Only one thing could possibly make me nostalgic for the old “Space Jam,” and that is “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” a soulless, brainless, abusively overlong gimmick in search of a movie that lacks even the originality of the similarly terrible 1996 flick (to which it is a sequel). It begins playing in theaters and on HBO Max, which it ceaselessly promotes, Friday.
Only one thing could possibly make me nostalgic for the old “Space Jam,” and that is “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
As it opens, the new “Jam” rehashes parts of the old one: Like the 1996 film, it starts with a childhood version of its basketball player-star practicing. In the original, this is young Michael Jordan, shooting hoops after he’s supposed to be in bed. In “A New Legacy,” we get LeBron James, a much more likable screen presence, playing a Game Boy at hoops practice and getting scolded by his coach.
So far, so good: The original “Space Jam” was an 88-minute commercial for Jordan’s enormous self-regard (and various Happy Meal tie-in toys), and so Jordan’s character could seemingly do no wrong. In “A New Legacy,” James actually allows the screenwriters to give him a role (and he’s a better actor than Jordan), so we see his character take that early reprimand to heart and try to discipline his middle-schooler Dom (Cedric Joe, who is admittedly terrific) like a coach, rather than a father.
Director Malcolm D. Lee seems to want this to be a movie about learning to be a better dad. But this whole project really has no reason to exist without a fire hose of product placement, so the father-son reconciliation must take place inside an obligatory multiverse composed of stale inside jokes. Providing those is a programming algorithm at Warner Bros. Entertainment that has developed sentience, prefers to be called Al-G Rhythm and is played by Don Cheadle. (I want to emphasize that this all takes place in the world of the movie. I don’t know the name of the real-life sentient marketing computer that must have greenlighted “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”) Al-G wants LeBron to allow himself to be digitized and inserted into the studio’s intellectual property library.
When LeBron wisely rejects this idea, Al-G gets mad and forces him into the metaworld of The Serververse, where all the Warner Bros. Entertainment properties live on their own little planets. All, that is, except the “Looney Tunes” characters, who have been spread out among several of the worlds: Granny and Speedy Gonzales (now just called Speedy) hang out in “The Matrix,” Yosemite Sam plays piano in “Casablanca” and Daffy Duck causes disasters that Superman has to stop. Foghorn Leghorn, wearing a long white wig, whooshes past the screen atop a “Game of Thrones” dragon.
This is pretty clearly an advertorial for the company’s streaming service, HBO Max. Warner and Disney in particular seem to spend far more time and money acquiring and maintaining old movies, TV shows, comic books and cartoons than they do developing new ideas for those forms. Now they are looking for ways to break down the walls between those forms, both as a way to create new metasequels, like “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and as a way to get audiences used to the idea of buying a subscription rather than paying an artist.
This isn’t a new idea for a movie. It’s not even a new idea at Warner Bros. Entertainment: The studio’s “The Lego Movie” (and its spinoffs) and “Ready Player One” do exactly what “Space Jam: A New Legacy” does — “The Lego Movie” even does it pretty well. Disney did it with “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” among others.
It’s not a fundamentally dumb or evil idea, but for it to work, all this, ugh, “intellectual property” would have to be something other than window dressing. In Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics, for example, characters from Victorian literature and beyond meet, fall in love, betray one another and die tragically. At one point, Paddington Bear is revealed to be the failed experiment of H.G. Wells’ evil scientist Doctor Moreau.
The movies, cartoons and TV shows from bygone eras aren’t here to do anything; they’re on display like Christmas toys in a shop window.
This sort of blasphemy is the only thing that can make a movie like “Space Jam: A New Legacy” work. What if Neo from “The Matrix” decided to kill Al-G Rhythm and break out of the Serververse? What if Yosemite Sam killed all the Nazis in Rick’s bar? What if LeBron’s enemies on the court weren’t just generic monsters but some of the genuinely shameful things from old, memory-holed Superman and Bugs Bunny cartoons? Or better yet, the misguided heroes themselves?
Maybe it wouldn’t work, but we’d at least have a more interesting movie than this one, which is dull and doesn’t work. The movies, cartoons and TV shows from bygone eras aren’t here to do anything; they’re on display like Christmas toys in a shop window or title cards arranged in a checkerboard across your laptop screen. (Don’t you want to watch “The Matrix” now?) Somehow, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” manages to both promote and insult great movies and cartoons by trying to make them part of a crummy, halfhearted promotional multiverse based on the Warner Bros. Entertainment organization chart.
It’s particularly galling when we catch a glimpse of a character antithetical to the whole schtick. Rick and Morty — from Adult Swim’s hilarious cartoon about a mad scientist who creates and destroys entire universes for petty, selfish reasons — even make a quick cameo. They left quickly. I understood why they had to go: They didn’t want to get eaten. For all its preening and stupidity, even the original “Space Jam” wasn’t trying to absorb every other form of entertainment.