Boy, do some folks relish in tearing apart the new Space Jam movie. Recently having arrived on Blu-ray (also 4K UltraHD, standard DVD, and Digital HD) via Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Space Jam: A New Legacy is simply not the cultural phenomenon that the 1996 Michael Jordan film was. How could it be? Jordan was, is, and always will be an all-time icon. The earlier film attracted everyone from Jordan fans to Looney Tunes fans to curiosity-driven looky-loos who just wanted to see what the fuss was about.
A quarter century later, things have changed. LeBron James, no matter how great a basketball player, doesn’t hold the general population’s fascination that Jordan always has. But then again, no one else in the sport of basketball does, so that was always going to be something of a challenge in crafting a sequel/reboot. Clearing away all ’90s-era nostalgia, the first Space Jam was no great shakes to begin with. Jordan’s career shift from basketball to baseball provided a built-in backdrop that cannot be repeated in New Legacy. But ultimately, Space Jam was a kiddie flick that tossed a few bones to adults (like an amusing extended cameo by Bill Murray).
Let’s put all that aside. With A New Legacy, producer Ryan Coogler and director Malcom D. Lee have achieved what seemed impossible. They freshened up the entire Space Jam concept, enlisted some real acting talent, and also drew an emotive performance from their star. James does more acting in his first scene—admonishing his son Dom (Cedric Joe) for valuing video games above basketball—than Jordan did in his whole movie. In fact, it’s the family element that gives A New Legacy its beating heart and a complexity unapproached by the ’96 film.
Don Cheadle delivers an energetic performance as Al G. Rhythm, a cyber-entity who exists within the Warner Bros. “server-verse.” Check that name again—algorithm, get it? Basically, Al is a self-aware artificial intelligence-driven being who has a big chip on his shoulder for being trapped in cyberspace. He’s the brains behind the whole galaxy of Warner Bros. intellectual property, yet he gets no credit for it. None of this heady stuff was in any way part of the original, simpler Space Jam. For better or worse (but mostly better, just in terms of keeping things interesting).
And the whole plot gets a little murky as Al manages to kidnap Dom, who has a keen interest in developing gaming software and initially sees Al as a more relatable father figure than his own dad. Al’s big revolutionary idea, conveyed through some yes-man execs played by Steven Yuen and Sarah Silverman, was to get LeBron onboard with a cross-platform extravaganza called Warner 3000. But LeBron wasn’t having it. A humiliated Al decides to hold Dom captive in the server-verse in order to lure LeBron into a big basketball showdown—utilizing Dom’s own basketball game software, which allows for cheat codes and “style points”—that will determine all their fates.
Something like that. I thought I was following it while it played out, but afterward it was a bit difficult to pin the whole concept down. Ultimately, yes, the entire enterprise is a vehicle to get LeBron and the Looney Tunes gang to face off against a “bad guy” team. Though it won’t win any awards for screenwriting (based on the six credited writers, perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen), A New Legacy manages to be consistently inventive and entertaining. Yes, as has been highly publicized, there are tons of cameos (brief walk-ons or barely-glimpsed background appearances, in many cases) by characters from the Warner Bros. stable, ranging from The Iron Giant to The Flintstones to the DC superheroes—heck, even A Clockwork Orange.
There was widespread pushback from many viewers, but honestly these appearances are kind of fun to spot. And for the most part, they don’t occupy enough screen time to even be a distraction. In the end, just like the first film, Space Jam: A New Legacy is an excuse to see a basketball superstar play a game with a bunch of animated characters. But the conflict stemming from LeBron’s essential misunderstanding of his son Dom adds some appreciated depth. Al G. Rhythm provides Don Cheadle with a perfect scenery-chewing showcase. And when all is said and done, despite feeling a bit long at 115 minutes, there are far worse ways to zone out. And younger viewers will surely be entertained, which of course, was the whole point to begin with.