Space Jam: A New Legacy

People online, especially in that weird zone known as “Film Twitter,” have spent years arguing over whether Space Jam was harmless fun or cynical garbage. Seriously, it's amazing how heated that debate can get. I've always been in the “harmless fun” camp, a position affirmed by a recent re-viewing in preparation for the sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy. This long-in-the-making follow-up is bound to ignite the same sort of contentiousness. Like its predecessor, the movie is loud and manic. Then again, isn't that kind of the point of Looney Tunes? I'm on team “harmless fun” this time, too.

Instead of Michael Jordan, the basketball great at the heart of the story is LeBron James. He's pushing his two sons to become serious ballers, but the younger one, Dom (Cedric Joe), is more interested in becoming a video game designer. This has driven a small wedge between them, much to the consternation of LeBron's wife Kamiyah (Sonequa Martin-Green). In an attempt to bond a little bit, LeBron invites Dom to accompany him to a big meeting he has with executives from Warner Bros. The studio wants to pitch him some synergistic ideas.

What no one realizes is that a malicious force is hard at work. A computer algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) manages all of WB's intellectual property. Unhappy that LeBron rejects the concepts he came up with, Al kidnaps Dom, sucking him into the digital realm a la Tron. LeBron also enters it to save his son. The only way to do that, though, is to beat Al at a virtual basketball game. The NBA all-star is then exiled against his will into the land of Looney Tunes, where he must recruit Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the gang to help him.

The biggest joke in Space Jam: A New Legacy is that everything takes place inside the Warner Bros. “server-verse,” meaning that characters from any WB property can make a cameo appearance. And dozens do, from Casablanca's Ilsa Lund, to Batman and Superman, to the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange. (That last one's a little sketchy, given that they were rapists and murderers.) References to other films and TV shows is a major part of the picture, whether it's spotting recognizable characters watching the climactic game or seeing the Looney Tunes invade familiar franchises.

That sort of thing can be off-putting if it feels done simply for self-promotional reasons. In this case, the bits are often funny, and A New Legacy is pretty clearly mocking the corporate self-cannibalism that has become all too prevalent in entertainment. Besides, Bugs used to interact with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in his vintage shorts, so the movie comes by it honestly.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Night School), the Space Jam sequel mixes its animated mayhem with live-action pathos. The father/son conflict is set up at the beginning, then LeBron becomes a cartoon when he goes to the Looney Tunes world. After a short time there, Bugs and the gang, including Lola Bunny (Zendaya), enter the digital realm, where they're rendered in CGI animation to participate in the anything-is-possible game of hoops. Then it's back to the more live action-oriented family material. The movie segues well between them, essentially reinventing itself a few times over. That keeps it feeling fresh, despite a fairly long 115-minute running time.

James proves to have plenty of charisma onscreen, even if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't need to worry about being overtaken in the world-class acting department. Don Cheadle visibly has the time of his life playing the colorful Al G. Rhythm. He's very funny. Those beloved Looney Tunes characters, meanwhile, deliver the sort of comic shenanigans we've all come to know and love.

Figuring out how everything will resolve itself is easy, and the movie's constant in-your-face tone could have been scaled back just a bit. Space Jam: A New Legacy has its finger on something important nonetheless. Millions of kids love basketball and look up to its all-star players like LeBron James. They recognize the potential it has to afford them scholarships, careers, or just a lot of personal satisfaction. The movie celebrates the purest elements of the sport – the fun, the sense of achievement, the joy of teamwork. That will absolutely strike a chord with plenty of young viewers. Sure, it's got a hyper quality, but to call A New Legacy cynical would be an ironic act of cynicism.

out of four

Space Jam: A New Legacy is rated PG for some cartoon violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.