by Paul Deeter
In a recent article of belated self-awareness by Rotten Tomatoes, the site posed this question 25 years later: "Was Rotten Tomatoes wrong about Space Jam (1996)? In retrospect the influence of the original Space Jam far outweighed the actual critical consensus of the ground-breaking semi-animated feature film from Warner Brothers. The initial film existed as a success from strange beginnings, specifically a 1992-93 ad featuring Bugs Bunny alongside Michael Jordan in an advertisement for Nike. Here's what would begin the critical downfall and overall commercial appeal of the 1996 feature, its awkward marriage between product-placement ad and original entity. The film was revolutionary not just for its promotion and positivity towards the love of basketball thanks to a solid performance from Michael Jordan, but also on a technical level with its blend of computer animation aside a live action setting. Specifically this style would only be known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988 and it was said behind the scenes:
"One thing I heard was that Ivan Reitman, when they were thinking about going ahead with this movie, had phoned up Robert Zemeckis about Who Framed Roger Rabbit and asked, 'Do you have any advice on what we should do to make a movie like this?' And he said, 'Don't do it, it nearly killed me.'
— Neil Boyle, supervising animator."
So what could have been a financial disaster worked in a few different ways, partly due to the inclusion of Michael Jordan who actually retired from the sport in 1993 and started playing again in 95. This works to the film's credit, which narrates Jordan as a player who has abandoned the court, and the introduction even includes real excerpts from his interviews on retirement. This gives the movie and both director Joe Pytka and producer Ivan Reitman ample opportunity to tell a story of a comeback king, in the form of who was truly the most prolific baller of the 90s. The movie starts by introducing Jordan on a golf course, before transitioning him back into the title sport via the introduction of Bugs Bunny. The film then journeys him into the Looney Tunes dimension to save both their worlds from alien annihilation through a basketball competition. And what occurs is a often funny, ambitiously made and very consumer-approached sports film that still is the highest grossing basketball film of all time. It was a monster success and famed for its impressive CGI-work. And yes, it did go on to become a huge opportunity for branding, via lunchboxes, backpacks, etc. I'm sure I had a Space Jam backpack, come to think of it.
But even with the almost brainwashing effect it had on kids to buy buy buy Space Jam merch, the movie is also considered something of a classic these days, and did lots to keep Looney Tunes on the entertainment map, years after their golden days. And this is kind of what the Rotten Tomatoes podcast tackles (which I'll link at the bottom) by asking "...Was this merely a cynical cash grab by two major corporations keen to squeeze America’s parents’ pockets for all they could? Or was there a good time to be had here, with so much color and action and a totally random but totally winning turn by Bill Murray?" The RT consensus of Space Jam sits at 44% which isn't terrible, but is certainly shy of respective. All that aside, Space Jam owned the box office worldwide, had a 6-times platinum soundtrack (not kidding), and even today sees a re-release on 4K steelbook and a return to streaming.
I'm sure it would come to no surprise to the reader that Space Jam was eyed for a sequel almost immediately in 1996. With the waning interest in Jordan's involvement in basketball, the ball had to be passed to somebody, and 2014 saw the spotlight turn to Lebron James. James is a legend, and the film does a good job to establish his reputation as sizable enough for a slamming sequel, with a introductory credits sequence focused on his real-life rise to fame. It's hard not to get stoked watching Lebron kill it team-to-team, never letting up on his game or his focus on the court. It also establishes him as a father and family man, which creates the theme of the movie about acceptance and self-belief when it comes to one's dreams. But this is 2021, 25 years after the release of the original and 18 years after the last true Looney Tunes film: Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Will it take a superstar like Lebron James to save a franchise that has gathered quite a few cobwebs? What will this sequel attempt to accomplish? And leaving off of a big performance by Jordan, James has big shoes to fill. (Size 13, I googled it).
Space Jam: A New Legacy stars athlete James alongside a villian played by Don Cheadle and talents like Zendaya on voice-work. It's directed by Malcolm E. Lee of recent comedy work like Girls Trip. The movie adopts pretty much the same premise, with the inclusion of an A.I. character played by Cheadle called Al G. Rhythm (and cute sidekick Pete) and their quest to commercialize Lebron James into Warner Bros. content forever. They use the weakness of his son, and his love for video games as a tool to play against Lebron James in an interactive video game basketball competition. Some of the conflict is familial as James loses touch with his son over their differences of desires in career, and then there's some weird tech element were Cheadle tries to use the son's technology to implant real humans into virtual reality forever. I'm going to be honest, the movie lost me after about fifteen minutes, so I'll boil it down to: Cheadle Win: end of the world vs. James Win: shit goes back to normal, I guess.
