Review: Convoluted 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' shoots an airball

LeBron James is no Michael Jordan in this follow-up to 1996's "Space Jam."

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Algorithms aren't easy to understand, but they're everywhere. They're the formulas and patterns used to determine mathematical equations inside computer networks; in practical usage, they're the reason why the suggestions in your Netflix queue show up in your Netflix queue. 

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" plays like it was thought up by an algorithm. The sequel to "Space Jam," released a quarter century ago, goes in so many different directions and is assembled so artificially that it feels like it is programmed, based on things viewers are ostensibly supposed to like, not created by human beings (even though its script is credited to a team of six living, breathing writers). It's a bizarre, soulless, exhausting celebration of the Warner Bros. company portfolio that attempts to treat intellectual property as a reason for being.

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny in "Space Jam: A New Legacy."

Oh yeah, and there's some basketball thrown in there as well.  

NBA superstar and G.O.A.T.-candidate LeBron James stars as himself, and a partially animated highlight reel of his career accomplishments over the opening credits is a potent reminder of the 36-year-old's on-court prowess, if you needed one. At home, he is tough on his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe), who would rather play around with computers than on the basketball court. Dom has designed his own basketball video game, and LeBron doesn't understand why he'd rather do that than spend his time working on his actual jump shot. 

Father-son conflict established, no problem. Here's where things quickly go wonky: inside the computer archives at Warner Bros. (lost already? Same!) an algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) has an idea to repurpose the company's properties using LeBron, inserting his likeness into rebooted versions of "Harry Potter," "Batman," "Game of Thrones" and other franchises to take advantage of his massive popularity. For... the greater good? Nah, just to increase Warner's market share and the company's footprint. The WB board of directors and company shareholders are the movie's unseen villains.  

LeBron is called into the WB offices to meet with a pair of execs (Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun in brief cameos) who pitch him on the idea. When LeBron rejects it, Al. G grows vindictive, and he captures LeBron and his son inside Warner Brothers' digitized "server-verse."

The Looney Tunes gang in "Space Jam: A New Legacy."

Still with me? Al G. comes up with a plan: he'll make LeBron play a high stakes basketball game with a team assembled from characters within the Warner Bros. family, and if LeBron's team is defeated, he'll lose his son forever. (Side note: why wouldn't he challenge LeBron in any other game besides basketball? A curling match, perhaps?) And the game will be played by the rules of Dom's video game, the particulars of which are never fully established, against a team of mutated NBA and WNBA All-Stars (including Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Nneka Ogwumike and Diana Taurasi), led by a powered-up Dom, whom Al G. has turned against his father.

Not that the original "Space Jam" was poetry, but the convoluted plotline here ties itself in triple knots just to get to the action on the basketball court. (Amid the confusion, LeBron at one point stops to explain the storyline in simple terms: "a computer dude kidnapped my son," he says, "and I have to play basketball to get him back.")

LeBron, rendered into cartoon form, recruits the Looney Tunes gang — Bugs and Lola Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, et. al — for his squad, traveling to the far-reaches of the virtual Warner archives to find them. (Why Granny is hanging out in "The Matrix" is never quite explained, other than to remind audiences that "The Matrix" exists, and that it's owned by Warner Bros.) There are also nods to "Casablanca," the DC Comics Universe, "Austin Powers" and more, and so as to split the commercial time, there are a proliferation of Nike logos splashed across the screen as well.  

As if this corporate-archives-as-content needs further massaging, the big game is attended by a sea of characters from the Warner backlot, from King Kong to the Flintstones, from Pennywise (from "It") to Alex's Droogs (from "A Clockwork Orange"). ("Ready Player One" similarly filled the screen with pop culture references from the past, but did so in a less crass fashion.) The background mugging by this group of familiar faces — is that Stanley Ipkiss from "The Mask?" — is among the most annoying and distracting extra work in recent memory, not that the action on the ballcourt is all that engaging; you know exactly where "Space Jam: A New Legacy" is headed, and it's a headache getting there. 

The LeBron James-Michael Jordan debate may well continue to be waged over their respective skills on the court, but on-screen, Jordan has LeBron licked. Jordan is easy with a smile and charismatic to boot, where LeBron is stiff and unnatural, never establishing a comfortable rhythm in front of the camera.

And Jordan's got the better "Space Jam," too: the original is no classic but it's an innocent, fun fantasy that has been a generational touchstone for children who grew up in the 1990s, where "A New Legacy" acts like "fun" is something that has to be vetted out by a team of corporate lawyers. Veteran director Malcolm D. Lee can't shepherd the action in any sort of serviceable fashion — there's no heads or tails to be made of the basketball being played — and he cedes control to the algorithm, as "A New Legacy" steamrolls its audience into a corporate-induced coma. Like the wise pig says, that's all, folks.


'Space Jam: A New Legacy'


Rated PG: for some cartoon violence and some language

Running time: 120 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max