by Kelechi Ehenulo
Following in the footsteps of a beloved film was always going to be a challenging feat. The original Space Jam was a cult classic, marrying the best of mixed-media animation using Looney Tunes characters and Michael Jordan – the greatest NBA player of all time. Admittedly, it was never a ‘critical darling’ at the time of its release. It’s not the greatest film in the world. But that didn’t matter. For many kids (including myself at the time), Space Jam defined a generation. It captured that 90s pop culture zeitgeist and immortalised it, right down to that ‘rinse and repeat’ on that well-worn VHS tape. Fast forward twenty-five years, and Malcolm D. Lee’s Space Jam: A New Legacy aims to recapture that lightning in a bottle, this time giving the franchise a glossy and technological update and capitalising on the NBA stardom of Lebron James.
There’s always a fear with sequels that it may not live up to the nostalgic hype to dares to recreate. But even with lowered expectations, it’s not the slam dunk it hopes to be.
Bouncing off the rim like Shaq missing a free throw, A New Legacy follows the same pattern as its predecessor. Blurring once again between the lines of fiction and reality, Lebron embarks on the biggest game of his career – to save his gaming/tech-savvy son Dom (Cedric Joe) from the clutches of an overly exuberant Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) and his sidekick Pete (out here looking like a reincarnated version of Microsoft Word’s Clippy) in the ServerVerse. And once again, the assembly of Looney Tunes characters are on board to help.
It sounds straightforward, and yet it’s a film that goes through the motions. Somewhere in there, there’s a solid yet serviceable family drama based on a very predictable axis of a father’s ambitions versus his son’s creative individuality. The type of conflict where Dom would rather attend an E3 coding programme than follow in his father’s footsteps to basketball camp. But this film switches on all the ‘cheat codes’, derailing the substance for a whistle-stop tour through Warner Bros. creative licencing and catalogue for a series of endless corporate IP mic drops.
Mind you, this is not a new feeling. The brokered deals of Disney acquiring 20th Century Fox and now Amazon purchasing MGM have made that reality all too prevalent. Studios have now become giant-sized conglomerates, primed ready for crossovers and shared universes. Yet somehow, the application A New Legacy adopts leaves a bitter taste.
It’s a disheartening sensation when a film feels more like a marketing exercise than an actual movie, a corporate flex to showcase its weight and power within the industry. It takes considerable effort when even the joint appeal of the best of the NBA and legendary cartoon characters is somehow not enough to carry the film through, to the point where they play second fiddle in their own movie. And in turn, it becomes a sensory overload of over the top, meta-commentary and humour.
The frustrating thing is that Lee’s film is never in the position to capitalise on the meta or comfortable enough to deliver its concept to great satisfaction. Certainly, not with the same level of nuances, ingenuity or conviction found in The Lego Movie or Netflix/Sony Animation’s The Mitchells vs the Machines who have used that formula to maximum impact. And it’s quite telling that Space Jam: A New Legacy feels rushed, trying too hard to be ‘cool’, ‘hip’ and ‘down for the kids’ with every pop culture reference cobbled together in a mish-mash cauldron of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Matrix, Mad Max Fury Road, Wonder Woman and everything else that Warner Bros. has within its IP arsenal. And because of this imbalance, it easily loses sight of what made Space Jam unique in the first place, losing both its heart and soul.
It represents a very cynical approach to filmmaking, where the joy of cinema is not celebrated for its art but in the reminder that it’s an enterprise geared for profit and technological enhancement. It’s a fearful future. And perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, that was its ultimate point – a studio with free reign to poke fun at itself where the mere suggestion of an algorithm can decide all of Warner’s corporate adventures and commercials values. The suits behind the scenes (featuring Steven Yeun) are there along for the ride, reliant on Al G Rhythm’s quest for world domination and showing how Lebron’s power can shape the company’s future by digitising him into everything. But if this was a Black Mirror cautionary tale, Space Jam: A New Legacy will start making you believe this aspect is entirely true.
Because how else do you explain a film where its shift in identity and personality is repeatedly sidelined? How else do you explain its excessive runtime whilst doing the bare minimum with the plot and its wafer-thin characters? How else do you explain Porky Pig transforming himself into the Notorious P.I.G.? There’s nothing justifiably coherent about its exploits, more like random creative decisions made at will as it rapidly loses control. It may be aimed at kids, but it can’t escape the shallowness it transmits.
Occasionally, there are positives to be had, but you have to dig deep to find them. In an NBA Jam kind of way, its use of mixed media animation and NBA in-jokes sticks its landing, incorporating familiar gaming styles and power moves that gaming fans will appreciate. When the film allows the Looney Tunes to act ‘looney’ (pun intended), the humour justifiably thrives, only to be eclipsed by a brilliant Michael Jordan joke.
However, those moments are not enough to sustain its momentum. It runs out of steam very quickly. This is a film that is defined by its ‘go big or go home’ mentally. The rude awakening it faces is that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and for a film that lazily rides on the coattails of the original, it’s a swift reminder that sometimes, some things are better left untouched.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is out in cinemas now!