Early on in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” basketball legend LeBron James is pitched a proposal of integrating James’ image and likeness into the center of the Warner Brothers digital entertainment universe. James decries the idea as “straight-up bad … it’s among the worst ideas I’ve ever heard, top five easy.” At best, the moment foreshadows the movie to come, laced with some ironic self-deprecation. In reality, it’s an unintentional mea culpa for a misguided, shambolic sequel of sorts that’s really an algorithm-assembled branding exercise.
Let us not pretend that the original “Space Jam,” released in 1996, was any cinematic masterpiece. However, the Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes mashup was a cute crowd-pleaser that promoted its protagonists well. A quarter-century later, “A New Legacy” trades Jordan for James (“King James” we’re constantly reminded, to a tiresome extent), and the confines of the Looney Tunes world are exponentially expanded to include the panoply of Warner Bros studio properties. During a particular montage, James and Bugs Bunny teleport in rapid-fire succession through clips from “The Matrix,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Austin Powers,” and even “Casablanca” — not their animated avatars, mind you, but inserted into the films Forrest Gump-style.
When LeBron rejects the WB pitch, the A.I. that conceived the proposal, personified as Al-G-Rhythm (Don Cheadle), hatches a plan to exact revenge on LeBron. Al-G sucks LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into the WB “Serververse,” where LeBron is dropped into the derelict remnants of Tune World, now populated solely by Bugs Bunny. LeBron is conscripted into playing a basketball match against Dom, who Al-G bestows with superhuman abilities, in order to escape the Serververse.
There are a few chuckle-worthy gags aimed at LeBron’s penchant for assembling super teams and his history of leaving teams: “Look out Lakers, huh?” quips Al-G. But even these zingers are funny only the first couple of times they’re used. While LeBron wants to recruit teammates like King Kong, the Iron Giant, and Superman, Bugs arranges to reunite his Looney Tunes cohorts to fill the roster of the reassembled Tune Squad. On the opposite side are Dom and the rest of his Goon Squad, comprising beastial versions of basketball stars Damion Lilliard, Diana Taurisi, Nneka Ogwumike and Klay Thompson, whose aquakinesis makes him a literal Splash Brother.
Deep down, there is a decent lesson at the core of “A New Legacy.” James seems compelled to push Dom and his other son, Darius (Ceyair J. Wright), in a life of basketball success, emulating the upbringing that made LeBron a worldwide celebrity but at the price of a childhood. Dom, however, is less interested in roundball than video gaming, and LeBron must learn to become a more embracing, broadminded father.
But at every over-caffeinated turn, “A New Legacy” looks for strained excuses to propel LeBron through the worlds of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. When the basketball game finally begins — and there’s an inconceivable 50 minutes of running time still left — its audience is populated by every conceivable WB character: the Penguin, the Mask, Pennywise, Mr. Smiths, King Kong, Scooby-Doo, Space Ghost, DC comic heroes, and on and on. It’s dizzying, exhausting, and leaves little room for LeBron’s natural charisma, which is stifled by wooden dialogue and delivery.
There is an amusing aside late in the film involving the arrival of Michael Jordan (sorta). The scene is good for a laugh, but it also momentarily teases us with the memory of a better precursor. Ultimately, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a parody of itself, a would-be commentary on corporate cynicism that becomes an exemplar of it.
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