SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY is the fucking worst

I don’t know if I believe that a young LeBron James wore a Looney Tunes backpack in 1998. He was 14 then, on top of which those images of Bugs, Wile E. Coyote, and the Tasmanian Devil setting aside their differences in order to dress in contemporary clothing, fold their arms, and stare sardonically out from various mall apparel predated the 1996 release of Space Jam, a project that felt a little bit like That Bugs & Taz Shirt: The Movie (though it was, in reality, That Sneaker Commercial: The Movie). But for a moment in Space Jam: A New Legacy, I felt a little rush of, well, if not personal nostalgia, a pleasurable recognition of something I remembered from real life, not just television. My relationship with Space Jam has ranged from tolerance to irritation over the years, but I can recognize that a lot of people enjoyed seeing a movie starring the Looney Tunes (as well as what appeared to be an animatronic simulation of basketball sensation Michael Jordan) on the big screen. Who am I to disdain a Looney Tunes backpack? It’s scarcely less commercialized than the Looney Tunes PVC figurines I collected as a kid, or the Warner Bros. Studio Store where I excitedly spent the $50 bill I found on the ground when I was 10. I’m not immune to the stupid pleasures of commerce running roughshod over art, having also spent some time as a child getting past the LOL phase of my Looney Tunes appreciation and moved, with nerdy precision, into the cataloging and memorization.

This is all to say that Space Jam: A New Legacy is not as interesting as a backpack where Bugs and Taz are friends and don vaguely hip-hop-inspired streetwear. Backpacks usually have stuff inside of them. Though originally intended for theaters, Space Jam: A New Legacy has an emptiness that seems custom-built for streaming: vaporous, worthless, yet somehow nearly two hours long. That hideous blue-and-white Warner Bros. shield that looks like a specialty logo for a DTV outfit called Warner Faith should have been debuted with this movie. It is a temple of content, which the filmmakers can only visualize as a knockoff of Ralph Breaks the Internet taped over by an unwatchable family sitcom starring LeBron James.

Unlike the original’s Jordan, a sort of blankly unknowable figure who mysteriously vanishes from basketball to pursue a baseball career and robotic simulation of golf-course kinship with Larry Bird, this movie’s version of James has recognizable human emotions, mostly consternation at his son Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom’s primary crime is his lack of interest in bearing down and practicing basketball with the same intensity as Young LeBron, owner of that Looney Tunes backpack, who we see losing a high school game because he plays a Game Boy for a few minutes beforehand. In a cruel twist of fate decades later, Dom wants to design video games, and his befuddled dad tries to curry a little favor by bringing him into a meeting at Warner Bros., presided over by a sentient Warner Media algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who says: “No one knows who I am or what I do.” Truer words, etc.; the movie does not seem to know what an algorithm is or what it does, just that it wants to insert LeBron into all existing Warner properties. Apparently lots of users have been searching for “horrible actor in movie I already saw.”

That’s not really fair; in Trainwreck, James was a perfectly capable comic actor. Here, he’s pretty awful, but he also gets A/B tested out of blame: No less than Don Fucking Cheadle is just as horrible alongside him. Though he doesn’t say as much, Cheadle’s character must revere Space Jam above all over Warner #content (which I think makes him a virus, not an algorithm, but no matter) because he stages a virtual re-enactment. Only he adds what a neighboring screenwriting algorithm must have assured him was higher stakes: He kidnaps Dom before challenging LeBron to a basketball game to win him back. For no particular reason other than it happened in the first movie, James winds up meeting Bugs Bunny, who insists on slyly overriding his new friend’s more powerful recruitment suggestions (Superman, Trinity from The Matrix, et. al) in favor of gathering up the scattered Looney Tunes—who, you will recall, are a famously warm, supportive, and basketball-loving surrogate family. Basically, a section of this movie is Bugs and LeBron doing the delightful 2011 movie The Muppets, with jokes that fall somewhere between worse and zero, spliced with famous cartoon characters inserted into real clips of Warner movies, just like in that beloved Looney Tunes program Muppet Babies.

There are moments in this section that do pull off some fun visual references, at least when they involve actual animators actually drawing things. At one point, Bugs and LeBron jump into the pages of a Wonder Woman adventure that riffs on the opening of WW84 but looks like an actual comic book; by this movie’s frenetic, desperate-to-please standards, a slapstick romp through an action-packed obstacle course feels like an act of majestic restraint. But even at its occasional best, even at the moments where I thought to myself that my five-year-old daughter will get a kick out of seeing Wonder Woman interact with Bugs Bunny or recognizing LeBron’s surprise affinity for Hufflepuff, none of this is a patch on the sequence in Looney Tunes: Back in Action where the characters zip in and out of paintings at the Louvre, shifting their art styles accordingly. But if The Matrix is your post-impressionism, enjoy a scene where Granny and Speedy Gonzales do bullet time. The movie re-imagines the well-calibrated Looney Tunes timing as a DreamWorks-style smash-em-up.

