The gang’s all here. Not just LeBron James and a cadre of actors and athletes ranging from Don Cheadle and Steven Yeun and Sarah Silverman and Lil Rel Howery (with a little voice acting action by way of Rosario Dawson) to Nneka Ogwumike and Damian Lillard and Chiney Ogwumike and Kyrie Irving — though that, in itself, is quite a gang.
But they’re outdone by the vast range of IP that Space Jam: A New Legacy disinters from its studio coffers — everything ranging from Casablanca to Mad Max: Fury Road, Harry Potter — even Rick and Morty. The Looney Tunes are obviously here, as they were back in the Michael Jordan original; but this time you get updated crossovers, like Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) hanging out on Themyscira, with the Amazons, which gives us a glimpse of Wonder Woman (voiced by Dawson). At one point, in the crowd of the big game, you see the Penguin’s nightmare-clown cronies — as in, from Batman Returns — alongside Pennywise the actual nightmare Clown, and White Walkers from Game of Thrones, and I’m positive I spotted one of the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
Which is all to say: Warner Brothers owns a lot of shit. And Space Jam: A New Legacy — despite the cute father-son basketball movie at its core and the kinda-funny, mostly-cynical villain plot in which Cheadle plays an algorithm named Al-G Rhythm, is largely an exercise in: if you’ve got it, flaunt it. An exercise anchored to a likable LeBron charmfest, melding multiple forms of animation, recycled cartoon jokes, and the basic plot of the original Space Jam, but with a twist that updates the original for our new, streaming content century.
Kids won’t care, and that’s what matters. Adults might care. That matters too. A lot can be summed up in the fact that the villain is an algorithm — ha ha. LeBron James, playing LeBron James, is a good dad with a beautiful family (the great Sonequa Martin-Green plays his fictional wife, Kamiyah) and, most relevantly, a son named Dom (Cedric Joe) who’s more into designing games than he is into playing basketball. James wants to instill discipline in his son by getting him to set the games aside, the way a coach once did when he was a kid. But Dom is disciplined; he’s a savant of video game design who’s reimagining his father’s sport on his own terms. Unfortunately, somehow — won’t spoil it — both LeBron and his son get trapped in some version of that game and, well, you know the story from there: an animated superteam of basketball villains named the Goon Squad, a high-stakes game to win Dom back from the algorithm, the subtle-and-not variations on the original, with a cascade of IP references and Looney Toon-ing filling the dead space and drawing it out for a hefty two hours.
Really, the best moment beyond the occasional laughs and smooth, slick villainy of Don Cheadle is a moment sent at… Warner Brothers. Which is when a pair of studio stooges (Cheun and Silverman) tries to talk LeBron into digitizing himself for the sake of reusable, cynically savvy IP. LeBron James vs. Mr. Freeze. LeBron playing Quidditch. There’s a turn this movie could’ve taken into the potential despair of that idea, but that movie already exists: it’s called The Congress, starring Robin Wright, and is about an aging actress who lends her person to a digital afterlife, for movie studios’ sake, that’s both fantastical and grim, wary and intriguing, stoned and stone-cold sobering.
That’s obviously not what’s happening in the new Space Jam, nor is it what’s meant to happen — it’s not what people are asking of this movie, which, directed by the dependable and efficient comedy director Malcolm D. Lee, is meant to see the fun in all these possibilities. To that end, the movie does what it needs to. It’s not trying to be original or make a point, beyond anointing James’ status as this era’s greatest by having him take up the mantle from His Airness. It makes James, a solid screen presence who’s convincing as a dad who wants the best for his kid, a likeable personality; he melds well with this overstuffed world of hand-drawn animation and CGI, gives this movie a solid footing amid all the tentacle-like reaches for references and recognitions flying around him on every side. You get the necessary in-jokes (the funniest being a nod to James’s history of team switch-ups), the dependable, bantering charisma from stars and animators who all know what they’re doing, the sincere father-son story.
It’s all well and good; it’ll hit for the people who need it to. But the movie’s founding joke, the heart of its premise, is a little bittersweet. Or better yet, sweet and sour. It’s a classic example of what happens when the powerful butt of a joke — in this case, Warner Brothers, but really, the Hollywood studio system of the 21st Century writ large — takes that joke, internalizes it, and passes it off as a form of awareness. We get it, they get it: The algorithms plotting the course of media and entertainment’s future have plotted a somewhat grim course — but don’t dwell. Laugh it off. Make it art. Make it work.
Space Jam: A New Legacy doesn’t feel as minimal as pure studio advertisement, which is to its credit, in a way; Lee and his collaborators have tried, earnestly I think, to make something more eventful than that, to avail themselves of James’ recognizable power both as an athlete and as a guy who’s convincing at playing himself onscreen (which is a lot harder than it looks). But it can’t help but feel, in the end, like WB getting ahead of a joke that, in the near-future, might not be so funny. A villainous algorithm? Who’d have thunk it? Well — a lot of people. Hence the joke. Hence the movie.
The movie debut in cinemas on July 16th as part of Warner Bros.’ play to premiere their films simultaneously in theaters, and streaming, with viewers able to watch Space Jam: A New Legacy online on HBO Max.