Come for the corporate merger. Stay for the product placement. Space Jam is one of those movies that gets a free nostalgia pass on several accounts. A late 20th-century revival for the Looney Tunes, and a feature crafted around the much-loved sports personality, Michael Jordan, it is fondly remembered by 1990s kids. Those viewers were too young upon the film’s release in 1996 to notice the janky narrative shapes required to set up a reasonably entertaining cartoon basketball game.
That film’s complicated scenario is slick and high-concept placed beside the clunky machinations of Space Jam: A New Legacy. Here goes... Basketball star, two per cent shareholder of Liverpool FC and – as the film repeatedly emphasises – “entrepreneur and family man” LeBron James plays himself. LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) are – after a lengthy introduction – trapped in the Warner 3000 Server-Verse, a dimension ruled by megalomaniac AI, Al-G Rhythm (a wasted Don Cheadle).
There, in the same studio-selling overkill that characterised Ready Player One, our hoop-hopping hero rubs shoulders with everything from Casablanca to The Iron Giant, before settling down to play basketball alongside Bugs Bunny and the other Merrie Melodies veterans. Relative newcomer Lola Bunny, a new addition in 1996, returns with Zendaya’s voice. Happily, the character, despite maintaining a stripper name, now hangs out with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and is a lot less inappropriately wriggly.
Home of classics
Warners, explains the film, is the home of “all the classic movies”, a claim that might be disputed by any of the extant big five or little three studios. No matter. At its best – when the viewer isn’t shouting at the screen to “Stop selling me things and make a movie!” – this love letter to Warner Bros finds fun and novel ways to hawk its wares. Alex’s droogs from A Clockwork Orange stand courtside as LeBron takes on Al-G Rhythm ropers; cartoon LeBron fails to enter a painted tunnel; Hogwarts LeBron is a comic delight. The soundtrack, featuring Big Freedia and Lil Baby among others, is excellent. There’s a great Michael Jordan joke, Wile E Coyote as Mad Max, and a welcome poke – from the toons themselves – at their CGI renderings. The traditional animation segments are far more pleasing to behold, and make one wonder why the film-makers didn’t stay 2D in the style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
LeBron has charm to burn, even if his performance is unlikely to keep Denzel awake at night. It’s a shame this messy film can’t keep pace with his likability or mad skills. It’s a shame, too, that Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green (playing Mrs LeBron) and Sarah Silverman (playing a studio exec) are squandered. Stay tuned for 2050 when the kids who gave Space Jam: A New Legacy a free pass on LeBron’s account get their own belated sequel.