Space Jam: A New Legacy is surprisingly decent, yet struggles to maintain our interest

LeBron James, Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang are back in the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan basketball comedy. It’s surprisingly decent, Liam Maguren writes, but cannot sustain its running time.

Space Jam‘s weird. Looney, even. I’m talking about the 1996 original. That film didn’t exactly sound good on paper but more like two separate pieces of paper sellotaped together by a cynical mathematician. The equation? The Looney Tunes phenomenon plus the Michael Jordan phenomenon equal a phenomenal amount of money. Sure enough, it made a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide with the soundtrack hitting 6x Platinum.

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More surprising, however, was how this bizarre film stayed in the minds of Millenials while other family films from 1996 (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the live-action 101 Dalmations) faded from memory. Perhaps it was the sheer oddity of it, or the nostalgia of seeing a sports sensation and a cartoon legend unite, or the charmingly ancient website, that continued to give Space Jam relevance.

It also did something rare for a Hollywood family blockbuster: making a black man the hero of the story. (Kazaam came out in the same year but let’s ignore that.) While they cast Jordan purely because of his status, it was a quietly revolutionary move regardless. With A New Legacy, black faces are now in front and behind the camera, creating an affectionate follow-up that solidifies the sellotaped concept from the ’90s.

While no mortal today could match Michael Jordan’s status as a living god back in the ’90s, LeBron James can at least act his way out of the paper bag that befuddled Jordan in Space Jam. As a loving but strict father oblivious to his son Dom’s talent as a video game creator, James does enough to anchor the story with some heart and likeability, though he fares better as a goofy lame dad than a stern one. While the film’s message—don’t dominate your kid’s life—is as basic as you could get, it’s still a valuable Moral of the Day that the original lacked.

Then there’s Don Cheadle, channelling that maniacal Captain Planet energy from those Funny or Die skits into his role as an evil algorithm named… wait for it… Al G Rhythm. The character’s a disaster waiting to happen in less talented hands, but Cheadle’s all-or-nothing performance makes Al’s inflated ego and resulting pettiness super entertaining.

He’s matched by the Tunes themselves who, by and large, remain faithful to how we’ve always known them. Even when A New Legacy dips into being mundane or straight-up bad, Bugs Bunny and the crew constantly find ways to catch you off guard with some tried-and-true slapstick comedy. (Admittedly though, it was a certain cameo appearance that punched the biggest laugh out of me.)

The Tunes are scattered all over the Serververse—a not-so-clever name for a not-so-clever universe advertising Warner Bros and HBO Max content to consumers of all ages. There’s a lot to be said about this.

Given the filmmakers’ decision to remove a Pepé Le Pew scene and redesign Lola Bunny to the dismay of certain 30-year-old men, it feels hypocritical to promote an enticing Game of Thrones world (no doubt in preparation for the prequel series) alongside the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange (to show off HBO Max’s legacy library). The message seems to be this: controversial characters are fine if they can be used for advertising purposes.

On the positive side, some of these properties make for great comedy cannon fodder. Ever since they took the mickey out of screen elites from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Looney Tunes have always kept a satirical finger on the pulse of pop culture. A lot of that works surprisingly well here, a personal favourite being Wile E Coyote as a War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road.

Unfortunately, that edge only really works for references within the current decade. By comparison, a tired Matrix parody felt like a joke that outstayed its welcome back in 2005, let alone 2021. And the less said about Porky Pig’s rap battle as the Notorious P.I.G., the happier I’ll be.

It all leads to a basketball finale that brings in the 2D animated characters and the live-action human characters into a ridiculously colourful CG digital space—a visual turducken that looks both delicious and overstuffed. Though there’s zero tension in this climax (everyone plays by their own rules), it still manages to tie in the conflict between Dom’s love of video game creation with LeBron’s tunnel vision for basketball. There’s also fun to be had with the on-court gags and the Goon Squad looks VERY cool.

For a 90-minute family film, these hearty positives make it easy to forgive the shortcomings. Unfortunately, Space Jam: A New Legacy is two hours long. With such a simple story and an offensive amount of product placement, it struggles to maintain interest within that running time, so while this Space Jam successor proves itself to be surprisingly decent, it’s also destined to fade from memory.