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Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

Audiences in the pre-CGI era must have been blown away they first saw a 2D animated character interact with live-action footage. When Gene Kelly tapped danced with Jerry the mouse in 1946’s Anchor’s Away viewers must have been astounded. It was such an apparent miracle that more than 40 years later, the much more VFX-savvy viewers of the 80s were still captivated by the use of the technique in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Warner Bros tried to recreate Disney’s success with their own stable of iconic characters in 1996’s Space Jam. Saying it wasn’t quite in the same league would be putting it mildly, but The Joe Pytka directed original is still a nostalgic highlight for many. 

To those who grew up with it, it still holds a special place in their heart. It's unsurprising that Warners has been trying to get a sequel off the ground for years, hoping to capture that same audience as well as the new generation. But it took until the summer of 2021 when the long-awaited Space Jam: A New Legacy finally hit cinemas (also releasing day and date on HBO Max).

With so much time having passed, the sequel shares none of the original key creative team. Girl’s Trip and Scary Movie 5 director Malcolm D Lee steps in taking over from Pytka (who never directed another feature before or after Space Jam. The four original screenwriters have been replaced by six (!) new writers, credited alongside four with a “Story By” credit.  It seems it took an awful lot of people to come up with the writing for A New Legacy. In retrospect, that might actually help to explain a lot.

In fact, the plot of this “legacy sequel” has precious little to do with the original. Apart from a couple of throwaway references that suggest this is in the same continuity, there is essentially no explicit reference to the first film in the text of the sequel. So the fact that The Looney Tunes end up teaming up with an NBA superstar to play a life-of-death game of Basketball for a second time is what, just a coincidence? It might as well be a remake as a sequel, for the most part.

Stepping into the considerable shoes of original star Michael Jordan is LeBron “The King “James, one of the few players whose career could be said to rival Jordan. ( Or so I’ve heard, what do I know about Basketball?). The film takes its time with the fully live-action intro, first showing us a flashback to the young James throwing away his Game Boy (and Looney Tunes cartridge) to focus on honing his basketball skills. In the present day, James is trying to push his sons to follow in his footsteps. Youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe) is a tech prodigy and would be rather making his own videogames, causing some tensions.

As an olive branch,  LeBron asks if Dom would like to tag along to a meeting he has scheduled at Warner Bros Studios. For reasons that are too unnecessarily complicated to explain, both Dom and LeBron are sucked into the supercomputer “Serververse” by the evil Al G Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle, appearing in live-action).

The Serververse apparently contains everything that WarnerMedia owned when the movie was made (apparently apart from the original Space Jam). Predictably, Mr Rythm ends up challenging James to a B-Ball game- based on the game Dom programmed, no less- to win both their freedom. Trying to recruit a team from the many worlds of the Serververse, James ends up running into one Bugs Bunny, who helps him put together a team of toons.

It takes a surprising amount of time to get to their first meeting, but when it does, the animation is pretty solid. One of this film’s chief appeals is that it is the first Warner Bros Animation theatrically released film to feature 2D for decades. The 2D animators have done a decent job of recreating the look of the iconic Cartoon cast with a modern sheen, and that is definitely one of the film’s key strengths. 

As Bugs and James travel the Serververse looking for the Tune Squad (who have all gone their own separate ways) it flirts with different animation styles as we pass through different worlds. Encounters with Batman and Superman take on the look of DC Animated productions. Best of all though is the sequence in which Lola Bunny (now voiced by Zendaya for no apparent reason) now living in Wonder Woman’s home of Themyscira takes on the challenge to become an Amazon (while pursued by Bugs and co). In the most dynamic and memorable sequence in the film, its animation style apes a comic book page come to life. Like a 2D cousin to Into The Spider-Verse.

Keeping the 2D style all the way through would apparently have been a step too far. When the pivotal game actually kicks off (and it takes plenty of time to get there) the Tune Squad are given “an upgrade”, turning into CG versions of themselves. The CG models are well done and do a more than adequate job of translating the classic designs into three dimensions. Whatever this film’s shortcomings (and there are many) none of the blame should go to the animation team. Or apparently any of the credit, according to Warner Bros who didn’t think the full team worthy of including in the end credits. It was only after public outcry they decided to ‘honour’ them all with a tweet. 

Also, credit should do go to the veteran voice actors who gave voice to the characters such as Jeff Bergman, who has been voicing Bugs since the 90s, Bob Bergen (Tweety) and Eric Bauza (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Foghorn Leghorn).

