Sunday, July 18, 2021

If you wanna slam, look elsewhere than the boring Space Jam: A New Legacy


My youngest brother heads off to college in Oklahoma in just a few weeks. It's a development I truly can't wrap my brain around. Right at the same time as I begin my final year of Graduate School, my sibling will be starting a great journey into independent adulthood. His impending departure makes any opportunity to spend time with him an essential one. Whether it's just talking about goofy stuff or doing a puzzle together, it's imperative to cherish every chance to spend time with him before he starts the next stop in the road of life. 

What did he want to do last night? Why, watch Space Jam: A New Legacy. Oh boy. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy concerns LeBron James (playing himself) struggling to connect with his son Dominic (Cedric Joe), who just wants to be a video game developer while his dad wants him to be the next great basketball legend. New conflict in their relationship emerges during a tour of Warner Bros. studios, which sees James and his offspring sucked into the Serververse, a digital domain home to all Warner Bros. movies. Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) rules this land and challenges James to a basketball game that will determine whether or not he gets his son back. To compete in the game, this famous athlete must recruit the most iconic Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

How ironic that an algorithm would serve as the villain of Space Jam: A New Legacy when it feels like a movie assembled by a lifeless computer program. This is made disappointingly apparent early on in overlong sequences charting the domestic strife in the James household. Captured in overlit glossy exteriors, depictions of everyday existence for James and his kids look like they belong to a Nickelodeon sitcom, complete with a tired "dabbing" gag. Why Space Jam: A New Legacy is spending so much time on these details is beyond me. That 115 runtime is already way too long, couldn't we streamline these tedious scenes that kids and adults alike will be wishing could go by faster?

Then again, maybe moviegoers wouldn't be in such a hurry if they knew what awaits them once everyone goes to the Serververse. LeBron James and his kid are soon transported to a completely digital domain where live-action humans never quite look at home in the green-screen environments they inhabit. This is where Don Cheadle's Al-G Rhythm lives. This also means that the Serververse is home to the one notable live-action performance in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Don Cheadle is never given enough substantive comedy to really knock your socks off but he's at least energetic and trying his darndest. Give the man an A for effort in portraying the quintessential kid's movie villain, someone who makes your average Air Bud villain look subdued. 

From here, Space Jam: A New Legacy trots out a barrage of references to nostalgic properties ranging from iconic Looney Tunes moments to various Warner Bros. movies and TV shows. It's all so hollow, one never gets a sense of love for the classic pop culture being drudged up. It's just checking off everything from The Mask to The Devils off a list. Who is supposed to enjoy this? The gags (like Granny name-dropping Twitter) aren't anywhere near funny enough for adults and they won't work on a secondary level for kids. Classic Looney Tunes cartoons always referenced then-recent movie stars, sure, but a gag like a Peter Lorre fish had the additional comic beat of a fish suddenly pulling out a gu and shooting himself. That was a joke anyone could get, ditto the humorous design of Lorre's face plopped onto a fish. The gag didn't start and stop with just splicing in footage of Lorre from The Maltese Falcon!

Space Jam: A New Legacy keeps plopping down these kinds of references as well as really tired gags (like a Porky Pig rap number) throughout its runtime. They all feel so mechanical, lacking either the unpredictable anarchy that defined the greatest works from Termite Terrace or their own unique comic spirit. A sudden detour in the final 30 minutes to try and provoke the audience's emotions through the relationship between LeBron and his son evokes more comedy than any of the intentionally humorous elements. The script (credited to six writers!) totally forgot about this plot detail for basically an hour and now they want to bring it back to generate a PIXAR-esque tearjerker climax? That and an attempt to act like a famous cartoon character is dead (no points for guessing who) will only inspire eyerolls.

I also kind of outright hate the CG animation here? The Looney Tunes don't look great in their hand-drawn animated form (they look a little too rigid and cheaply-produced despite this thing over $150 million) but they look way worse when they get "upgraded" to CG. Mixing their flexible designs with realistic textures does absolutely nothing to their comedy or characters. If anything, they look off, as if these figures from the 1930s were never meant to be rendered as three-dimensional organisms. The villainous basketball players also suffer from overly realistic textures and all the visuals related to Al-G Rhythm looks derivative of other movies, including his Minion-esque sidekick Paul.

Are there elements worth complimenting? Well, props to director Malcolm D. Lee for having the guts to take on such a massive production in an unorthodox way, he apparently joined this project a month into principal photography. His 2017 comedy Girls Trip is one of the stronger American studio comedies of the last few years, hopefully, he can use this Space Jam clout to get more original comedies like that made. I liked when Bugs and LeBron went to recruit Lola Bunny on the island of Themysciria and it was visualized like a comic book, that's the one genuinely inventive animation detail here. It's cool to see a big-budget family movie where all the live-action humans are played by Black actors, we don't see that nearly enough. This movie also cemented that I'll always smile when I see Marvin the Martian! I just like the way he walks! 

Otherwise, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a film so uninspired that, when combined with its extremely overlong runtime, it's hard to even get mad at it. You just stare at it as it winds down its runtime, the ultimate reaction you want to inspire from your audience when it comes to uber-expensive crowdpleaser blockbusters. Go check out the vastly superior classic Looney Tunes cartoons instead or even the delightfully madcap Joe Dante film Looney Tunes: Back in Action. It was nice to spend time with my brother before he heads off to college but I just wish we got to spend that time watching something even marginally better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

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