The new film Space Jam: A New Legacy serves as nothing less than a feature-length definition of the word “dispiriting” for the year 2021. While it is not entirely inaccurate to acknowledge that this could’ve been worse, because the early trailers promised an absolute disaster — a kids’-film version of Cats — that is an insultingly low bar for a movie to clear. Space Jam: A New Legacy may not be quite as horrible as it looked, but it’s still quite bad and a dark sign of a future in which movie studios treat actors as props and as easily, digitally replaceable as any other part of a CGI world.
If you know the original Space Jam, which marks its 25th anniversary this year (a phrase that should send a chill down the spine of any elder millennial), then you know the basic outline of A New Legacy, a film that is itself a basic outline in search of a story. There is a massive, world-renowned NBA superstar, this time in the form of LeBron James. There is a laughably, nonsensically contrived reason for said superstar to be sucked into a fantastical world full of Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. And there is an equally idiotic reason for the superstar and the animated characters to join forces and play a high-stakes game of basketball against a nefarious villain.
The key difference in A New Legacy, a film that mostly sidesteps its predecessor aside from a lazy fourth-wall-breaking moment or two, is that it accounts for being a film of the 2020s as directly as possible. What this means is that A New Legacy is a film steeped to the gills with everyone’s favorite initialism, IP. Better known as intellectual property, IP is now the depressing lifeblood that makes major movie studios like Warner Bros. tick, and it’s all they can thrive on to ensure their continued future. The setup of A New Legacy is that LeBron, so laser-focused on improving his game as an L.A. Laker, has become overly harsh on his video-game-creator son Dom (Cedric Joe). When LeBron and Dom visit Warner Bros. as executives pitch him on an algorithmic plan to insert LeBron into the studio’s biggest properties, they’re sucked into something called the Warner ServerVerse by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), and yadda yadda yadda, LeBron and the Looney Tunes have to play a life-or-death game of basketball or else.
The cleverness of this film, with a script credited to a disturbingly long list of writers, extends as far as Cheadle’s character name. (See, because if you say Al G. Rhythm, it might sound like the word “algorithm.” See? Do you get the joke? Do you?) The story is a drab and rote rehash of father-son issues plenty of other family films have attempted to hash out. The presence of IP as far as the eye can see makes a comparison to Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One unavoidable, but the film this seems heavily indebted to is Steven Spielberg’s Hook, whose eponymous bad guy, much like Cheadle’s here, tries to lure the hero’s frustrated son over to the dark side.
Of course, A New Legacy is really about preserving the legacy of Warner Bros.’ IP, by ensuring that we don’t forget that WB has everything from Game of Thrones to The Matrix to Mad Max: Fury Road to Casablanca. One specific sequence in the first half, in which LeBron and Bugs Bunny recruit various Tunes to his team, is a montage inserting the newly animated Tunes into scenes from some of the aforementioned titles. There are many contenders for Most Embarrassing Scene of the Year in this film, but that one takes the cake.
It’s enough to make a viewer think of the haunting first half of the 2013 indie film The Congress. It’s a film blending live action and animation, in which Robin Wright plays herself, grappling in a fictional world where studios now digitize actors in full in the hopes of using them in films in perpetuity. Wright struggles with whether or not she should submit to such a binding contract, but she eventually does, leading to a second half in which it becomes clear that sending three-dimensional versions of people to a digital creative cloud has caused disaster in the future. The Congress is a film whose ambitions surpass its ability to achieve them, but it’s an intelligent, complex, remarkably acted movie. It is, in short, everything that Space Jam: A New Legacy is not, a film that has no ambitions aside from reviving IP simply to make sure it doesn’t languish too long. (For a film that is partially animated and features the Looney Tunes, this movie treats the Looney Tunes like second-tier characters, leading to the question: why make a movie where the characters are seen as old hat?)
If there is any saving grace to this film, it is Don Cheadle. No doubt he was paid well to appear in the film as the bad guy (and let’s not wonder too long why a computer algorithm would always show up as a flesh-and-blood human), but Cheadle is at least doing his best to earn the paycheck. His performance is incredibly over the top, but that allows for some energy to burst through the otherwise lazy and desperate script and overall filmmaking. This is not the best Cheadle performance in a 2021 film available on HBO Max; that would be Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move. But Cheadle is, to his credit, not phoning in the work. He’s doing far more than this movie deserves.
Let’s be honest. If there is such a thing as a review-proof movie, it is Space Jam: A New Legacy. If you’ve arrived at the end of this review, kudos, but you and I both know that your mind is made up about this film. You have either watched the trailer for this film and found it to be disturbing and embarrassing, and you wish to avoid the film like the plague; or you cannot wait to see if this movie will live up to your hopes and your latent nostalgia for the Michael Jordan-led original. Space Jam: A New Legacy, both in its cravenly cynical development and release, is not a surprising film. The marketing didn’t lie. This movie is exactly what it looks like. And it’s a grim glimpse at a potential future of mainstream filmmaking. No thanks.
/Film Rating: 2 out of 10
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