoopers. No need to pack everything you can under the corporate umbrella, just marry the perfect sport with the perfect cartoon and let everyone go to work. Winking jokes at MJ’s baseball misadventures, or steroid use, Patrick Ewing’s “performance” issues, or Bill Murray’s inclusion in the film because of his friendship with a teamster, all feel of a piece with the Looney Tune comedic ideology, rather than regurgitations of incohesive references. Even in its most overtly branding-centric moments, there is a leanness to Space Jam in contrast to the commercial bloat of its sequel.
Even so: at the time of my writing this, Space Jam: A New Legacy has already opened to a Black Widow-topping $32 million domestic box office return and fairly universal critical disdain. Perhaps this will ultimately be the film’s legacy: that a “something for everyone, substance be damned” ideology is enough to fill the coffers, regardless of the critics. I’d love to think that we could be reflective enough to see through the play, but I’m sitting here in a Bugs Bunny Tune Squad jersey trying desperately to find a way to fit a “parsecs are a measurement of time not distance” bit into the final paragraph of a hit-piece about a sequel to an NBA propaganda film, so it’s possible the joke is on me.