I got a sinking feeling at the beginning of “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” It’s similar to the one which creeps up whenever I see the “based on actual events” disclaimer, and I know I must proceed with caution, and sometimes, outright paranoia. But this one has gotten a hell of a lot more pervasive due its steadily increasing frequency – that a Very Important Lesson was going to be shoehorned in.
Turns out I was wrong. There wasn’t one lesson we were going to learn…there were three, and they could all be summed up thusly: Family Is Important. Good god. Movies like this used to be ridiculed and derisively referred to as After School Specials. So how exactly did they invade our big budget films?
Anyhow, once we get past the childhood flashbacks with all the enjoyable throwbacks out of the way, “Space Jam” quickly goes downhill, with a now adult LeBron James insisting his 12-year-old son Dom (Cedric Joe) put aside all that fun nonsense, get serious about basketball, and forget about all that video game design stuff he actually enjoys. Clearly we’ve got an adventure with a reconciliation at the end to get to, so LeBron and Dom have to hurry on over to…the Warner Bros. studio lot to hear LeBron turn down what could possibly be the best business offer of all time.
That makes the actual, and very sentient algorithm Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle, making the best of a bad situation) who came up with the idea pretty resentful, so he transports father and son to his digital realm, kidnaps Dom, and challenges LeBron to a basketball game. If LeBron wins, he gets his son back. If he loses, he remains uploaded forever.
You can’t blame the movie for attempting to find a somewhat logical reason for cartoon characters to be in a high stakes basketball game, but there isn’t so much a plot as a whole lot of product placement and upgrades, which the movie somehow confuses for originality. True, shameless product placement is a sin the original “Space Jam” is also guilty of, but at least it had a mostly cohesive story and actual humor. What this one has is a basic outline built around corporate synergy.
Just how much do things go downhill? Warner Bros. basically takes its vast catalog full of iconic scenes, characters and history…and turns them into window dressing. The Looney Tunes departing their home to explore other worlds in their vast universe is a good excuse for a journey with shouts outs from much of our shared cultural experiences, with “Casablanca,” “The Matrix,” “Fury Road,” and “Austin Powers” making appearances, with even some “Rick and Morty” getting thrown in, but none of these last more than a few minutes. Various characters are quickly retrieved and added to the team roster, with no one even asking the Justice League if they’d like to, say, get involved in the type of heroic fight for justice and family that no self-respecting superhero would ever turn down.
By the time we got to the actual game and the appearance from the original Goon Squad (who never even talk!), I couldn’t muster enough emotion to feel like I was missing something or even wish that there was some follow up on Lola Bunny (Zendaya) joining up with Wonder Woman and becoming a frigging Amazon, although I did manage to wonder if Steven Yeun and Sarah Silverman’s roles were ever going to amount to something beyond extended cameos. Answer? No, and they aren’t even credited on IMDB. I mean, goddamn.
No, Warner Bros. is more interested in the whole Look What We Can Do Now! concept, throwing out various shiny digital monstrosities at us as things plod along. If there is any real message in “Space Jam,” it’s how depressingly incomprehensible life without phones is to most of us, since it never seems to occur to anyone to unplug something or just shut off the WiFi. I’m even hard pressed to find a scapegoat, since Malcolm D. Lee has proven himself to be a capable comedic director via the “Best Man” movies and “Girls Trip,” and there are so many screenwriters involved it seems impossible to blame just one.
90’s zaniness can be reshaped into brilliance, as the “Saved By The Bell” reboot proves. But in spite of all the fancy new enhancements that are so frantic things can’t even slow down enough to even let LeBron James be cool, what really ails “Space Jam” is very basic. When gadgets are prized over character, everyone loses.