The last year or so has seen sequels to long-ago films released — Bad Boys for Life (2020), Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) — and we’ve still got Top Gun: Maverick (2021) and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) still to come. Director Malcolm D. Lee’s Space Jam: A New Legacy is the latest such delayed sequel, but it has as much in common with Space Jam (1996) as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) has with Jumanji (1995): they exist within the same narrative universe, but have no direct ties. The first film is considered a modern and more popular culture version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), except, rather than being a mixed medium classic noir comedy, it’s viewed as a cash-grab. Can the same be said of Lee’s A New Legacy? Absolutely not. It is clearly an advertisement for all things Warner Brothers, sure, but it’s a charming family film that requires little-to-no knowledge of sports to truly appreciate. It builds off of what worked in the original Jam to create something exciting, fun, and full of surprises. Not only that, it explores what a legacy really means.
In this alternate reality, famed basketball player LeBron James (himself) and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) are transported into the Warner Server-verse by the Warner artificial intelligence program Al. G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), with an agenda all his own. Separating father from son, Al pits the two against each other in a battle of supremacy, using the basketball court as their arena of combat. Lost and alone, LeBron teams up with Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman) and they gather together the O.G. Tune Squad to battle Al and Dom’s newly formed Goon Squad. With the fate of the future hanging in the balance, it’s time to jam, but can LeBron save the day without losing his son in the process?
Look, when it comes to either the OG Jam or A New Legacy, no one is expecting “art” with a capital A. We want a slam jam. We want creativity. We want something, well, looney. In this vein, A New Legacy brings the spectacle with a leading man who understands the assignment. For all his athletic ability, it’s fair to say that Jordan’s performance in Jam was not great. On the other hand, even when LeBron is clearly being outperformed by Cheadle and the Looney Tunes crew, he’s nowhere near as out of place or out of his element as Jordan. Rather, when things get wacky, he’s all-in, allowing the goofy glee he expresses upon meeting Bugs or while traveling through the various places in the Server-verse to be infectious. Who wouldn’t be overjoyed at becoming a superhero when you enter the animated DC Universe, only to hit massive disappointment when discover you’re Robin to Bugs’s Batman? We laugh not at his sadness, but at the way LeBron plays the sadness. Same when he first enters Tune World and finds himself flattened by the literal impact of landing there. LeBron’s larger-at-times performance fits the manic energy of Looney Tunes, even if the more dramatic moments are not handled as well. But that’s fine. He’s an athlete, considered one of the best to do it. His career doesn’t hang at all on this performance, but it’s one that anyone, even those sports knowledge deficient (i.e. this reviewer) can appreciate.
Speaking of Jam versus A New Legacy, the handling of the mixed medium is far superior here, and not just because the technology used is over two decades newer. Jam was mostly blue screen tech where Jordan played against performer surrogates, which likely didn’t help his performance in the slightest. Here, there’s a mix of full-on animation or updated animation with live-action that blends more evenly, allowing the performances overall to feel more natural within their context. For example, while gathering of the Tune Squad, LeBron is animated, allowing the storytellers to create jokes around his newly bent physics (i.e. Tune Logic). The bulk of the places he interacts with are also animated, so, for instance, LeBron having direct contact with any toon isn’t as out of place as it was when Jordan did it. Same with the switch from hand-drawn Chuck Jones-style into the 3D animation during game time: this change gives the Tunes more depth and weight, making their interactions with the other characters, primarily live-action performers, more life-like. Seeing the Tunes transform in the trailer was neat, but left some with questions as to why the change. Given A New Legacy’s Tron-esque storyline of being sucked into a video game-like place, there’re going to be video game-like rules and their respective style and execution requires a bit more heft to dazzle. And it does. This isn’t change for the sake of change. There’s intention in the shift and it works. Speaking of the tech, if you’re planning to go to the theater, it may be worth the extra coin for a Dolby Cinema experience (if AMC is your jam) or the equivalent at other chains. There’s such vibrancy to the special effects and the colors in the animated sequences that you’re going to lose a little of the magic in an older, less upgraded purveyor.
The biggest surprise of all is that there’s an actual story with genuine stakes in A New Legacy. Previously, it was just about saving the Tunes from eternal servitude (a reasonable thing to fear), but A New Legacy goes deeper than that, making it more about fathers and sons than about whether the Tunes and/or LeBron fall at the mercy of Al. This is where the “legacy” aspect kicks in and the deeper meaning of the story takes hold. Legacy is all about what we leave behind. For some, it means people remembering us after we’re gone. For others, it’s about metaphorically leaving something behind. Like, in this case, what we give to the next generation. In an opening that’s similar to Space Jam, we see young LeBron be instilled with the notion that he can raise himself and his loved ones through basketball and this mentality is what he brings to his kids. Except he’s so focused on basketball as “the way” that he misses Dom’s needs. With all the pop culture references, easter eggs, and wackiness, it’s pretty easy to blow-off A New Legacy as being the same as its predecessor, when, in fact, the heart of it beats with a message about what matters: what we give to those we love. Legacy isn’t just who remembers you, but what of you lives on. Just because you’ve got basketball jones doesn’t mean your kids do. Crazy at is sounds, A New Legacy might just offer an opportunity for a few heart-to-hearts among the audience when it’s all over.
When the buzzer sounds and the credits roll, ultimately all you need to know about Space Jam: A New Legacy is it’s a fun, family film. Cheadle’s Al is menacing without being terrifying, Lebron gets why people are showing up, and Lee balances the narrative needs and entertainment value to create an experience that never feels overbearing. Additionally, there’s no predication on basketball or Warner Brothers pop culture knowledge to appreciate it. It certainly helps to get the zillions of references, but, ultimately, the open accessibility here is fantastic. It’s for this reason that A New Legacy feels likely to appeal to a wider audience and remain more timely than Jam. Most importantly, it’s just plain old, laugh-out-loud fun. Whether at home or in the theater, lace up your Nikes™ and get ready to slam jam one more time.
In select theaters and streaming on HBO Max Ad-Free Tier for 31 days beginning July 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Space Jam: A New Legacy website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.