Warner Bros. makes a feature-length commercial for itself that does an adrift LeBron James, and HBO Max’s back catalog of bizarre creations, a grave injustice.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the original Space Jam, released in 1996, isn’t a good movie. It’s an extended Nike commercial with an iconic soundtrack that tricked the brains of ’90s kids into keeping it warm with nostalgia. So, it’s only fair that 25 years later, a new generation of children are forced to experience a similar kind of cash grab.
This time, LeBron James takes the reins from Michael Jordan in Space Jam: A New Legacy, streaming on HBOMax and playing in movie theaters simultaneously. The frantic editing and sugar rush animation will give you a headache in either context.
One of the six screenwriters on this must have watched Spielberg’s Hook recently, because the version of himself that LeBron plays here has a “grown-up Peter Pan”-vibe. This version fo King James is an uptight father who has lost all sense of fun and imagination in the game of basketball. He’s all business and expects the same from his young son, Dom (Cedric Joe), who would rather code his own video games than dribble a ball.
Meanwhile, in the massive Warner Brothers “Serververse”, a villainous algorithm in the form of Don Cheadle needing a paycheck (his character’s name is Al G. Rhythm, because of course) plots to kidnap Dom in order to lure Lebron into the server to use him for his own nefarious algorithm deeds. Once he traps James by sucking him in through a smartphone, Al G. challenges him to a pickup basketball game with the fate of humanity at stake, but more importantly, to teach LeBron how to be an understanding father and re-discover the fun in the sport.
The “Serververse” itself is the most impressive aspect of the film, and also the most depressing. It’s an insane-looking virtual environment that combines trippy, interstellar visuals with deliberate corporate synergy. Every Warner Brothers property is represented as a Super Mario Galaxy-style planet, ranging from Game of Thrones to Casablanca (just what Michael Curtiz envisioned for that classic).
LeBron, with the help of Bugs Bunny, goes from planet to planet trying to recruit the Looney Tunes, who are now scattered all over the place after leaving Bugs behind on Tune World. Their goal is to reform the Tune Squad to go up against Al G’s more powerful Goon Squad. Some of the worlds make sense for a children’s film, like when they find Daffy Duck attempting to be Superman (or Superduck) in the DC planet. But when the film cuts to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote chasing each other through the breakneck car chases in the desert of Mad Max: Fury Road, one starts to wonder who this movie is for.
The studio tie-ins only get worse during the climactic basketball game, when the crowd is made up of literally hundreds of different characters from all over the Warner Brothers universe, and none of them make sense here. I couldn’t even pay attention to what was happening in the game (it takes up the entire second half of the movie by the way) because I was so focused on characters in the background such as Pennywise the Clown, the child-eating sewer monster from the It series, dancing and cheering like he was enjoying a Lakers game. By the time we get to the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange cheering on Porky Pig during a rap battle, I asked myself, “Is cinema meaningless now?”
When the film cuts to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote chasing each other through the breakneck car chases in the desert of Mad Max: Fury Road, one starts to wonder who this movie is for.
Director Malcolm D. Lee has done great work in the past with Girls Trip and The Best Man, but here in the land of CGI madness, he gets lost in the weeds, letting the film get drowned out by the spectacle. There are a few attempts at self-awareness that try to ground the film with some satire, like when Al G tries to convince Dom his father is a bad dad by saying, “LeBron leaves everything, Cleveland, Miami, Cleveland again.”
It’s ironic that a movie with a living, breathing algorithm as the villain isn’t self-aware enough to realize this movie can only be created by an algorithm so out of control that it thinks combining the NBA, Looney Tunes, Harry Potter and Austin Powers is a good idea. No one seems to be in on the joke, especially LeBron.
He proved in Trainwreck that he’s capable of giving a winning performance, but while that film had him playing against type as the goofball friend character, his attempt at being an overbearing father is a much less fun hang. It’s a lot to ask anyone to carry this glorified HBO Max infomercial on their shoulders, but James fails to hit any of the emotional beats throughout the film, whether it’s trying to reconcile with his son or inspiring the Tune Squad to come from behind in the crucial game.
He looks distracted. Like he would rather be practicing his fade away jumper, and honestly, it would be more fun watching the greatest player of his generation practice than watching him struggle to keep up with a green screen.
Space Jam: A New Legacy alley-oops into theaters and HBO Max to keep your children distracted for a while on July 16th.