“Space Jam: A New Legacy” (2021) Review

Written by Victor DeBonis

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s worth noting that nostalgia, by itself, is never a bad thing. It can be wonderful to admire and reflect upon. We all treasure something from the past or certain franchises or moments from the past in different ways, and it’s no shock to anyone that much media from the past decade has been focused on tapping into items from the past, especially the 80’s, to bring people into seats or entertain them.

I think that it’s also worth mentioning that, while most people mainly know me as the Disney fanatic, I do have great admiration and respect for the old Looney Tunes shorts, especially those directed by Chuck Jones, and they were my introduction to comedy and still only appear smarter and funnier as I watch them today as an adult. The timing, artistry, and witty writing of these characters and situations of them, such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, and others resonate with millions of people of good reason, and, when I watched the original “Space Jam” back in 1996, I and others from my generation welcomed seeing these bright and colorful characters on the big screen, even when it was odd that they were sided with live-action basketball players.

Watching the original as an adult, I honestly can’t say that it’s a good movie. The Looney Tunes’ timeless humor and personalities aren’t represented very well. Much of the comedy, in general, doesn’t land. And, I’m sorry, but, while there is no doubt that Michael Jordan is and always will be a phenomenal basketball player and legend for the sport, his acting left a lot to be desired. Yet, in addition to loving the soundtrack, I can look at that movie and consider it to be a harmless time capsule of what the late 90’s was like, and I appreciate that the film tried to stay within its own zany world of the Looney Tunes and, at least, try to only be an overextended commercial for that and, perhaps, the NBA.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is such a baffling, overly commercialized product that lacks so much soul an drive that I’m struggling to think of where the first place is to start with discussing what doesn’t fit about this film. I’m a huge animation lover to my core. “Roger Rabbit” is one of my absolute favorite 80’s films, and I guess that, in a time when nostalgia is still heavily prominent, I guess that it was only a matter of time before another movie that was trying to bring a ton of familiar, animated characters together, eventually made its way into theaters.

Yet, why would you cram about two hours worth of properties from this company regarding them? And, why would you throw the most basic storyline about a father and his son without depth and with just something to give an excuse for tossing adult references in a child’s movie and lines that are shamelessly borrowed just to make an adolescent or child say, “I remember that line from the Internet and memes!”

Ugh. Where to start, indeed? I guess that my first warning sign that this was going to feel less like a movie and more like an overextended Warner ad was that I was actually starting to keep count of how many times I saw the WB logo on-screen (not counting the logo before the first scene started). Perhaps, I wouldn’t be as harsh about all of the properties shoved in my direction if the story itself engaged me. And, the fact of the matter is that it didn’t.

“Roger Rabbit” had tons of animated characters in its running time, but, in addition to having the advantage of being the very first movie to do this with live-action (and do it to an incredible extent), you had Bob Hoskins playing a detective who lost a brother and made the audience connect with how painful it was for him and made you want to see how he carries through the job. The movie made you care about Roger Rabbit and his wife by effectively depicting how much they loved and cared about each other and yearned to know how they were trying to find their way through the mystery on-screen. It was the motivations of these characters (as well as the characters themselves) and how well they worked into the story that made the movie all the more impressive in addition to the incredible effects and memorable interactions of the other cartoon characters.

In “Space Jam 2” we’re given pretty much every “father trying to reconnect with his son” storyline that you’ve heard before and with nothing new added to give it a stronger feel. The movie really wants to hammer over the head the idea that being a good father is important with heavily generic lines. Here is a sample of some of them: “My Dad doesn’t really get me.” “Maybe, your Dad was right about you being a loser.” “Being a Dad is about power and nothing else.” “I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better father to you.” “He doesn’t need a coach. He needs a father.” All of this was boring to sit through, especially more so, since it doesn’t show LeBron James having a meaningful conversation with his son or having any deeper exploration outside of competing in this game to find out what being a loving father requires. You know every beat of what’s going to happen with this storyline as it goes on, and it just goes through the motions in a tedious way.

It’s not helped by the fact that, across the board, with the slight exception of maybe Don Cheadle, the acting is mostly off. Similar to Jordan, there is no doubt that LeBron James is a highly talented basketball player, but his acting skills are underwhelming. He’s a little better than Michael Jordan from “Space Jam” but not by much. James works better off of the Tunes through how he responds to them than Jordan did, but, aside from a few moments with them, there is such a lack of energy from his performance. There are scenes in which he should appear shocked, and he just seems mildly surprised for a second. In one moment when he’s falling and is supposed to be screaming his lungs out, his “scream” sounds more like a bored echo than someone who’s terrified of tumbling through a different universe.

Here, the expressions and reactions just felt awkward from him and from several other actors. They’re either a bit too wide-eyed or don’t seem to authentically represent if someone is angry or frustrated about something. Even trained, decent actors, such as Steven Yuen in a brief bit, seem almost uncomfortable with what they’re doing on-screen. Don Cheadle plays the villain of the movie, and, while I can’t say that it’s a performance that feels real, he goes so over-the-top with such a strangely named Internet villain (Al G. Rhythm…Get it?) and demonstrates what feels like the closest thing to having a liveliness with his presence. He does all of the cliched deeds that you expect this type of character to do in turning a son against his father who doesn’t understand him, etc, but, at least, it feels as though he’s having fun.

