Space Jam: A New Legacy Review: Pumping Up the Jam for a New Generation

Space Jam: A New Legacy fittingly begins in the past. In the new film, a young LeBron James is [...]

Space Jam: A New Legacy fittingly begins in the past. In the new film, a young LeBron James is sitting courtside and a friend hands him a Nintendo Game Boy with a Looney Tunes video game in it. He's encouraged to give it a go instead of getting mentally prepared for the basketball he's about to play with his teammates in Akron, Ohio. But, on a narrative level, the joy of play and being yourself are the hooks of the entire film. Make no mistake, A New Legacy dances in the shadow of the 1996 film in a lot of ways, but A New Legacy pushes forward to make an experience that the next generation of Space Jam fans will love.

Coming into this movie, there's been a lot of dialogue about the stylistic choices made in the trailer. There's a lot going on, and A New Legacy employs a ton of wild CGI characters on-screen at once. LeBron himself is a bit more of a complicated figure than Michael Jordan was at the time of the first film. When the idea for the Space Jam sequel emerged, a lot of people figured that the Lakers (then Cleveland, Cavalier) forward would be the leading man. However, there's been a lot of time since 2010 (to put it mildly). How do you grapple with the change of the media landscape over the decade? Better question, how do you turn such a polarizing athlete and public figure into a likable protagonist for this project? Well, you start by trying to subvert expectations by any means necessary.

Even the name "A New Legacy" puts the movie's goals out in front. This isn't just "Space Jam 2." In fact, Jordan doesn't come up by name until midway through the picture. (There are numerous winks and nods to the fact that we've done this before almost 30 years ago.) It works, though, because the basketball superstar at the core of this film decided to let the screenwriters and director Malcolm D. Lee really push the idea of his on-court legend.

I was, frankly, surprised at the amount of self-referential ribbing that took place in the Space Jam sequel. There's nothing off-limits when it comes to James' basketball career. Jokes about leaving teams are strewn throughout, and one of Don Cheadle's best lines as the villainous Al-G Rhythm is about LeBron's penchant for clashing with his professional basketball coaches from time to time.

For some viewers, all this playful nodding at metatextual details might not be appealing. But, for the most part, the film pulls it off with aplomb. If you know who LeBron James is, you won't be lost. (I'd argue that, even if you don't, you'll be just fine.) The NBA Champion plays an absolutely exaggerated version of himself with the public parts of his persona dialed up to 11. He's game for just about anything and is a capable straight-man to Bugs Bunny's downright looney shenanigans throughout the film.

The Toons are here in a broad acknowledgment of their involvement in the first film. Jokes and visual gags are plentiful in Toon World, where a ton of the movie takes place. If you enjoy Warner Bros. Animation classics, there's a lot of mileage in the first third of this film alone. Bugs Bunny, Daffy, and Lola are MVPs of the Tune Squad ensemble. (A special mention to Gabriel Iglesias' Speedy Gonzalez, who's absolutely having a blast here.)

All of the Warner Bros. Easter eggs don't stop there. We all saw the trailers with everyone from The Iron Giant to The Flintstones running in for the big showdown. Adults in the audience will no doubt get at least a slight kick from all the strange villains on the sideline as well. Contrary to popular opinion ahead of the debut, it isn't just a complete tour of the Warner Bros. lot for the finale, there's a bunch of extended riffs on various properties. Don't worry, though, that doesn't quite overstay its welcome. In fact, the adults in the screening got some laughs out of the references.

On the human side of things, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Diana Taurasi, and Nneka Ogwumike all perform admirably as the fun villains of The Goon Squad. (Davis and Ogwumike, in particular, are hamming it up as bad guys.) Sonequa Martin-Green plays an Expy of LeBron's wife that grounds some of the real-life elements and guides her husband. The kind of rigidity that molded LBJ into a worldwide basketball star might not work for his son Dom.

Speaking of Dom, young Cedric Joe is up for the task of bringing some emotion to the fictional version of James' youngest son. He's into his own stuff and his Dad is having a hard time seeing that. Audiences get a good dose of emotion from him when his performance could have easily been a bit grating. The back and forth between Joe and LeBron is easygoing and warms as the movie runs along.

The visual effects are spectacular and Lee really nails the video game aesthetic he was going for. For older Millenials, it might seem a bit strange to have all this IP-driven madness going on, but for younger viewers, it's no stranger than seeing what goes on in Fortnite every day. All the basketball action is rendered clearly, and a special mention goes toward Klay Thompson's computer avatar that shows off some wild water physics.

A lot of people wondered why this movie was necessary. The original Space Jam is viewed as a classic for a lot of older fans, but it's important to remember that the same sort of critiques were leveled at Michael Jordan's entry when it premiered in the mid-'90s. Younger viewers are going to have a blast seeing some of their favorite cartoons on-screen while older members of the audience might find themselves drifting back toward their own youths, back when an airbrushed Taz shirt was the height of cool. When I walked out of my screening, a seven-year-old turned to his father and firmly said, "That was a good movie!" And, honestly, that might be the best recommendation you can give a family film like this.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Space Jam: A New Legacy hits theaters and HBO Max on July 16th.