Though there was a point in time where Space Jam seemed like a singular occurrence – a bizarre, beloved, uber-90s phenomenon that unexpectedly found its way into the hearts of many a millennial that could never be replaced – it seems that not even Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny are safe from nostalgia reboot fever. Swapping Jordan for James and updating its outlandish premise for a more tech-savvy audience, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a satisfying if uninspired reimagining of an iconic piece of 90s pop culture with enough energy to appease fans of the original without bringing anything new to the table.
After accidentally invoking the wrath of sentient computer algorithm Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), LeBron James races to put an all-star basketball team together to save his kidnapped son Dom (Cedric Joe). Along the way, he ends up enlisting the help of Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) and the rest of the Looney Tunes (Eric Bauza, Bob Bergen, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Candi Milo, and Zendaya) as he hops from Warner Brothers IP to Warner Brothers IP in search of a roster that can defeat Rhythm and his team of unstoppable avatars.
Even with a solid 20 years between Space Jam and this new reimagining, LeBron James has some massive shoes to fill (pun intended) in following Michael Jordan’s beloved, if stiff performance – especially considering the LeBron vs Jordan GOAT debate that has raged on for years in basketball circles. The pre-existing comparisons only work to make Jordan a tougher act to follow, but to LeBron’s credit, he delivers a satisfactory performance that’s about on par with what one would expect from an athlete making a rare shift to acting. He’s got a refreshing set of comedic chops (as showcased by his brief turn in 2015’s Trainwreck) that shine every now and again when given room to breathe. He’s no Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems, but there’s enough energy in the performance to act as a worthy successor to Jordan’s original turn.
In terms of the narrative itself, it’s similarly unremarkable – a bare bones story that, at its core, explores the tension between father and son and the pressures of living up to a parent’s expectations. LeBron wants Dom to follow in his footsteps and play basketball, while Dom wants to pursue game design – not exactly reinventing the wheel, but the old archetype takes on a new light when your dad is LeBron James and Cedric Joe does quite a bit to inject life into an otherwise stale idea. Especially considering LeBron doesn’t quite have the range to carry an emotional arc on his own, Joe’s performance undoubtedly sells the entire narrative – giving the 13-year-old plenty of room to shine.
Stirring up trouble for the father-son duo is Don Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm, who puts a more modern tech-y spin on the narrative, tying in nicely to Dom’s aptitude for coding, but also severing the “Space” connection in Space Jam – there are no aliens to be found, only mutated avatars of WNBA and NBA players to comprise the opposing team – less of a Space Jam and more of a Server Jam. In spite of the cringe-inducing name though, Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm is without question one of the film’s highlights – thanks entirely to his refreshingly charismatic no-holds-barred performance. Al G. is a paper-thin character whom Cheadle could easily have phoned in, but he gives it his all – he’s clearly having a good time, and the audience has no choice but to follow suit. His energy and enthusiasm (while at times almost too much) pairs well with the zany antics of the Looney Tunes, making for an appropriately bonkers villain.
The tunes themselves are as fun and reliable as ever, but they don’t get much of a chance to shine – instead, the film is more interested in flexing Warner Brothers’ sizable bank of IPs, shoehorning recognizable characters in at every chance they get – so much so that the film begins to feel like Ready Player One in terms of cheer character volume. Granted, it is narratively justified, and a few of the gags work – like Yosemite Sam sitting in for Dooley Wilson in Casablanca (“Play it again, Sam.”) But the constant IP injections are so blatant that they get grating and tiresome – especially lacking in self-awareness when Al G Rhythm’s failed pitch that started the entire film in motion was quite literally “what if we plunked LeBron James into every recognizable franchise we own?”
At first, it’s so jarring that it’s impossible not to bark out a laugh at seeing the Looney Tunes digitally inserted into the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road or Game of Thrones, but the gag overstays its welcome rather quickly, and when the big game finally rolls around, the spectators on the sidelines are distractingly and obviously not the original actors – instead of watching the court, your eyes are glued to the sidelines at the uncanny valley versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy.
While it will likely fail to achieve the culture relevance that the original Space Jam has continued to enjoy over the 20+ years since its release, Space Jam: A New Legacy does a commendable job at maintaining the spirit of the original without merely coasting on the goodwill of its audience – though LeBron James may not be adding an Oscar to his massive trophy case any time soon.
Warner Bros will release Space Jam: A New Legacy only in theaters on July 16.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment