The original Space Jam remains an ominous harbinger of our current moment of endless brand synergy, a cynical welcome-back party for Michael Jordan’s return to basketball that, in a hollow gimmick, folded in some of Warner Bros.’s most beloved cartoon properties, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Now, 25 years later, we get Space Jam: A New Legacy, which swaps Jordan out for this generation’s defining basketball mega-star, LeBron James, but this time the ego being stoked appears to be the studio’s own, as the film is a thinly veiled excuse to parade (and possibly renew) all of its various copyrights.
A New Legacy doesn’t attempt to hide this raison d’être, swiftly trapping LeBron and his wannabe game-developer son, Dom (Cedric Joe), in the “Warner 3000 Server-Verse,” a colossal digital space that houses everyone from the ’70s cartoon shark Jabberjaw to, weirdly, the nuns from Ken Russell’s long-suppressed The Devils. At first, the film casts a refreshingly satirical eye at this glut of content, positioning this garish collision of film and television history as the masterminded product of an A.I. program named Al-G-Rhythm (Don Cheadle). True to its name, the program algorithmically crunches everything from social media trends to targeted ads, repurposing media in order to attract more eyeballs. It’s this piece of code that ensnares LeBron in the first place, because it determines that inserting the basketball player’s likeness into films new and old would boost their viewing metrics among his legion of fans.
But as soon as LeBron and Dom are sucked into computer space, A New Legacy largely abandons its underlying criticism of soulless corporate regurgitation of art-as-product and instead becomes an exhausting tour through the Warner Bros. catalog. A point in the original film’s favor is that Jordan often seems too cool to be fazed by inhabiting the same space as iconic Looney Tunes characters. By contrast, LeBron boyishly marvels at all the sights he sees as he blazes in and out of, say, Casablanca or The Matrix. And when he first meets Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman), he freaks out in a way that suggests the cartoon is his personal hero.
From the moment that Bugs appears, the character rings hollow. No less an authority than legendary cartoonist Chuck Jones notoriously criticized the original Space Jam’s depiction of Bugs as a team player, noting that the rabbit could have saved the day alone, and within two reels, without needing to draft Jordan or even his fellow cartoon pals (and enemies).
There’s no doubt that Jones would be apoplectic with this film’s depiction of the greatest comedic character in animation history. Bergman voices Bugs as a whiny sentimentalist who sounds forever on the verge of tears as he gives in to despair and loneliness. Gone is the wisecracking, outsmarting cad of old, replaced by a tremulous, clingy coward. But the rest of the cartoons fare no better, as most are relegated to the background, effectively ceding the stage to one of the more minor Looney Tunes characters, Granny, who’s given repeated jokes about performing wild feats of martial arts despite her sweet, slow demeanor.
Having gone through so many rewrites and personnel changes over its years of gestation, A New Legacy offers enough flashes of deeper commentary and bizarre mash-up humor that it doesn’t completely take the form of pure cynicism. But the film rushes so quickly through its story beats to get to its showdown basketball game between LeBron and Al-G-Rhythm that it never earns its attempts at pathos or aims its jokes in a coherent direction. Where the first film was just a marketing gimmick for its star, this one attempts to reckon with how an athlete like LeBron, who rigorously trained for his sport from childhood, might have difficulties relating to his own children. That’s potentially fertile ground, but its earnestness is out of place in a film that’s almost impossible not to see as the endpoint of our suffocating culture of nostalgia, one that fan culture and studio exploitation of intellectual property have fed for years.