Space Jam: A New Legacy – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Space Jam and Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Want to listen to this review? There’s an audio version below.

I don’t think I’ve re-watched Space Jam since I saw it at the cinema in 1996… so it’s been a while! But the film is adored by many, and has a following of its own within the broader Looney Tunes fandom. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a classic of the 1990s, but I daresay a lot of self-proclaimed “90s kids” would – even though many of them were born far too late to truly warrant the label. But we’re off-topic already!

The original Space Jam was a unique offering. A blend of live-action and animation, a mixture of comedy and sport, it’s a film that’s hard to define and pigeon-hole, and as a result of its premise – and wacky, child-friendly humour – it’s well-remembered and held in high regard even a quarter of a century later. Going back to that premise for a second time always felt like a risky move for Warner Bros. simply because it can be very difficult to recapture the magic of such a genuinely different, one-of-a-kind title.

Promo poster for Space Jam: A New Legacy featuring the Road Runner.

But this is the reality of modern cinema. In the realm of kids’ films – a genre Space Jam: A New Legacy is surely included in, despite its appeal to the millennial generation – Disney has pushed the boat out ever further with its recent slate of remade classics, and in a broader sense the idea of reboots, soft reboots, and remakes is something practically every major film studio is throwing money at. In a sense, Warner Bros. doesn’t really care whether anyone actually likes Space Jam: A New Legacy, because they know that the name and branding alone will convince many fans of the original to turn up and see it no matter what the critics say. The film is, to use an outdated movie industry term, “bankable.”

I recently had this conversation with a family member who lamented the existence of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story – which is due out later this year, in case you care. They were despondent at the idea that one of their favourite films of all time was being remade, and I can sympathise. Remakes, by their very nature, are aiming low. They can only ever hope to be considered “just as good” as the original, but never even try to surpass it.

LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

But remakes serve a purpose, at least from the point of view of corporations. They’re easy money, because film studios know that millions of fans of West Side Story or Space Jam will turn up for the new version – even if only out of morbid curiosity! There’s also an argument to be made that, in some cases, younger audiences aren’t interested in watching films that they deem to be “too old.” Thus a remake can, from an artistic point of view, be argued to bring a story or a setting to a new generation of prospective fans. Whether that’s the case with Space Jam: A New Legacy is debatable; the film isn’t a straight remake. Nor is it really a sequel, instead I think it’s best described as a riff on the original concept, taking some familiar and some new characters and throwing them into a similar – but not identical – story.

That’s the area that Space Jam: A New Legacy occupies. Not a sequel, not a remake, but a riff. A shaken-up copy made a quarter of a century later with, let’s be honest, business and financial reasons at its core. It’s not an artistic piece; it wasn’t made because its director or writer had a burning passion for the wonderful, underexplored universe of Space Jam. Nor was it made because the original film was desperately crying out for a sequel or an expansion. It was made purely because corporate executives at Warner Bros. were looking through their back catalogue in search of something to monetise, and Space Jam caught someone’s eye. If we were being cruel, we might say that Space Jam: A New Legacy is soulless.

Space Jam: A New Legacy could feel, at times, very corporate.

One of the reasons I was curious to see Space Jam: A New Legacy – beyond the vague interest in a follow-up to a film I remember with fondness from the ’90s – was the involvement of Sonequa Martin-Green. Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham, the main protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery, and like many Trekkies I’m always interested to see other projects involving stars of Star Trek. Though I haven’t always felt that Michael Burnham was the easiest protagonist to root for in the franchise, there’s no denying Martin-Green’s talent and hard work, and just like she excelled in The Walking Dead a few years ago, she put in a great performance in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Though her character played a supporting role, it was still great to see her and her performance elevated the film.

I’ve seen more Space Jam films than I have basketball games. Basketball isn’t a big sport here in the UK, and while I have tried it in PE lessons at school way back when, it isn’t a sport I follow, nor do I know much about it beyond the basic rules. LeBron James is among the few basketball players whose names I’ve heard, but that’s really where my familiarity with the sport ends.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Kamiyah James.

Space Jam: A New Legacy felt, at points, like a love letter to its star, which was a very strange thing to watch. Some films can feel like vanity projects – John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth, Kevin Costner’s The Postman, and even to an extent William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier all cross that invisible line, and Space Jam: A New Legacy comes close. The introduction of Don Cheadle’s Al-G Rhythm is a scene which has him reading aloud a list of James’ accomplishments on and off the court, and the film’s title sequence is likewise a flattering summary of his career. For a film where this man is the star, it makes watching those sequences feel more than a little weird.

I didn’t have high expectations for LeBron James as an actor, and while he won’t be winning an Oscar anytime soon he did, to my surprise, manage to put in a solid performance. His early scenes left me concerned that I’d find him too flat and wooden, as many sports stars and athletes can be when they try acting for the first time, but when the plot got going and he and his son were transported to the Warner 3000 server-world, the quality of the performance definitely improved.

LeBron James finds out that he’s been turned into a cartoon.

