Professional basketball players are a marvel seemingly created by an animator’s pen: elongated arms, mountainous shoulders, whirlwind speed and an ability to leap over defenders in a single bound. Even among other athletes, they’re unique physical outliers incapable of blending into a crowd — let alone a movie — unless playing themselves. Or unless their scene partner is also able to contort into a rocket and blast off into space., i.e., is a cartoon.
That was the setup of 1996’s “Space Jam,” which challenged the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan to team up with Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to win a basketball game that would secure the Looney Tunes’ freedom from an evil corporate overlord. That “Space Jam” itself was a product of corporate overlords teaming up like the Harlem Globetrotters to ball-hog children’s attention spans was an irony missed, or forgiven, by its target audience, kids who also absolved the movie for being directed — make that assembled — by Nike’s top shoe commercial director.
One of those kids was 11-year-old LeBron James. Five years later, James would become the first high school basketball player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Like Jordan, James is the hoops star of his era — and in the spirit of intergenerational competition, has dared himself to make a superior sequel. When James commits, he commits — and he’s committed so seriously that when asked if he’d be repping the USA at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, he replied, “No, I think I’m going to play for the Tune Squad this summer instead.”
Point, LeBron — though it’s a low bar to clear. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is chaotic, rainbow sprinkle-colored nonsense that, unlike the original, manages to hold together as a movie. Once again, an NBA legend slips into a netherworld populated by fictional characters who must help him win a basketball game to escape. As Bugs Bunny might say, “Eh, you were expecting maybe the Easter Bunny?” Instead, Bugs simply cracks, “Sounds awfully familiar.”
The new villain is Al-G Rhythm, embodied by Don Cheadle with limber, comic menace, a digital super brain who lives inside the Warner Bros.’ Serververse, a computer that contains an archive of the studio’s former movies. Rhythm has been created by the studio to boost its fortunes, and his big idea is to scan LeBron-the-player so Warner Bros. can animate and insert a LeBron-the-cartoon into its franchises. (Which, one might note, is exactly what is happening on-screen.) The bad guy is merely a good company man. At least that’s what all industry executives tell themselves, especially when there’s an algorithm to take the blame when things go wrong. Yet when James rejects Al’s pitch to battle dragons in “LeBron of Thrones,” the offended computer zaps the player and his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) into the machine. “What in ‘The Matrix’ hell,” gapes James, who is soon told he must play for his own free will against a Goon Squad made of monster-ized, mutant-ized scans of actual NBA and WBNA champions, including James’ Lakers teammate Anthony Davis, aka “The Brow,” who enters the arena as a Cro-Magnon vulture with feathers that drape onto the floor.
This invitation into Warner Bros’ digitized library allows director Malcolm D. Lee (“Girls Trip”) and a phalanx of writers to expand the playground to include Superman, King Kong, Voldemort and “Casablanca’s” Ilsa, along with more than a hundred of their friends and minions. There’s a great sequence where LeBron and Bugs scoop up the rest of the Tune Squad — meaning, the Looney Tunes — from various corners of Warner Bros. archive, which the filmmaking team has contemplated with Talmudic respect. On Austin Powers’ turf, Sylvester the cat — yikes! — has been shaved into becoming Dr. Evil’s pet, while Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner have transported their existentialist death race to the sandy deserts of “Mad Max.” Yes, the Coyote sprays silver paint on his fangs and brandishes a sign that reads “Witness Me.” At the climax, the studio’s entire streaming library crowds around the court and distracts from the plot. Did the Goon Squad just dunk on James? Who cares when our eyeballs are busy identifying a group of rowdy fans as the Droogs from “A Clockwork Orange.”
Warner Bros.’ hellbent fixation on smashing its own characters together (see also: “Ready Player One” and the “Lego” franchise) feels like the endgame of a Hollywood that has become more focused on intellectual property rights than innovation. That’s the sour take. The bittersweet counterargument is that Lee’s massive sandbox allows him to seed curiosity about cinema history in kiddie audiences who’ve just come for the slapstick. It won’t mean a thing to today’s 11-year-old that Lee insists on giving courtside seats to a cheerleader version of Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” But someday it might — and until then, it’s nice to see any modern blockbuster welcome a cult film to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Joker. (Make that two Jokers, one in the classic purple suit and the other in Joaquin Phoenix’s flaming red.) In keeping with these family-friendly times, this sequel has also thankfully desexualized the character of Lola Bunny (now voiced by Zendaya), originally conceived as a jockish Jessica Rabbit designed for off-screen jokes about her ball-handling skills.
With so many characters in the frame, LeBron James is not tasked to carry the film. That suits him fine. “Athletes acting?” he grouses. “That never goes well.” Yet James has gotten more comfortable on-screen since his extended cameo in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck.” Here, he allows his essential LeBron-ness to become the joke, unlike Jordan, who mostly glowered and harrumphed while, say, being squashed into a ball and dunked. Rhythm gleefully rips into James’ monomaniacal work ethic. His arc, if one genuinely cares about that, is to rediscover the fun in the game via his anarchistic teammates — plus some squishy stuff with his fictional son in scenes where James genuinely seems to enjoy being out-acted by a talented kid.
James’ real goal is to build a transitional bridge to his post-NBA career. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was announced six months after he transferred to the Lakers in July 2018. Since then, he’s helped win the team another championship and is gunning for one more before retirement, despite the last season being an injury-addled bust. (Lakers die-hards may interpret a closing-credits image of Daffy Duck coaching the team instead of current head Frank Vogel as a subtle threat.) Every superstar at this moment in their career is called to face their legacy — even Jordan, who spent his “Space Jam” apologizing for his dalliance with baseball. Even here, the question is asked if James will continue to be considered one of the all-time greats. “The jury’s still out on that,” cracks Rhythm. But at least while James continues to define his own legacy, he can say he’s bested Jordan with this decent-enough kiddie flick.