'Space Jam: A New Legacy' Review: A Clash Of Vanity Projects : Pop Culture Happy Hour Twenty-five years ago, the movie Space Jam paired Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. Now, Space Jam: A New Legacy brings together Bugs Bunny and LeBron James. It's now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

'Space Jam: A New Legacy' Is The Ultimate Vanity Project

'Space Jam: A New Legacy' Is The Ultimate Vanity Project

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1015318533/1016669806" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LeBron James stars alongside Bugs Bunny in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

toggle caption
Warner Bros. Pictures

LeBron James stars alongside Bugs Bunny in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Warner Bros. Pictures

At some point, a pitch was made for the multimedia project that would become Moonwalker, a 90-minute hybrid short film/music video collection serving as Michael Jackson's opulent shrine to himself. It included, among many other flights of fancy: a 10-minute retrospective looking back on the highs of his career up to that point, from his breakout with The Jackson 5 through to Bad; a segment in which he's chased around a studio lot by rabid fans rendered in Claymation; and the film's centerpiece, a cheesy morality tale involving Joe Pesci as a mobster whose evil plan is to get everyone in the world hooked on drugs — starting with Jackson's three adolescent companions (one of whom is a young Sean Lennon) whom the benevolent Jackson must save by turning into a Transformer-like robot-spaceship.

It's as weird as it sounds. And I mention it here because I couldn't get it out of my head while watching Space Jam: A New Legacy, the bloated sequel to the 1996 feature Space Jam. Like Moonwalker, both Space Jams feature Black superstars (first Michael Jordan, now LeBron James) whose legends had already been firmly secured in history prior to their participation in these respective projects. All three films contain an accomplished character actor hamming it up as a villain who wishes to destroy the superstar's power to be superstars. And your enjoyment of any of these movies will depend heavily on two factors: your age and your level of obsession with said superstar.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Space Jam: A New Legacy opens not unlike its predecessor. In a flashback to 1998, a young LeBron James (Stephen Kankole) has a bad day on the court with his basketball team and gets a prescient pep talk from his coach (Wood Harris) about how he could turn out to become a once-in-a-lifetime player. Cue the opening credits scene tracing highlights from James' career on and off the court (including, notably, his response to Fox News' Laura Ingraham telling him to "shut up and dribble") to bring us into the present day, where LeBron, playing himself, is rich and famous and a loving husband and father of three.

A few callbacks here and there notwithstanding, that's about where the direct similarities to the Michael Jordan Space Jam end. A New Legacy is focused not just on solidifying James's on-court bona fides, but also in casting him as a hardcore family man with values. The central conflict involves middle child Dom (Cedric Joe), who is less interested in following in his dad's sneakers than he is in creating his own video games, an interest that befuddles and disappoints LeBron. This tension transfers over when LeBron and Dom suddenly find themselves sucked into the Warner Bros. "server verse." There they encounter Al G. Rhythm (get it?), an AI figure played by a very game Don Cheadle who has an ax to grind with LeBron because the athlete clowned his idea to insert a digitized version of James into Warner Bros. biggest movies. (The studio bosses who pitch this idea to LeBron include Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun, running away with those paychecks.)

Al G., hellbent on fame and respect, challenges LeBron to a viral ballgame; if LeBron wins, he and Dom can go home, and if Al G.'s team wins, LeBron and Dom must stay in the server forever. LeBron (himself now animated, at least for a bit) is banished to Tune World, where he assembles a team with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the gang. Dom remains with Al G., who nefariously steals the tech that went into the boy's video game creation, which involves digitizing the styles of other famous pro ball players like Diana Taurasi and Anthony Davis. (Together, these uberpowerful animated avatars form Al G.'s Goon Squad, analogs to the Monstars from the first film.)

Or something like that. Honestly, the character motivations are so sleight and the plot machinations so convoluted, they mostly take a back seat to all of the self-mythologizing, of which there is a copious amount. Though as early as the first few minutes of the movie, when 1998 LeBron is seen briefly playing a Looney Tunes Gameboy game, you may begin to wonder who's being served more by this extremely self-referential exercise in corporate shilling: James or Warner Bros.?

While the original Space Jam concentrated its cross-universe appeal in getting MJ and his NBA pals (including Charles Barkley and Muggsy Bogues) together with the Looney Tunes, A New Legacy feels more like an overstimulating Warner Bros. theme park, where every recognizable product from its vast catalog has been whittled down to a visual meme.

The tornado sequence from The Wizard Of Oz? It's in here for a hot second. Rick's Café from Casablanca? Also here, with Yosemite Sam. The Iron Giant, Pennywise the Clown, The Mask, the "Droogs" from A Clockwork Orange (what?! why?!) and far too many other cinematic icons are cobbled together here during the movie's climactic space jam, ready and waiting for you to play "I spy" as you search for them amongst the game's crowd of onlookers. Once you spot one, the movie's creators must hope, that little recognition censor in your brain will activate and you'll experience something like nostalgia. Nostalgia is a very real feeling; it's also cheap.

What you're left with is a film of two competing vanity projects in one — LeBron vs. Warner Bros. — that's about 25 minutes too long and feels inconsequential to either legacy it's attempting to burnish. LeBron doesn't need his own Space Jam (neither did Jordan; or Jackson, for that matter, when it came to Moonwalker) and Warner already has its own popular streaming platform (HBO Max) and actual, in-the-flesh theme parks.

So it comes down to a question of who, exactly, is this movie for. Anytime vanity is involved in a project of this nature, the die-hard fans will find something (or a lot of things!) to love – I can speak from the experience of owning a VHS copy of the Moonwalker VHS when I was an MJ-obsessed kid, and watching it over and over. There are other millennials who, to this day, ride hard for the original Space Jam on a wave of wistfulness for their youth, and I imagine plenty of kids today will get a kick out of seeing LeBron cavort around with Superman and Wonder Woman. But the Moonwalkers and Space Jams of the world are limited by their inherently blatant brand loyalty — for the rest of us, it's all just an algorithm dump.

The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast panel includes Stephen Thompson, Aisha Harris, and Andrew Limbong. The audio was produced by Mike Katzif and Candice Lim. The audio and text was edited by Jessica Reedy.

Correction July 16, 2021

A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Muggsy Bogues' name as Mugsy Bowes.