While we’re discussing the acting, Don Cheadle was clearly having a great time as Al-G Rhythm, and embraced the opportunity to play a cartoonish, somewhat over-the-top villain for a change! It was fun to see him in the role, and he did a creditable job. Cedric Joe, who took on the challenging role of young Dom James (a character inspired by LeBron’s real-life son) put in a great performance. He was believable as a young man who felt rejected by his father and overshadowed by his legacy, and his struggle to get his dad to “let me be me,” as he put it, was the emotional core of the narrative.

The voice cast who played the Looney Tunes did a good job, but I have to caveat that by saying that none of them really got much material to work with. Most of the ‘Tunes weren’t even secondary characters, but were relegated to background roles. They all got to show off their greatest hits from past Looney Tunes outings, but even the two main players – Bugs and Lola Bunny – didn’t get an awful lot to do for much of the film.

Most of the Tune Squad didn’t have a lot to do.

At the centre of Space Jam: A New Legacy, underneath the cartoon comedy and basketball trappings, was a story that aimed to be uplifting. It was trying to send a message to kids that everyone has different passions and different talents, and not being good at sports doesn’t mean you have no worth. The film also wanted to tell a story to parents about allowing their kids to step out of their shadow and embrace the things they like, to experience different things and figure out their own path. Those messages are important in a film like this, and their inclusion made it feel like Space Jam: A New Legacy had purpose.

However, that purpose was in danger of getting lost in a film that was very commercial. There was a lot of product placement in Space Jam: A New Legacy, including things like E3 (a video game industry event), Red Vines (an American candy), a whole lot of Nike, Mercedes, Dell, Bose, and many, many mentions of Warner Bros. itself. It’s been a long time since I saw a film so heavy on product placement, and there were moments where this marketing ploy felt overwhelming. It adds to the sense I mentioned above that Space Jam: A New Legacy is a corporate product first and an artistic work second.

Space Jam: A New Legacy had a lot of product placement.

I literally cannot fault the visuals and animation work in Space Jam: A New Legacy. For a film to incorporate fully live-action scenes, traditional cartoon animation, 3D computer animation, greenscreen CGI sequences, and even footage from older films is a monumental task, and the animators, CGI artists, and editors did an amazing job not only on the individual segments but at blending it all together. The film’s climax is the basketball game, and this sequence features real actors and CGI creations alongside each other, and it works seamlessly.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is thus a visually impressive film. Not every element is unique or beautiful in its own right, but the technical skill required to bring so many different things into the same project is truly impressive. Aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, and I’m sure some folks will criticise some of the designs used for the characters and settings, but on the whole I felt what was presented on screen looked fantastic, and unlike in many CGI-heavy titles, I honestly couldn’t find fault; there were literally zero moments where the animation work didn’t hit the target it was aiming for. That’s something I find quite amazing.

The film did well to blend so many different elements seamlessly.

There were a lot of callbacks and references to other Warner Bros. properties, including a number of scenes from famous films that the characters were inserted into à la Forrest Gump. This was unexpected, but many of these scenes and cameo appearances were funny and added a lot to the film. Space Jam: A New Legacy has a pretty childish sense of humour, but sometimes that’s perfectly fine, and its comedy generally stuck the landing as far as I’m concerned.

Seeing characters from other franchises, like the Night King from Game of Thrones or the titular characters from Rick and Morty meant that there was something for adults to laugh at too, and though the humour was hardly sophisticated, it was, at points, more than simple cartoon slapstick. Perhaps younger viewers will cringe at things like Porky’s awkward rap battle, but you know what? I’m going to admit right now that I found that whole sequence – and many others – hilarious!

LeBron James and the Tune Squad.

In fact, despite initially having pretty low expectations for the film, there were plenty of enjoyable moments under the corporate fluff, and I found myself chuckling more than I thought. Though the narrative was silly – playing a computerised basketball game in order to win freedom – the basic premise underlying it was a father learning to connect with his son and embrace what makes him special instead of trying to push him in a certain direction. That story shone through the cartoon wackiness at key moments, and was just enough of an emotional force to make Space Jam: A New Legacy a more enjoyable film than I might’ve thought.

Was it the perfect film, or the perfect vehicle for telling this kind of story about bridging the gap and coming to an understanding? Perhaps not. Its commercial aspects certainly detracted from that message at points, which was a shame. Also, in a film which was supposedly half about basketball and half about the Looney Tunes, the cartoon characters themselves didn’t exactly get much time in the spotlight. That was perhaps the biggest let-down for me, as it made the film feel less like “basketball meets Looney Tunes” and more like a LeBron James vehicle with some cartoon trappings.

Despite that, however, I had fun with Space Jam: A New Legacy. It probably wasn’t as good as the original – as films of this nature seldom are – but it was visually impressive, had a narrative that was relatable for kids and for adults, and the quality of the acting performance from its lead took me a little by surprise. All in all, it was a perfectly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is out now in cinemas in the United Kingdom, United States, and certain other countries and territories. Space Jam: A New Legacy is available to stream on HBO Max in the United States, and will come to streaming platforms in other countries and territories at an unspecified later date. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Click or tap below to listen to the audio version of this review: