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film review

LeBron James stars in Space Jam: A New Legacy.Warner Bros.

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  • Space Jam: A New Legacy
  • Directed by Malcolm D. Lee
  • Written by Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon and Celeste Ballard
  • Starring LeBron James, Don Cheadle and Cedric Joe
  • Classification PG; 115 minutes
  • Available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store, starting July 16, the same day it opens in Canadian theatres

Space Jam occupies a weird little corner of our foggy-pop brains. I swear that there are hordes of millennials (and some Gen-Xers) who insist that the original 1996 sports comedy starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny remains an unimpeachable cultural touchstone – a half-animated masterpiece along the lines of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but blessed with one excellent (if now problematic) R. Kelly single.

That’s the duplicitous power of nostalgia, I suppose, as a recent rewatch of the film (which was originally spawned from a pair of Nike commercials) confirmed that it’s a fine-enough kids movie whose best parts involve a) Billy West’s unhinged voice performance as Bugs and b) Bill Murray’s sardonic cameo as a jerk named Bill Murray. But the young-at-heart wants what it wants, and what Space Jam fans’ inner children desire – nay, demand! – is a sequel. Even if it took a quarter of a century to arrive.

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While Space Jam: A New Legacy is less a direct follow-up than a remake – it flicks at the events of the first film, inconsequential as they are – it does offer everything that a Space Jam devotee could crave. There is a basketball star (LeBron James this time), an epic match, a handful of celebrity cameos and a bunch of beloved cartoon characters wrecking PG-level havoc. Kids under the age of 11 should enjoy it. But be highly suspicious of any adult who starts singing its praises, either today or a generation from now.

In a backward way, the film’s disposability is its most interesting element. The scripted-by-six-people plot focuses on LeBron, playing himself, being wooed by Warner Bros. executives to partner up with “Warner 3000,” a computer algorithm that will digitize the sports icon’s likeness into a wealth of intellectual property. Think of LeBron challenging the White Walkers of Game of Thrones to a game of pickup.

While the film is less a direct follow-up than a remake, it does offer everything that a Space Jam devotee could crave.Warner Bros.

After LeBron rejects the offer (“Athletes acting never goes well,” he says in a line that would be cutely self-aware if it wasn’t immediately and repeatedly confirmed by the proceeding 100 minutes), he gets hijacked by the sentient algorithm (personified by Don Cheadle) into WB’s “server-verse.” It’s there where LeBron and his young son Dom (Cedric Joe) are pitted against each other – father playing with the Looney Tunes, son partnered up with superpowered pros – in a basketball game that will determine the fate of the world. And the future of WB’s production pipeline.

The corporate-synergy-ness of it all is both deeply distressing and unintentionally fascinating. There is something stomach-churning-ly captivating about watching a wooden James, stripped of whatever comedic charm he displayed in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, strut his stuff on the court while dialogue-less extras dressed as WB’s most beloved characters (The Joker, The Matrix’s Agent Smith, Pennywise the Clown, and, uh, the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange) cheer from the sidelines.

Director Malcolm D. Lee (who took over after the 2019 departure of Terance Nance, who himself took over after Justin Lin was hired in 2016) is presumably trying to create an entertaining ode to both the athletic talents of James and the strength of WB’s many copyrights. But the film’s true, awe-inspiring power is its vast and chilling emptiness. Space Jam: A New Legacy represents the great end point of contemporary cinematic universe filmmaking (sorry, “server-verse”): a dead-eyed collection of intellectual property that erases any fondness viewers might have once held for the assembled icons.

Looney Tunes characters each get a brief moment to remind children of their uniquely chaotic potency.Warner Bros.

At least the Looney Tunes get a few zany moments, here in their first big-screen adventure since Joe Dante’s 2003 feature Back in Action. Bugs, Daffy, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian: each get a brief moment to remind children of their uniquely chaotic potency. Curiously, the quasi-problematic Pepé Le Pew is absent, his scene dumped after it was filmed in 2019. Yet a “bro”-spouting Speedy Gonzales is here, as is Porky Pig, who, in a wholly embarrassing scene, raps as the “Notorious PIG.” That’s surely a foul. Or “I say, a fowl,” as Foghorn Leghorn might correct me.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.