LeBron James’ ‘Space Jam’ Reboot Is an Abomination
After 25 years of looking forward to the Space Jam sequel, we instead got ugly effects, crass corporate synergy, and two hours of LeBron James learning what an algorithm is.
Space Jam: A New Legacy Ruined My Childhood
Last weekend, as “research” for the Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James that’s out Friday in theaters and on HBO Max, I rewatched the original 1996 film for the first time in at least two decades. Though it is important to point out that, in that first year after it came out, I probably watched it at least 15-20 times.
Revisiting objects of nostalgia after so long can be traumatizing. Surely, I thought, the movie was going to be dumb, bordering on unwatchable. Michael Jordan would make me want to pull my arm hairs out one by one to disguise the pain of his acting. Whatever pedestal I had put my toon pals on was about to come crashing violently down in my dumb little apartment, [redacted]-year-old me devastated by fond memories now ruined.
But guys, the original Space Jam still slaps.
The opening scene alone of young Michael Jordan practicing hoops in the middle of the night while “I Believe I Can Fly” plays—once you have let out the “yeesh...” after recognizing who sings that song—is iconic. It’s moving when you’re a [redacted]-year-old youth in 1996 and about to love the movie so much you force your mom to buy you a novelty bomber jacket with a Space Jam decal on the back from Burlington Coat Factory. It’s still moving when you’re watching it again 25 years later with some wine, thinking about whether you could pull off that coat today.
Then that “come on and SLAM and welcome to the JAM” song starts booming and oh my fucking god. The irresistible music never relents. (All-time great soundtrack.)
Mostly, I was impressed by how much of it impressed me. There are really clever meta jokes about Jordan’s ill-fated baseball career. The pacing is seamless, moving from the events on Earth to the ones on the Looney Tunes’ planet. And when the two worlds meet, the effects are pretty spectacular.
The Three Stooges-esque humor is still funny. Jordan does a surprisingly good job acting in what I’m sure was a challenging, bizarre green-screen shoot. Wayne Knight is in it, the only true identifying mark of a ’90s pop-culture phenomenon.
It pumped my heart up, Looney Tunes-style, to oversized excitement for the sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy, which I saw earlier this week. Instead, it was truly one of the most unpleasant times I’ve had watching a film in recent memory. Would I use a hyperbolic word like “abomination” to describe it? I don’t know. Maybe Bugs Bunny would.
When it finally ended after what seemed like another 25 years had passed—evidently only 115 minutes in the real world—I almost felt shell-shocked. I don’t remember getting back to the street from my theater seat. It’s as if I floated out in a daze.
I pride myself on grading these kinds of things on a curve. It’s a big-swing blockbuster. It’s meant to appeal to kids. The corporate opportunism is going to be glaring. But you can still do that with a sense of fun and style. Even just recently, Cruella did just that.
I was shocked by how cynical the whole thing was. The animation and the effects were confusingly ugly. LeBron James makes Michael Jordan look like the Meryl Streep of athlete-actors. There was one good joke—which I won’t spoil—and other than that I legitimately don’t remember laughing. At the Looney Tunes!!!
The whole thing, and I can’t believe my career has come to the point where I am about to type these words, misses everything that was magical about the spirit of Space Jam.
When I describe to you the plot of this film, I need you to imagine sitting in a theater ignorant of it, watching it unfold in utter disbelief.
LeBron James and his son, Dom, have tension because Dom wants to be a video game developer and James wants him to be a basketball great just like Dad. Warner Brothers approaches James with the idea of incorporating a digital likeness of the NBA star into the company’s entire suite of franchises, which James rejects but Dom finds at least technologically fascinating.
The offer, you see, was calculated by a megalomaniac computer algorithm (?) named Al-G Rhythm who takes the form of Don Cheadle. Al-G is offended that James doesn’t appreciate his genius, and so he kidnaps both James and Dom, trapping them in the never-not-baffling Warner Brothers “ServerVerse” (inside a computer).
As James travels through the ServerVerse’s solar system of “planets” housing various WB intellectual properties—a Harry Potter World, a Game of Thrones planet, a DC Comics one—Al-G recruits Dom and uses a basketball video game he invented to threaten James. James can only save his son if he recruits a team of Looney Tunes players to help him defeat Al-G’s virtual Goon Squad in an immersive version of Dom’s video game.
If you followed that, congratulations, you’re now in Mensa.
The thing about the original Space Jam, which has a vaguely similar and strange plot, is that the impetus for the basketball game comes when the Big Bad Guy tries to pimp the Looney Tunes out as a gross corporate attraction and that’s considered a bad thing. Here, that pimping is the entire point.
The film becomes “spot that absurdly out of place Warner Brothers property!” more than a coherent story. There are incessant Game of Thrones shots of Daenerys’s dragons and the White Walkers. Pennywise from It is there. The War Boys from Mad Max. Alex and the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange. King Kong. The Mask. You know, classic kid stuff.
But even that game of I Spy can’t make the climactic basketball game, which I swear lasts probably half of the film’s screen time and is impossible to follow or make sense of, any fun.
I guess that’s the thing: I expected fun and got whatever the complete opposite of that is. (The complete opposite is LeBron James listening to people explain what a computer algorithm is for two hours.) And I had just experienced the fun of what it could have been. Has Space Jam: A New Legacy gaslighted me into believing that the original film was a masterpiece? Maybe that’s its most impressive special effect.