Before I drop into what just doesn't work about this movie, I should preface by saying, without a doubt, WB wanted to make bucco dolares here. As far as promotional content goes, simply the toy and merch marketing started as early as July 2020 with...
"a hat with the film's logo became available on the WB shop website....
On September 1, 2020, it was announced that Australian toy company Moose Toys made a deal with Warner Bros. to make merchandise for the film along with the 2021 live-action/animated Tom and Jerry hybrid film
Phew! I tend not to get too long winded, and hate using an abundance of quotes in an article but holy cow. This is like Avengers level marketing, and this is a sequel to a 25 year old film. What a swing for the fences. And then there's the in-movie advertising which. never. stops. It's two straight hours of shameless self-promotion via moments of "hey remember this?" cameos from classic (WB) films alongside cut-to scenes from other live-action (WB) franchise movies, along with brief guest-star voicework from other (WB) animated series. If you were going to tell me years ago that a Space Jam movie would have cut-in sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road, a Rick and Morty cameo, and a severely controversial inclusion of A Clockwork Orange characters in the crowd of the final ballgame sequence... my jaw would have cartoon-style dropped to the floor. This is an astonishingly weird movie!! Why do we need to butter up this film with constant cameos and references? I'm not watching a satire film like Scary Movie. I'd rather be watching Scary Movie! If it wasn't groan-worthy enough to see brands left and right in early scenes of the film, then just wait for a moment where cartoon Lebron James falls through the ground and leaves behind a Nike logo. SHAME!!
At the very least, A New Legacy plays homage to the original by making a star-studded soundtrack with acts like Brockhampton, Leon Bridges and Chance the Rapper present. Maybe this movie will go on successfully as a cult-classic only to the credit of the soundtrack, because there is nothing more dating about a film then its constant need for relevance. A New Legacy is so full of references it desperately clings onto the fact that it's a new film (based on an old film) but ha-ha-ha it's also a throwback, with stale humor that would fall flat any year when released. Often there would be "haters gonna hate" type lines that felt weirdly dated to ten years prior, or at least too focused on meme-type humor that does nothing but cause cringe. It's like printing a t-shirt in 2011 that says "Me gusta" with the popular internet drawing aside it, and wearing it in 2021. I'd be ashamed of myself to even own that shirt years later and I don't (I threw it away)!
Maybe its this humor that makes the film so abundantly sad in comparison to Space Jam or classic Looney Tunes cartoons. The humor is so meme-focused, referential and overall crude that the director must have felt the need to force as many IP moments and ad pop-ups as possible into this feature to make it at least not a complete bore. And it wasn't ever boring, per se. I often couldn't look away just for the reason of shock that the movie would pull a certain quote, comic-book character or film reel out of a hat just to keep the pace of the film as frenetic as possible. It's not enough to beat noise and visual effects and logos over the heads of kids and adults to keep our eyes open, the movie constantly ups the ante and the pacing is abhorrently and increasingly wreckless. So much so, around twenty minutes in it tricked me into thinking it was an "ok film." Boy howdy, I was wrong. As the film barrels to a super obvious conclusion for every cartoon and live action character, it commits its worst sin of all: ruining the fundamentals of basketball. James constantly tries to remind his kids, and the cartoons, that basketball comes down to its fundamentals. Sure he has to reach across the court a bit to adhere to some of the goofy score mechanics such as "style points" which the video game world establishes as seemingly anything goes. As looney as it gets. So Road Runner can summon a whirlwind or something and just get 430 points in a row, just willy-nilly? James and his team learns to defeat this film's version of the Goon Squad, it has to play by their rules. But they constantly cheat. They get called out for cheating. To win, James has to cheat. I don't understand what's happening here. Moments of video-game power ups and double-jumps occur simply to score points, and the final game-winning slam dunk is kind of accomplished by cheating. At least in my opinion.
Why make a basketball movie where the fundamentals and rules of the game can be bent as long as the team comes together and fights for what's right in the name of family (Dom Toretto impersonation.) Space Jam: A New Legacy does worse than milk and old classic series for content, it takes the cow behind the barn and shoots it. It's a messy, aboherent visual trash-fire of a family film, I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy. I guess if Hollywood truly has no new original ideas, this movie is a testament to that fact. There's nothing new here. There's nothing of value here. Space Jam: A New Legacy is the worst movie I have ever seen, and for the sake of humanity and modern movie audiences worldwide let's hope...
That's all folks.