Space Jam: A New Legacy is a bad movie. But you knew that already. You saw the trailers; you listened to the Notorious P.I.G. rap; you read the reviews and the bewildering plot synopsis that I will share again because I can’t get over how wild it is: “Set in a shared Warner Bros. virtual space multiverse, the film follows LeBron James teaming up with the Looney Tunes to win a basketball match against digitized champions to rescue his son from Al-G Rhythm, a rogue AI program.” If you ignore everything but “the film follows LeBron James teaming up with the Looney Tunes to win a basketball match,” sure, that could be a fun movie. LeBron proved he had comedic chops in Trainwreck and the Looney Tunes have always been, and will always be, the best. But it’s not only everything else in that synopsis — “set in a shared Warner Bros. virtual space multiverse” and “a rogue AI program” — that dooms the Space Jam sort-of sequel, it’s also the film’s cynical mishandling of the Looney Tunes.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) and written by about 17 people, Space Jam: A New Legacy begins in 1998 when a young LeBron James (played by Stephen Kankole) is in middle school and has to make a choice: basketball or anything else. He picks basketball, obviously, and we’re treated to a montage of the four-time NBA champ’s career over the opening credits. The action picks up in the present day when LeBron is a tough-love dad with two kids, Darius (Ceyair J. Wright) and Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom’s the younger of the two, and he’s more interested in playing and creating his own video games than basketball. We’re ten minutes into the movie and still no Looney Tunes.
One day, LeBron brings Dom to the Warner Bros. lot for “some high-tech movie thing.” The pitch: a digital copy of LeBron will be scanned “right into the movies,” so the Los Angeles Lakers star can be inserted into Casablanca, Harry Potter, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, or any of the other classics in the Warner Bros. filmography. He astutely calls it one of the five stupidest ideas he’s ever heard, which upsets the sentient algorithm known as Al-G Rhythm (get it?), played by Don Cheadle. We’re now 20 minutes into the movie. There are still no Looney Tunes but there is a convoluted plot: Al-G traps Dom in the Warner Bros. servers and tells LeBron that the only way he’ll see his son again is if “you and I play a little game called basketball.” LeBron accepts the offer, not that he has much of a choice, and he’s tasked with assembling a team.
Twenty-seven minutes into Space Jam: A New Legacy, a movie about LeBron James playing basketball with the Looney Tunes, we finally see our first Looney Tune.
And at first, it’s only one Looney Tune, as everyone but Bugs Bunny has abandoned Looney Tunes World. “This nefarious nimrod nixed my nearest and dearest from Tune World,” Bugs explains, referring to Al-G Rhythm. Using Marvin the Martian’s spaceship, he and LeBron visit other Warner Bros. properties to get the gang back together, like Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and Walter reuniting the Muppets in 2011’s The Muppets, minus any of the charm or wit. Daffy and Porky are in DC World; Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner are in Mad Max World; Elmer and Sylvester are in Austin Powers World (yeah baby?); Granny and Speedy Gonzales, that famous duo, are hanging out in The Matrix World; and so on. It’s a creatively bankrupt montage of a studio’s portfolio and a counterpoint to the oft-repeated argument that [fill-in-the-blank movie rated G or PG] is for kids and, thus, should be exempt from criticism. Children deserve better than corporate propaganda and reference-heavy jokes like Foghorn Leghorn in a Daenerys Targaryen wig yelling “winter, I say, winter is coming” while riding a dragon. It’s the Pulp Fiction “joke” from the original Space Jam, but for an interminable two hours.
The IP gets worse once the game starts. There’s little room for the Looney Tunes to act, well, looney, when so much of the second half of the movie is focused on the crowd of Warner Bros. characters. I can’t say for sure if Daffy and Porky have less screen time than Pennywise, Joker, King Kong, the A Clockwork Orange gang, the Mask, and the Pirates of the Caribbean, but it sure feels like it. Maybe that’s for the best, because with the exception of LeBron and Bugs’ brief introductory meeting, the script doesn’t recognize the slapstick appeal of the Tunes. Instead, they’re used to make grating “well, that happened” asides and go wild at the Notorious P.I.G. rhyming “double” with “trouble.” Space Jam: A New Legacy even has the gall to [spoiler alert?] kill Bugs Bunny in a scene that’s played absolutely straight with no jokes, only for Bugs to appear in the real world moments later. It’s oddly upsetting seeing Taz on the verge of tears.
My hope was that Space Jam: A New Legacy would at least be a fun hate-watch, a good-bad movie for the internet to dunk on (no pun intended). It’s been a while since we’ve had one of those. Maybe since Cats? But at least Cats had the decency to be weird. Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t weird; it’s a soulless branding exercise.
Before the film begins on HBO Max, there’s a brief teaser for another Looney Tunes property, Looney Tunes Cartoons. When the “skip” button pops up, do yourself a favor and skip Space Jam: A New Legacy and watch that show instead. Or any of the old classics, like “Rhapsody Rabbit” or “Rabbit of Seville.” Heck, even the original Space Jam would do. Anything but Space Jam: A New Legacy.