1996 was a weird time, man. The omnipresent nature of corporations and big business seems almost suffocating in 2021, but 25 years ago, Warner Bros. boldly decided that it didn’t need anything more than a couple of hot brands to sell a movie, jamming Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny together in “Space Jam.” Turns out the studio was right, too, and despite a threadbare plot and a star that couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, the film tripled its budget and paved the way for a merchandising bonanza that almost certainly dusted the box office take.
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It’s a little surprising, then, that “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is as good as it is. Bolstered by a confident and capable lead performance, and a script that’s more than just a tortuous excuse to get the best basketball player on the planet into a cross-brand promotional vehicle, the franchise reboot boasts something the original sorely lacked—heart. A kid’s movie, to be sure, this new entry into the “Space Jam” universe is anchored by ideas rooted in fatherhood, compassion, and compromise, and should connect with parents and children alike.
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Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, the new film opens with a brief flashback to the childhood of LeBron James, who learns at a young age that focus and dedication to his craft are the keys to his basketball destiny. A brief montage of his professional career catches the audience up on his bona fides, which brings the film to the present, where LeBron is struggling to connect with his youngest child, 12-year-old Dom (Cedric Joe). LeBron is frustrated that his son isn’t committed to basketball the way he was at that age, but his wife (Sonequa Martin-Green) reminds him that Dom’s true passion lies in video game development.
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When LeBron takes a meeting at Warner Bros. to discuss having his likeness downloaded into their servers for animated games and media crossovers, he takes Dom with him to try and connect with the kid. He’s unaware that an A.I. algorithm named Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) is the true architect of this Warner Bros. pitch and is more than a little distressed when Al-G zaps both LeBron and Dom into the “Serververse” to get the elder James on board with the idea. Confident that his computer trickery will serve him well in the Serververse, Al-G challenges LeBron to a game of basketball, wagering his and Dom’s freedom against a promise to remain in the Serververse forever.
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From here, it’s about what one would expect, with LeBron recruiting Bugs Bunny and other members of the Toon Squad while Al-G uses Dom’s game design know-how to integrate members of the modern WNBA and NBA into the match as the opposing squad. A running theme throughout the picture is LeBron’s unwillingness to bend his approach to life and basketball when dealing with others, insisting that Dom, and later then Toon Squad, apply the same relentless, dogged attitude he maintains. It’s not much, but it does represent a believable character and story arc for a film building towards the inevitable big game.
LeBron carries this drama capably, and while he struggles at times with more complex acting moments involving panic or fear, his willingness to be vulnerable and reflective plays well. On the court doing basketball stuff, yeah, he’s great, but what’s surprising is Lebron’s ability to be earnest and authentic when the scenes call for it. Indeed, although the jury is still out on player comparisons to Jordan, LeBron breaks the ankles of His Airness as far as acting.
Yet, like his on-court dominance, LeBron’s good work leaves little spotlight for those around him. Cheadle does decent work in a supporting role that comes off as a mix of Ultron and Captain Hook and pairs well with young Cedric Joe, who does his best work with the actor. Marin-Green is also strong though similarly overshadowed in her small supporting role as a no-nonsense wife and mother, who the script finds a way to get courtside for the big match.
Oh yeah, about the game—it’s pretty cool. As seen in the trailers, Warner Bros. went all-in and raided its I.P. vault to get everyone from King Kong to Catwoman in the stands, and it’s a fun detail that will reward eagle-eyed viewers (Immortan Joe’s War Boys cheering courtside was a nice touch). Things slow down at times to give the marquee characters something to do (did we really need a Porky Pig rap battle?), but the spectacle never overtakes the greater effort.
So, all things considered, yeah, this newest “Space Jam” installment is a good time and boasts real heart. LeBron’s steady work as the lead and a narrative undercurrent built on a believable father-son relationship makes for a breezy 115 minutes and improves on the harmless, yet admittedly stiff original. And while LeBron might not be in the Finals right now, he has definitely scored a win here. [B+]
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” arrives in theaters and HBO Max on July 16.