LOS ANGELES: “Space Jam,” the 1996 live-action/animated sports comedy, was adapted from a line of Nike commercials starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Now the 2021 version, “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” is being panned by critics as a two-hour commercial for Warner Bros, in some ways bringing the first film’s legacy full circle.
Yet despite the negative critical reception, the comedy is proving financially successful. In its $32 million opening weekend, “A New Legacy” ousted “Black Widow” from the No.1 box office spot on only in its second weekend in cinemas, marking the studio’s biggest opening during the pandemic era.
Performances by live-action stars LeBron James and Don Cheadle have been hailed by critics. James slots into the 1996 Michael Jordan role, playing a character loosely based on himself who is roped into a fantastical game of basketball alongside the Looney Toons.
“When I think back to watching ‘Space Jam’ and having a love for Bugs Bunny and the Looney Toons, and you add on Michael Jordan, one of my inspirations growing up, I felt like it was a match made in heaven,” James said.
“He could have a long career in this,” said Cheadle of his co-star. “Just seeing how he took to all this was amazing. He’s acting. I mean he’s really tapping into his emotions. He’s bringing everything to the role.”
Cheadle is the film’s protagonist Al-G Rhythm, an artificial intelligence that controls the properties at a fictionalized version of Warner Bros. The events of the film are kicked when James declines an in-universe movie deal from Al-G and Warner executives to be digitally added to various WB film properties. James and his son Dom are then lured and kidnapped into the digital world by Al-G, who challenges James to a game of basketball.
“He’s just trying to challenge who he thinks is the greatest human being out there, and if he takes him down, how could they not adore him?” Cheadle said.
From there, James sets out to put together a team to beat Al-G, by reuniting the Looney Toons.
The Toons — played by veteran voice talent such as Jeff Bergman and Eric Bauza as well as Zendaya joining the voice cast as Lola Bunny — appear in 2D animation and 3D CGI forms. In both cases, they are integrated expertly with the live-action scenes and actors.
“Coming out of 10 years of another universe that was incredibly technical as well with green screen, motion capture and all of that, I wasn’t unfamiliar with it,” said Cheadle.
“It was very interesting playing to entities that weren’t there and trying to stay mindful of what their personalities are. Ultimately, I think in situations like this you understand that you’re putting yourself into the hands of the special effects and post-production teams.”
It is a feast for the eyes when James and Bugs journey across Al-G’s “Seververse” into scenes from “The Matrix” and “Harry Potter,” and in picking out all the cameos that show up for the showdown basketball game.
But this where the critics’ main issue rears its head. It is hard to view these parts of the movie as anything other than a showcase of all the films and TV shows available on HBO Max.
Warner has pulled this same move multiple times, including in “The LEGO Movie.” It fit thematically in that instance, where the central message of the film was an anarchic celebration of creativity and the ability to mash up existing stories. There, the inclusion of recognizable properties was integral to the theme.
“A New Legacy,” on the other hand, is — as James puts it — about “understanding that even though you as a parent feel like you always have the right answer, sometimes you need to just listen before you miss out on the gifts that you children may have.”
The focus on recognizable properties seems integral mainly to Warners’ marketing department.
At least the actors were able to find some fulfilment in the film. Lebron was joined by fellow NBA and WNBA stars Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi, Nneka Ogwumike, and Damian Lillard, who voiced rival basketball team the Goon Squad.
“It’s an honor for me to be a part of the ‘Space Jam’ world,” James said.
Time and nostalgia could turn “A New Legacy into a cult classic, just like the original “Space Jam.” For now, though, the movie is being regarded as a shallow cash-grab.