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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Space Jam: A New Legacy

An advertisement masquerading as a movie, this 25-years-later sequel wastes both basketball superstar LeBron James and his animated Looney Tunes co-stars.
By Sarah Ward
July 15, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
July 15, 2021
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In the misfire that's always been 1996's Space Jam, basketball superstar-turned-unconvincing actor Michael Jordan is asked to hurry up. "C'mon Michael, it's game time! Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we'll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark," he's told. Spoken by go-to 90s schemester Wayne Knight (aka Seinfeld's Newman), this line couldn't better sum up the film or the franchise it has now spawned. The Space Jam movies aren't really about the comedic chaos that springs when a famous sportsperson pals around with cartoons. That's the plot, complicated in the original flick and now 25-years-later sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy by evil forces that turn a basketball game into a battle ground; however, it's also just a means to an end. These features are truly about bringing brands together in a case of mutual leveraging, as product placement always is. Connect Looney Tunes with the NBA, and audiences will think of both when they think of either, the strategy aims. It has worked, of course — and with A New Legacy, the approach is put to even broader and more shameless use.

Everyone who has ever even just heard of Space Jam in passing knows its central equation: Looney Tunes + hoop dreams. The first Space Jam's viewers mightn't also remember the aforementioned product name-drops, but Warner Bros, the studio behind this saga, hopes A New Legacy's audience will forever recall its new references. All the brands shoehorned in here are WB's own, with its other pop culture franchises and properties mentioned repeatedly. The company also has Harry Potter, The Matrix, the DC Extended Universe flicks such as Wonder Woman, and Mad Max: Fury Road in its stable. Its catalogue includes Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, The Lord of the Rings, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, too. And, it holds the rights to everything from The Wizard of Oz, Metropolis and Casablanca to A Clockwork Orange and IT. A New Legacy wants to forcefully and brazenly impress these titles into viewers' minds so that they'll always equate them with the studio. In other words, this is just a Warner Bros ad with LeBron James and Looney Tunes as its spokespeople.

You don't need to be a cynic or have zero nostalgia for the OG Space Jam to see A New Legacy as purely a marketing exercise. Bringing brands together is what the movie literally focuses on. James takes over from Jordan as the flesh-and-blood figure who hops onto the court with the Tune Squad, including Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman, Our Cartoon President), Lola Bunny (Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie), Daffy Duck and Porky Pig (both voiced by Teen Titans Go!'s Eric Bauza) — and he's plunged into the game by Warner Bros itself. On-screen, the studio is run by an algorithm unimaginatively named Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle, Avengers: Endgame), which wants to capitalise upon the Los Angeles Lakers star's popularity. The plan: digitising James' likeness and inserting it into some of WB's best-known fare, all via a computer realm called the Warner 3000 Serververse. While there's also a subplot involving the sportsman's fictional son Dom (Cedric Joe, Loving Him), who'd rather be coding than dribbling, is pushed towards the latter by his dad, but creates the basketball video game the elder James and his animated teammates eventually find themselves playing, that always comes second to Warner Bros doing exactly what LeBron condemns in the flick itself.

Perhaps we're all supposed to be too distracted by constantly spotting the likes of the Iron Giant, Austin Powers, King Kong and the Gremlins to notice that A New Legacy makes corporate synergy the bad guy while also epitomising the concept. Perhaps we're meant to be so overwhelmed not just by the pointless intellectual property onslaught, but by the frenetic visuals and domineering soundtrack favoured by director Malcolm D Lee (Girls Trip, Night School), that we just succumb. Maybe, given that Wreck-It Ralph and Ready Player One have charted similar reference-heavy territory before — the first engagingly, the second to puff up a terrible movie — we should all be accustomed to blatant advertising passing itself off as films by now. Maybe Warner Bros just thinks that saying "hey, all these other well-known movies and shows exist" constitutes a narrative, even if it takes six credited screenwriters to come up with an abysmal script. A New Legacy operates as if all the above is true, and also tries to convince itself that it has genuine emotions at its core, but it's impossible to see this as anything other than a commercial. WB's parent company also owns US streaming service HBO Max and, wouldn't you know it, many of the pop culture titles referenced in A New Legacy are available on the platform. Now kids will link them all together, and to Warner Bros; advertising mission accomplished.

Again, the original Space Jam is beloved only  through the lens of nostalgia — it's a mess of a Nike ad, and little more — but A New Legacy didn't have to be like this. James was a genuinely funny scene-stealer in Trainwreck. Looney Tunes fare is too rarely seen these days, and the tiny snippets of the cartoon's old-school antics that do feature here, including with a cartoon James, are among A New Legacy's best moments. (That the toons' 1996 big-screen outing inspired 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action isn't as widely remembered, but everyone needs some animated slapstick in their lives every now and then.) A New Legacy really should've trusted its basic elements; however, that would've been bucking the trend established by the saga's initial flick. At least the new film does deploy one obvious but nonetheless excellent joke regarding Space Jam's original hoop shooter, although in a better movie, that wouldn't be as much of a highlight as it proves. It doesn't involve basketball, but a far better option than this designed-by-algorithm shambles is to just rewatch Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which remains the pinnacle of live-action/animated hybrids.

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