When it comes to the hand-drawn animation of the Looney Tunes, it actually works pretty well. It doesn’t feel overly polished as the original’s were, and they and their world contains more vibrant colors. Plus, they move pretty well and maintain a great amount of energy and zaniness in their actions, thus fitting well with their character in that regard. I’ll even go as far as to say that James’ first meeting with Bugs Bunny is legitimately funny and clever and plays off of the familiar humor using fun details, such as freeze-framing James and Bugs with funny captions about themselves in a manner that cleverly throws back to the Roadrunner/Coyote chases, that capture the character of the original shorts. The three-dimensional representations of the Tunes move with a solid enough energy when they’re on the court, but they just don’t look as good in digital form as they do in their traditionally hand-drawn appearance.

The trickier matter is that, setting aside whatever style of animation these characters are in, the Tunes just don’t demonstrate what made them resonate as characters, and their personalities don’t get much time to shine outside of a few key scenes and iconic lines. The one scene that actually felt great was an awesome sequence involving superheroes, and I’ll just say that it reflected the animation style of its source material incredibly well and made for great comedy in terms of character as well as a fun ride and paying nostalgic tribute in a way that was creative and flowed well and felt the closest to something that would happen in a decent Looney Tunes short. If the movie had followed the same level of being nostalgically clever and creative as this sequence, it probably would’ve turned out okay.

As it is, it just throws WB property after property in your face throughout this film. One moment, then, we’re hearing John Williams’ “Harry Potter” theme as we go near the Potter universe. Then, a few minutes later, there’s a baffling clip of “Austin Powers.” (I’m not sure what 5-year-old will or even should be familiar with this clip, but…we’ll get back to that in a second.) And, then, later, we see the Mask and several different versions of the Joker oddly looking as though they’re having seizures as they watch the game. It’s just never-ending.

And, whenever these properties are shown, they don’t have any memorable interactions or clever moments as “Roger Rabbit” or even the 2000 “Rocky and Bullwinkle” movie (a cruelly underrated gem that you should check out, by the way) did with their classic characters. It’s just a brief scene from a movie of Warner Bros playing or a character oddly waving or moving around on the onlooking side of the game, and that’s about it. Heck, even “Wreck-It Ralph” while not a perfect movie, knew well enough to not throw video game reference after reference and give a decent focus on its story and main characters.

Making it more uncomfortable is that so many of these references are either going to fly way over children’s heads or just not be appropriate for them. I don’t know how many children are going to be familiar with “Austin Powers” or “Casablanca.” And, if this is supposed to a movie that’s heavily marketed towards kids, then why are there characters on-screen that come from such “family-friendly” properties as “A Clockwork Orange” “Rick and Morty” and “Game of Thrones?” I can imagine the fun time ahead that parents might have trying to explain to their children about these works if a child asks where a certain character came from. It just leaves more of the question regarding who this movie was actually for.

The game itself is fairly boring. Aside from maybe two scenes that show a character doing something that would be considered zany, you know the lesson that’s going to be taught, and it just leads to a continuing string of lines that are obviously used just because tons of Internet memes are using them, right now. It’s rather awkward to see such timeless characters use lines that are going to date themselves in a few years, such as, “Haters going to hate!” or “Nerd alert!” or “I’m going old school on him!” This feels less like a movie and more like something that was assembled from some focus groups about what’s popular, right now, and how to prove that they’re “hip and cool” with the kids from today. It’s also a textbook example of a product cashing off of nostalgia as much as one can without giving a greater effort to its story or doing anything meaningful with its themes about being yourself and building a better connection between a parent and his child.

People, I hate being this harsh, but this movie was just awful. It left so little for me to appreciate and work with. It didn’t feel constructed very well. The acting, aside from Don Cheadle’s hamming it up, felt awkward and, sometimes, not very energetic. It’s not written well, and that’s a startling statement when one considers that six screenwriters are given credit for working on this. The themes about fatherhood or family are barely given any real exploration and mainly resort to spouting the familiar “Dad, why don’t you care about me?” lines that we’ve heard from dozens of other movies that deal with this type of conflict and do it so much better. It felt less like a movie, in general, and more like an overextended commercial trying to convince you to subscribe to HBO Max.

While I still can’t say that the original movie is much to write home about (outside of nostalgia and, again, an amazing soundtrack), it, at least, tried to keep what it was trying to commercialize over just the Looney Tunes’ world, which, admittedly, is still a weird idea but, at least, didn’t resort to the extent of throwing in a ton of references from adult shows and movies that are in what’s supposed to be a movie marketed towards kids. That film had a bit more of a charm to it from the playfulness that accompanied it, and, at least, Wayne Knight and Bill Murray brought an amusing energy. As commercialized as that film was, this sequel practically defines even further what a corporate product feels like to its core.

I guess that children might enjoy it okay, but, as for me, I found myself feeling the happiest when the end credits rolled and I made a Road-Runner-like dash for the doors.

Grade: D+

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.