It took 25 years for Warner Bros. to get around to making a sequel to Space Jam, the 1996 live-action/animation hybrid that teamed a squad of cartoon cutups with Michael Jordan at the height of his fame. It takes 25 minutes for Bugs Bunny to tunnel his way into that sequel, becoming the first Looney Tune to appear in this supposed Looney Tunes movie. Maybe the rabbit and his studio both took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Space Jam: A New Legacy takes almost nothing but wrong turns, all leading to a glittering CGI trash heap of cameos, pat life lessons, and stale internet catchphrases. Its first misstep: keeping Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the gang on the bench for about as long as it would take the audience to watch three and a half Merrie Melodies.
The star of a new Space Jam has big Air Jordans to fill, but only when it comes to star power; as an actor, His Airness was as flat and rigid as a backboard. LeBron James, heir apparent to MJ’s throne, seems on paper like a dream trade—he stole plenty of laughs in Trainwreck a few summers ago. Sadly, LeBron doesn’t look much more natural than Mike did trading banter with green-screened tennis balls. And he just looks bored during the Tuneless opening stretch, which establishes the conflict between this fictionalized version of James and his preteen son, Dom (Cedric Joe). The source of their familial strife seems calibrated to speak to ’90s kids and their own more tech-savvy offspring: The King wants his boy to follow in his size-15 footsteps, while Dom would rather design basketball-themed video games.
The space of this Space Jam is cyber-, not outer-. LeBron and Dom end up sucked into the Warner Bros. “serververse,” a nondescript computer void ruled by a sentient algorithm (a miscast Don Cheadle). Al G. Rhythm, as the villain is witlessly named, wants to digitize LeBron’s likeness and pair him off with a bunch of characters from the Warner vault… which is, you know, exactly what A New Legacy sets out to do. A streak of self-aware humor doesn’t extend to the, well, algorithmically calculated nature of the premise: If there’s an irony in the film essentially realizing the evil plot of its bad guy, one Harry Potter and Game Of Thrones reference at a time, it seems lost on director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) and his whopping six screenwriters.
It’s once LeBron is hurled into Tune town that the movie goes full Ready Player One. The NBA superstar joins forces with Bugs Bunny to track down all his old friends, who have taken up in the various satellite worlds that make up the Warner Bros. portfolio. This means we get a quick race through an animated Metropolis and Gotham, Matrix bullet-time gags a couple decades past their expiration date, and some Zemeckis-style splicing of characters into preexisting live-action movies that might leave the respective directors of said movies gritting their teeth or rolling around in their graves. When the action inevitably shifts to the game of hoops, where father must face off against son in a video-game bastardization of basketball with no internal logic, A New Legacy fills the stands with a century’s worth of intellectual property. This proves more distracting than likely intended: We are not, presumably, meant to be counting background Jokers during the big tear-jerking climax of the movie.
Look, the original Space Jam, released long enough ago that its adolescent fans might now have adolescents of their own, was shameless product, too. It limped to 88 minutes with detours into Jordan’s swanky mansion and forced its cartoon cavalry to compete for screen time against Wayne Knight and a bunch of basketball players who delivered their lines much less confidently than they put the rock through the net. Worse still, it turned some of the most beloved characters in the history of animation into NBA mascots, their slapstick personalities “comically” replaced with sports-gear cool. (Successfully, it must be noted: This writer was at the right age to see a lot of classmates in Taz jerseys.) But if that modest hit took inspiration from a series of commercials, this simultaneously new-fangled and nostalgia-courting reboot basically is a commercial. What it’s selling is Warner Bros. itself, via a brand-crossover jamboree with all the fun and creativity of a stockholders meeting.
Looney diehards will have to make do with one traditionally animated stretch that puts a cartoon James in the Elmer Fudd role. It’s no “What’s Opera, Doc?” but it at least approximates the comic slapstick style of these characters, however briefly. After that, the Tunes are around only to shill for their studio stable mates, say stuff like “Winning” and “Well, that happened,” and—in the film’s nadir, teased on Twitter a couple weeks back—engage in a truly mortifying half-time rap battle. They don’t even look like themselves, thanks to a mid-film makeover into 3-D plush dolls. Still, in at least one respect, A New Legacy is successful: Even those who hated the first Space Jam may find themselves suddenly nostalgic for its comparably quaint charms.