However talented the animators, artists and voice actors may be, it is not enough to save the movie from becoming a massive misfire. It has fundamental problems that are caused by the premise- problems that it in inherits from the original. Space Jam never really felt like real Looney Tunes to me. In all honesty, Warner Bros has struggled to do justice to the classic shorts of the Chuck Jones and Tex Avery era ever since. There have been some fun spins such as Taz Mania and The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries but they don’t reach the same heights. Arguably, it wasn’t until the new, current Looney Tunes Cartoons artist-driven shorts that they have actually hit on the right formula. 

The idea of the characters playing basketball against aliens was a fundamentally un-Looney idea. The concept of “The Looney Tunes” as a group of characters who know each other, live together and are friends is a modern invention that never really existed in the original shorts. The thought that Sylvester and Tweety or Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner would be on the same team is opposed to the very spirit of the shorts they first appeared in. This attempt to re-position them as a Muppets-like or Mickey and Friends type gang feels like it never really landed. And it is true even moreso in this sequel.

It just doesn’t feel right for them to be in life-or-death situations. The characters were constantly blown up, flattened and hit by trains- they were indestructible by their very nature. It seems like an absolute mistake to have them contemplate their mortality. There are comedic characters who can shift gear to dramatic moments and pull it off- and there’s the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny should not be seen to selflessly sacrifice himself (spoilers: he turns out fine).

Another in-built problem is the fact that the films are based around non-actors. LeBron James’s performance isn’t exactly horrible, but it lacks any real spark. He doesn’t have much of a screen presence and is constantly acted off the screen by his on-screen son played by Good Trouble’s Cedric Joe. Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek Discovery and The Walking Dead star) does the best she can with a thankless role as James’s screen wife and there are likeable enough turns from Khris Davis, Ceyair J Wright and Xosha Roquemore. Brief cameos from Stephen Yeun, Sarah Silverman and Michael B Jordan aren’t enough to make up for the lack of any entertaining live-action performers such as Bill Murray in the original. As the villainous AI Al G Rhythm Cheadle delivers his most embarrassing performance since that accent in the Oceans Eleven series.

Technically, this is a sports movie (albeit a very atypical one) so how much that element works for you will vary on how much into sports you are. The NBA references and parade of players appearing is going to go over the head of much of the audience outside of the United States. Even James himself, while a mega-star in the States does not have the same cache outside major Basketball playing countries. The culturally savvy may have heard of him, but he doesn’t have the same name recognition that Jordan did (and still does) even with the terminally unsporty worldwide.

Armchair critics dismissed the film based on the trailers for its corporate nature and declared it a soulless cash-grab. But then the same could be levelled at the original, and it certainly has its fans. There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the idea of filling the film with references to WarnerMedia’s gigantic vault of IPs. There’s certainly a novelty to seeing a crowd where The Wicked Witch Of The West, King Kong, The Scooby Gang, The Iron Giant, Adam West’s Batman and Game Of Throne’s Ice King can be seen cheering on the game.

However, it's what they do with it that counts. When Lord and Miller did similar with all of the licences in The LEGO Movie it felt like they were making the most of playing with all the toys in their playbox. Without the wit and playfulness of that script, here it never feels like anything much more than an extended commercial for HBO Max.  Plus, some of the included characters here feel inappropriate for a family film. The Droogs from A Clockwork Orange most infamously, but also others such as killer clown Pennywise from Stephen King's It and a demonic nun from notorious 1971 Ken Russell erotic horror film The Devils (!).

Probably due to studio restrictions, there’s no satire here. It falls prey to the worse kind of “reference comedy”, the idea that simply referencing something is enough. By all means, if you think Foghorn Leghorn riding a dragon and saying “Winter, I say, Winter is Coming” or Elmer Fudd as Mini Me in Austin Powers is hilarious then go nuts. You’re probably going to have a good time. 

On the other hand, if you want for a film to actually have something to add, and to actually be funny, then A New Legacy is likely to be a disappointment. The film is an unholy mess, which seems a likely result of too many cooks. The many credited writers are often the sign of a troubled script, that many screenwriters have struggled to get right. And in those cases, as here, it rarely ends well.

The old “it’s for kids” defence won’t wash as the best family stuff works for all ages. Besides, kids deserve better than this. If it's modern Looney Tunes you’re after, you’ll be best off sticking to the new shorts.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Talented animators and voice performances can't save this misguided mess of a sequel. It looks pretty nice, but that's all folks.