The prevailing critical logic on Space Jam: A New Legacy is that it’s bad. And…yeah, that basically tracks. More intriguing than general derision, though, is exploring precisely how the film ended up in its current form, a melting pot of contradictory aims so dissonant that any chance at basic coherence was dashed at the conceptual level. Or, more specifically, in a heated debate between the studio and the original creative team that likely resulted in a split-the-difference strategy between the populist objectives of a studio with a vault of recognizable IP to promote and a creative team that grew up on the original 1996 Space Jam but wanted to bring a more complex sensibility to this sequel.
That creative team was led by producer Ryan Coogler, who proved he can bring cultural resonance and human gravitas to big studio movies in Black Panther, and original director Terence Nance, whose ambitious independent spirit piqued happy curiosity when the film was announced. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, Nance subsequently exited the director’s chair due to that most notorious movie development catch-all excuse: “creative differences.” He does, however, retain a screenwriting credit – along with five (5) other individuals, which lends a new definition to the term “Space Jam.” A New Legacy is now released as very clear indication of what it was: an uneven blend of promise and product.
What results from that uneven blend is a mess of – dare I say it – intergalactic proportions. That isn’t necessarily to say that the movie has anything “intergalactic” about it, however, since everything of consequence occurs inside the fictional (or is it?) WB “Server-verse,” where the studio’s legions of IP are stored. In a film so hellbent on promoting its own vault of material, it’s futile to propose a title change to Server Jam, but at least that would’ve been more appropriate.
The “Server-verse” is run by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle, delighting in chewing scenery), a pernicious algorithm whose evil plot involves inserting LeBron James into every Warner Bros. property, spinning James’ global notoriety into an explosion of algorithmic engagements. In a meeting with WB execs (played, for no particular or entertaining reason, by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun), Bron rejects the notion as “the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” a line uttered about 5 minutes before Space Jam: A New Legacy proceeds to insert him into a montage of prominent WB properties. No, the issue is not the apparent contradiction, though that’s undeniable; in mere seconds, the IP montage pivots from classic Batman and Robin cartoons to Casablanca to The Matrix to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is like the Vince McMahon mind-blowing ideas meme played out as algorithmic box-ticking for the audience. No, the issue is that the sequence is just dumped into the middle of the movie without purpose or consequence, as if to get it out of the way before the movie proceeds with the remainder of its (quite unnecessarily dense) plot. One might imagine the sly commentary on content-obsessed entities that Nance and Coogler could deliver, even in a so-called “kids movie”…and one could also imagine that sly commentary being the first thing excised in the studio-imposed rewrites.
Primary focus is placed on the fictional relationship between LeBron – who, befitting Michael Jordan’s legacy from the original Jam, plays a version of himself – and his fictional family. Now, casting a fictional family is a concept that was likely inevitable but is also frustrating, partially because each member of Bron’s real family is a ubiquitous social media presence, but mostly because, when fake wife Kamiyah (Sonequa Martin-Green) announces spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, Bron exclaims, “my favorite!”, belying 18 months of Taco Tuesday memes. The greatest friction is between Bron and fictional son Dom (Cedric Joe), whose passion is video game coding, but who is pressured by his father to keep his focus on basketball. These are elevated personal stakes from the first film (in which there were none), and our star is at least game to play along (as an actor, LeBron understands persona and broad emotional beats, though he’s more effective when he can play off of someone like Bill Hader), and again, maybe in more focused hands it could’ve worked. But it’s yet another wrinkle in this boundlessly complicated plot, in which Dom is captured by Al G. Rhythm and held captive in the “Server-verse,” and the only way Bron can rescue him is to win a basketball game against a team of cyber-created ballers imbued with the talents of pro players like Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi, and Damian Lillard.
We haven’t even touched on the Looney Tunes of it all, which is indicative both of A New Legacy’s general bloat and its specific disinterest in the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny – an above-the-title star in the 1996 film, lest we forget – is positioned here as this isolated sad-sack who brings together an oddly reluctant troupe of his cartoon colleagues to play alongside Bron, which the film seems to view as an annoying requirement of the franchise. But then again, it seems like almost everything in Space Jam: A New Legacy was an annoying requirement to one party or another, a committee-delivered agreement of “one for you, one for me” that functions just like an algorithm run amok.