‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new movie Space Jam: A New Legacy is a disappointment. Of course, being a sequel to a ridiculously popular film of a quarter of a century ago is a hint. Had the sequel idea been viable, a second film would have immediately followed the first. But the first movie, featuring Michael Jordan and the Looney Toons characters was, well, loony. It was fun.
The new film loses much of that fun. The story is far too close to that of the first in its heart, even if there are surface changes. For example, not much takes place in space. Also, the first had a single focus: Michael Jordan was there to save the Looney Tunes characters. And the characters were all fun.
In this film, LeBron James plays himself, although the family provided is made up of actors, the most important being son Dom (Cedric Joe). LeBron pushes his kids to be great basketball players while Dom really only wants to create a basketball video game. Warner Brothers (which produced the film and goes out of its way to mention all of the great properties it controls) invites LeBron and Dom to the studio to discuss making LeBron the digitized star in all of its old features: Casablanca, Game of Thrones, etc., as a form of advertising its own properties.
Anyway, the real villain is Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the algorithm in their big computer, who wants to rule the movie world. He manages to hijack LeBron and Dom and sets up a competition of “DomBall,” where LeBron has to face his son’s team, made of up of digitalized “beasts” based on current ball players. LeBron winds up with Looney Tunes characters. The game seems to drag on, although a few cute elements do arise, including Porky Pig as a rapper.
The real problem is that almost nothing is funny. Except for that bit with Porky, few of the cartoon characters do much noteworthy. Lola Bunny, who has been desexualized from the first movie, has a cute bit involving Wonder Woman (another Warner film!) and is energetic. But Bugs and Daffy just sort of do their thing without much humor. Thanks to the heavy duty use of computer graphics, just about everyone in the game can do incredible physical things, so LeBron’s basketball prowess barely sticks out at all.
LeBron is charming, but as an actor, he is no Michael Jordan. Jordan, the ballplayer, was smart enough to avoid the film, but Michael B. Jordan, the actor, had a cameo that was, being charitable, mildly amusing. To make matters worse, LeBron is basically shown at the start as an uncaring, bullying father. Yes, by the end, he has changed, but it’s not much fun to watch your idol showing his feet of clay so early.
The music is forgettable. In the first film, Fly Like An Eagle worked well, and I Believe I Can Fly was an incredible theme song. Since then, we learned that R. Kelly was a sleaze, but that song helped the movie fly. Nothing like that happens here.
In essence, the film becomes a rip-off of the first. It is not really good. The fact that it borrows so much from the first takes away from the creative spark. Some critics have noted that element as a feature; Hollywood is just swallowing up creative people and turning out pap for the public. Sequels don’t have to be boring. Black Widow is something like the 24th in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it stands on its own. Taking elements from other sources has been part of entertainment since the age of Greek tragedies. But you have to do something with it. The Empire Strikes Back and Godfather 2 show how good a sequel can be. But you need new elements, a kind of discovery. And for comedies, some new elements of humor.
As LeBron says in the movie, “athletes acting, that never goes well” and he is right. Cheadle is excellent, somehow seeming vulnerable even while being creepy. And Pete, an animated partner for him, is probably the most charming character in the film. But there really is very little joy in this thing. When Bugs and Daffy and all the others just sort of fade into the background, you know something is wrong.
If you can see it for free on HBOMax, why not? Paying for it at the theater? All I can say is, “It’s your money.”