This is the most difficult article I ever had to write. This could be a review. This could be talking about how I hate two hour children’s films. I could talk about how the shallow, contrived narrative is ultimately even more shallow and contrived than the original Space Jam (1996). I could actually talk about how this does have more animation effort when there is classic animation, and stronger storytelling regarding themes and character work than the original film. I could talk about how Lebron James is a (slightly) stronger actor than Michael Jordan, but ultimately still not good enough to lead a feature film.
Instead, I bring a warning.
Behold, the revelation. I have seen the Gates of Hell. For, this film, Space Jam: A New Legacy, is the karmic fate of intellectual properties ran by corporations rather than inspirations. The principal antagonist of the film, Al G Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle) is literally a studio algorithm that calculates all decisions for Warner Bros. Even if they’re bad ideas, they’re statistically strong and predictably successful ideas and need to be pursued. This is the ultimate mark of cynicism. This is in direct contrast to the “reject” world of the Looney Tunes in the film. The cast of the Looney Tunes have abandoned their identities to join other franchises. Only Bugs Bunny seeks to maintain his identity. He is the voice of our critical anxiety and worry as the Tunes are transformed from traditional two-dimensional animation to more cost effective and marketable CGI furry figures. “Oh no.” He whispers to himself as he sees his essence falling apart, separate from the basketball game. The heart of Looney Tunes is what’s truly at stake.
Some may be surprised by the intensive use of Warner Bros. franchises in this, but the Looney Tunes does have a history of utilizing Warner Bros. properties for the sake of parody. As a child in the nineties, I knew of Casablanca (1942) through old Looney Tunes cartoons before I ever saw the film. The Looney Tunes are heavily rooted in pop culture and brand promotion, but through time we can see what memory and culture has turned the Looney Tunes into: Big chungus memes and that one time they played basketball. The warning isn’t for the Looney Tunes. They’re already dead. They’re for the audience. A warning dedicated to the echoes of King Kong, the dragons of Westeros, Scooby-Doo, Alex Delarge’s Droogs, Max Rockatansky, Rick and Morty. Yes, HBO Max is the best place and time for this film to arrive. Now those curious can investigate the Warner Bros. catalog themselves. Yet, there may come a day where people only remember Superman from that time he was in Space Jam. So creatively divorced from any inspiration, the cynicism will devour all marketable appeal. Take heed Warner Bros., lest Space Jam 3 and Ready Player One (2018) become vital to your creative lifeblood.
Another theme in the film is hard work vs fun. Lebron sacrifices everything else for the sake of being the best. His son Dominic wants to have fun and be his own person. With his talent, he’s able to circumvent the hard work Lebron preaches. Lebron is then putting his trained talent born from sweat and tears and sacrifice against the artificial shortcuts Al G and Dominic pursue. These ideas are not mutually exclusive, Bugs tries to teach Lebron this, and it becomes Lebron’s personal arc that feeds into appreciating his son’s own identity.
The actual basketball game utilizes the slightly stronger character work and particularly unique “monstar” (called the “goon squad,” with modern player depictions) team to have a more involved game. The wonkier rules are more video game and less Looney Tunes, so the game feels less than tense when you have no concept of what “style points” are. Yet there are more references to topical humor than possibly even the Looney Tunes staples. Yes, you still get “What’s Up, Doc?” and references to classic cartoons. Yet, the bulk of the comedy is what people can remember. This means Granny references Chapelle’s Show, Porky does a goofy rap to put in adverts, and the biggest joke of the film is the Michael Jordan cameo. Cheadle’s Ali G is also a stronger antagonist than Danny Devito’s alien Swackhammer (whom I had to research the name of). He directly takes a more active part in the drama, even if it feels a little lame to just have Cheadle in a suit and once in a while put some special effects around him to make him seem special. The soundtrack is okay, but pales in comparison to the music in the original film. Particularly, in the variety. The first had a problem with stakes, but we had a sharper understanding of the outside world and got a better look at basketball as a sport and other players of the time. Now, there’s a greater focus on the James family and the video games Dominic is obsessed with.
Can identity be maintained in spite of circumstance? Is this what the Tune Squad will be eternally damned to? Bugs Bunny hopes not, he is willing to greet death on his own terms. A big part of the finale is that recognition of identity, I only wish the film’s existence didn’t challenge that very moral message to its core. The movie may functionally be better than the original, but watching it makes it clear that this has very little heart. No matter how much talent and effort is placed to making this the best possible movie, you can sense something’s wrong. This movie had to eat the heart of the original Space Jam to live, and the heart of the original was derived from selling Air Jordans made in overseas sweatshops for minuscule fractions of the price.
This is the tragedy. This is the fate of all things Looney.