On paper, making a new version of the beloved 1996 “Space Jam” looks like an easy layup. The movie should be a cash cow, targeting nostalgia-loving millennials who are now parents wanting to introduce Looney Tunes to their own kids. We even have a cocky NBA superstar to boot. Yet Hollywood executives managed to misread what exactly made the original “Space Jam” so great, and spike their version with shameless money-grabs along the way.
Instead of Michael Jordan, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” stars LeBron James. And instead of playing an intergalactic basketball game to secure freedom for the Looney Tunes, James must play in a virtual basketball game for his videogamer son’s freedom.
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes are back again, except for Pepé Le Pew, who was retroactively removed from the sequel for aggressive flirting, now considered problematic. Lola Bunny, who made her debut in the first “Space Jam,” is also back, but a less sexy version of the character because being a sexy bunny is also considered problematic now too, I guess.
From the opening credits, “A New Legacy” immediately smells of a LeBron James vanity project, flashing a reel of notable moments in James’ career, and not just his basketball highlights. Some of the very first words you hear James speak are the “We will not shut up and dribble” line he said in response to Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, as if to remind you he’s bigger than basketball.
But as the plot unfolds, it becomes more than James’s project – although it certainly is that, as you are reminded regularly by references to him as “king” throughout the film. In reality, it is a Warner Bros. vanity project, perhaps even written by the Warner Bros. board of directors themselves to shamelessly plug their IP and sign up new HBO Max subscribers.
“The studio ostentatiously flips through its library of properties throughout the film, most notably in a series of brief clips of James gathering Tunes who have relocated to ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Austin Powers’ and, most distressingly, ‘Casablanca,’” writes Mary Sollosi in Entertainment Weekly.
“There is not much to be taken from these scenes, not even the pleasure of nostalgia; no meaningful reference is made to these films in spirit or content,” Sollosi writes, which is why the sheer amount of Warner Bros. content seems so brazen. Why do both Scooby-Doo and Pennywise the clown have random sideline cameos? It leaves the audience wondering whether this film was made for 10-year-olds or Warner Bros. shareholders.
Beyond the shameless plugs, the movie is a failure because the filmmakers don’t understand what made the original wacky basketball movie so successful the first time around. The popularity of the National Basketball Association and Michael Jordan in 1996 cannot be overstated.
The original “Space Jam” was made following the era of the Bulls Dream Team when Jordan was on Wheaties boxes and his shoes were flying off the shelves. So even though a bit looney, it made sense that Bugs Bunny would need to borrow the talents of Jordan and other ’90s NBA stars to win an alien basketball game.
LeBron James may be a comparable superstar, but today neither James nor the NBA has the same aura that carried the success of the original “Space Jam.” Despite all comparisons and seeming similarities, Jordan and LeBron could not be more different.
In the face of tremendous personal challenges such as the murder of his father, Jordan came out of retirement to earn MVP awards and three more NBA championships. Contrast that to this year’s NBA playoffs, when James faced a tough loss and bailed on his teammates, heading to the locker room five minutes before the game was even over.
Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Jazz is the most-watched NBA game in history. Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals was down 50 percent from Game 1 in 2018.
Sports journalists blame the league’s dismal ratings on an abnormal pandemic year, but it’s hard to pretend the NBA’s overt Black Lives Matter virtue signaling and player protests, often championed by James, didn’t lend to the decline. It’s no wonder Hollywood executives turned elsewhere, mainly video games and existing IP, to build their film around instead.
There is nothing wrong with a cheap, shameless play on nostalgia, but when Hollywood gets caught up in confusion about who their target audience for that nostalgia is and why it works, you get box office flops like “A New Legacy.” The film served its two main purposes — securing James’s version of his superstar legacy, and establishing a space for Warner Bros. product placement on the HBO Max home page — but that’s about it.