Eventually, A New Legacy settles into the same anticlimax as the first Jam: training the Looney Tunes to play sorta-legitimate basketball against a bunch of superpowered, cheating Saturday morning cartoon-grade ringers; in this case, it looks like they’re squaring off against a bunch of discarded Darkwing Duck villains rather than the previous movie’s Guys Who Might Steal Marshmallow Cereal. Cheadle assembles/imprisons a crowd full of regular humans and also Warner Bros. intellectual property, which is to say he harnesses the vast powers of the entire internet to basically make Six Flags inside a computer. By far the most compelling aspect of this movie is the distracting theme-park bit players in the background, actual live-action folks dressed up as famous Warner characters, including a madly gesticulating fellow in what I’m pretty sure is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze get-up from Batman & Robin.

Batman & Robin… now there was a toyetic piece of garbage you could set your watch to. It’s possible that in 25 years, in my increasing decrepitude, I will soften my stance on Space Jam: A New Legacy, just as I’m now inclined to give Batman & Robin a no-harm/no-foul on the basis of its extravagant, fascinating quest to look as simultaneously expensive and cheap as possible—cheapness in quantity so vast that it becomes default opulence. Such a conclusion can only be reached in hindsight, however, and in 2021, all of my impotent residual anger and disgust over Space Jam nostalgia, the stalled career of Joe Dante, people who say “content,” people who say “IP,” rich people, virulent fans of anything, professional sports, the six paragraphs of Ready Player One that I’ve read, and the recent global pandemic can be conveniently channeled toward Space Jam: A New Legacy. As a result, I fucking hate this movie. Specifically, I hate this fucking movie where:

  • Bugs Bunny and his close, dear surrogate family members keep sloganeering with the word “Looney” like it’s a sneaker brand they’re hawking;
  • Daffy Duck’s displays of either ego or lunacy are limited, so that he may dedicate more time to saying things like “well, that happened”;
  • Granny’s unexpected bursts of cruel, Tweety-defending violence are remodeled into give-no-fucks martini-drinking and sass-dispensing;
  • Most of the other classic Looney Tunes have about as much dialogue as the Roadrunner;
  • The filmmakers all but pause for applause for their efforts in making Lola Bunny, a character created for the original Space Jam (and briefly made funny by Kristen Wiig on a subsequent television show), marginally less likely to inspire weirdos’ strokeoff fantasies (spoiler: they will stroke off anyway);
  • Bugs Bunny engages in heroic self-sacrifice not while dressed as a girl bunny and not in service of tricking Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, but because he loves and respects LeBron James that much.

This is the least funny Looney Tunes endeavor since Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. It is worse than the original Space Jam, because the original Space Jam had Bill Murray. Imagine a movie that replaces Bill Murray with 30 minutes. That Justin Lin and Ryan Coogler, filmmakers I would prefer to continue liking, were not frightened away from putting their names on this shit either speaks to their bravery, or their unexpected kinship with Ivan Reitman.

Some fans will doubtless marvel at how this movie combines so many different Warner Bros. characters in both its mid-movie cartoon sequences and some of its wide shots. This, I will understand, but opposite: A New Legacy combines the Looney Tunes, who I love, with elements of a Muppet movie I love, a Wreck-It Ralph movie I like, and the last week or two of the original run of Bloom County, where the characters were humorously inserted into other comic strips, and which I love. Somehow, I hate the result. (It also somewhat resembles Hook, as if attempting to get a jump-start on this fall’s upcoming 30th-anniversary discourse, about which I am, at this time, mostly neutral.) Yet its craven pursuit of cheap dopamine hits makes immediate sense during any of the movie’s scenes that take place independently of Warner Bros. IP. By the time Don Cheadle must submit to the Scorpion King treatment and become a CG avatar who looks like a computer had to animate an oversized wax dummy of Don Cheadle sculpted from memory, you may find yourself praying for the sweet release of the opportunity to stare at the background and wondering what the hell movie the Warner Bros.-branded pirates are supposed to be from. (Maybe it’s something that can join Casablanca as the studio’s fabled second-ever movie made before 1989.)

You may even find yourself panicking into nostalgia for Warner Bros. stablemate Ready Player One, where at least the dumbass plot machinations actually felt like they belonged to a movie, rather than aspiring to the level of a tie-in videogame, and at least every minute of its running time was directed by Steven Spielberg. That’s the main difference between 1996 and now: Prospective sub-Spielbergian blockbusters weren’t necessarily less vulgar in their commercial aspirations, but they had whatever mix of humility and shame that allowed Space Jam to run 88 minutes. This new movie takes the meaningless pomp of its subtitle at face value. It is about the legacy of hanging the Looney Tunes out to dry as an act of basketball fandom. Though generally fond of breaking the fourth wall, the best knowing asides anyone can come up with are wan this-is-a-sequel-get-it cracks that can’t even approach the first-movie moment where Daffy Duck smooches his own Warner-logo’d ass. The most depressing thing about this movie, a stiff competition to be sure, is the fact that no one seems to have had any fun thinking of gags for these characters, for funny turns of phrase or new riffs on classic cartoon tropes. You get the nauseous feeling that all of those screenwriters were laboring to crack the story.

Space Jam: A New Legacy does demonstrate some semblance of order in the universe, however. As impressive as it is when a branded mash-up like The Lego Movie transcends its crass origins and becomes something surprisingly delightful and inspired, it’s almost more spectacular when the efforts of seven or eight screenwriters, multiple Hollywood heavyweights, and the full power of an IP-choked studio cannot bend reality to match nostalgia. Rebranding Space Jam as good will only result in a children’s movie that plays like a chemical spill. 25 years of misguided nostalgia can’t add up to more than: So that happened.