When the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance aired last year, it unveiled plenty of insights into the Chicago Bulls’ historic NBA run in the 1990s. But perhaps none was more tantalizing than the implication that filming Space Jam allowed Michael Jordan to return to the league in top shape.
To prepare for the 1996 sports comedy-turned-millennial pop cultural artifact, Jordan played scrimmage games with greats like Reggie Miller and former teammate Dennis Rodman in a state-of-the-art basketball facility built by Warner Bros.
Perhaps it will take another 25 years or so to uncover the hidden merit behind its belated and belabored sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy, but in the meantime, it’s best to take it at face value as the visually abrasive and artistically adrift piece of corporate cinema that it is.
Succeeding Jordan is Cavaliers/Heat/Cavaliers/Lakers star LeBron James, playing a fictionalized version of himself but retaining his real-life status as a father of three. He pushes his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe) to follow in his footsteps on the court, while ignoring the fact that Dom would rather attend video game design camp than basketball camp. After taking an ill-fated meeting at the Warner Bros. studios, the two get on an elevator to leave but are lured down to a server room where the evil computer AI Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) capitalizes on the rift between father and son. After becoming trapped in a virtual reality based on one of Dom’s games, LeBron and his son must square off in a digital game of hoops to get back to reality.
Any way you look at it, the original Space Jam is no masterpiece, but it’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit when compared to A New Legacy. The former stands at a reasonable 87 minutes (79 minutes, if you lop off the lengthy closing credits), where its follow-up plays like a 115-minute unskippable ad for Warner Media, LLC.
Sure, the Looney Tunes factor heavily into both movies, but the process of reuniting the Tune Squad in Legacy leads to a tacky and irresponsible montage where various animated characters are copy-and-pasted into scenes from WB properties like Mad Max: Fury Road and Austin Powers. Even more stupid is the decision to reference other movie characters from (inexplicably) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to (more inexplicably) A Clockwork Orange by way of cosplaying extras in the stands of the fateful digital ball game.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a studio so garishly promote its own IP within a film as Warner Bros. does here, and that’s including Ready Player One, the WB-produced Spielberg misfire that was less of a movie and more of an “Easter egg” hunt. Just because Bugs is the Bunny hiding the eggs this time around doesn’t make the designs on the outside any more appealing and the prizes on the inside any less putrid.
Beyond the barrage of pop culture references, the screenplay with six credited writers attached is full of airball after airball in the humor department. There’s one joke that lands: a mistaken identity gag with a relatively clever punchline and a cameo from a well-known actor who doesn’t look totally embarrassed to be there. Still, it’s the equivalent of scoring a layup during a 40-point deficit with two minutes left in the game.
There have been cloying and unfunny films in the past, but Space Jam: A New Legacy depresses me most because its narrative’s existence within a virtual world implicitly promotes another level of removal from reality to its impressionable audience.
Movies are enough of an escapist entertainment as it is, and devices that distract us from real life already pervade every facet of daily living. Do we really need to set kids’ entertainment in a techno-scape of zeroes and ones to keep their attention?
The space in Space Jam used to mean outer space. Now it refers to a digital space that is constantly changing and warping around us in ways we can’t totally understand and ways that Hollywood certainly doesn’t understand.
Let’s hope the legacy of Space Jam: A New Legacy is much shorter lived than its predecessor.
New Movies Coming This Weekend
Coming only to theaters is Old, an M. Night Shyamalan supernatural mystery starring Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps about a vacationing family who discovers a beach that inexplicably causes them to age rapidly.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is Snake Eyes, a G.I. Joe spin-off starring Henry Golding and Andrew Koji about the titular fighter joining an ancient Japanese ninja clan.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Jolt, an action comedy starring Kate Beckinsale and Laverne Cox about a bouncer whose homicidal tendencies are kept at bay by an electrode-lined vest.