Many years ago, I was at a bar during the period where Chipotle, the fast-casual burrito chain, was still exploding in popularity and opening new locations everywhere. The appeal was easy to see, especially fresh out of college: A Chipotle burrito is relatively affordable, filling, and reliable in its resolutely mild flavor profile. “It’s a great product,” an acquaintance with aspirations in finance said, in praise of the burrito. What a weird way to talk about food, I thought. What a great way to flatten anything, by using a word that can also be applied to toasters, Roombas, and everything else mass-marketed for steady sales. And yet Space Jam: A New Legacy — which premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16 — is so overwhelmingly suffused with corporate propaganda that it seems like the filmmakers are seeking exactly that sort of praise: not satisfying cinema, not a worthwhile story, not a fun time at the movies, but “a great product.”
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip), with seven writers credited for the story and script, Space Jam: A New Legacy is convoluted, and yet the plot is entirely glossed over. At its heart, it’s a father-son story about LeBron James, the world’s biggest basketball star (played by LeBron James), his youngest son Dom (Cedric Jones, not his real son), and their struggle to connect. At the start of the film, LeBron is cartoonishly focused on basketball, which he treats with such an all-consuming seriousness that he can’t see that Dom, who’s good at basketball, actually wants to make video games.
In an effort to reconnect with Dom, LeBron brings him to a meeting at Warner Bros. Studios, where executives (played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun) pitch him on an exciting new technology: an algorithm that can scan people and insert them into any Warner Bros. property imaginable. With the push of a button, LeBron can be in a Batman movie, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter. The technology isn’t explained beyond that, but it’s enough for LeBron to call it the worst idea he’s ever heard and walk out from the meeting, which is perhaps the only reasonable thing that happens in this film.
Unfortunately, the algorithm behind that new technology is a sapient artificial intelligence (played by Don Cheadle), and he wants revenge on LeBron for turning down the idea. Al-G Rhythm, as the AI is called, lures Dom and LeBron deep into the bowels of Warner Bros. and zaps them into the “Server-Verse,” a digital universe he rules, where every Warner Bros. franchise exists on its own planet. He then issues LeBron a challenge: Beat Al-G in a game of basketball, and LeBron and Dom can go. Lose, and they stay in the Server-Verse forever. And since LeBron and Dom are fighting with each other, Al-G is able to manipulate the younger James into playing on AI-G’s team, against his own father.
The story streamlines considerably in the film’s second half, when LeBron is exiled to the Looney Tunes’ world, where Bugs Bunny is the sole inhabitant. Al-G, he explains, has sent Bugs’ cartoon pals to other, more profitable worlds. Together, they assemble the rest of the Looney Tunes from across the Server-Verse, which means finding them in scenes from movies like The Matrix and Austin Powers. You know, scenes like this one:
While it’s easy to clown on ideas like this and a rapping Porky Pig, this is classic kids’-movie stuff: action that looks goofy enough to make children giggle, while eliciting a few knowing chuckles from stressed-out parents who barely have time to watch anything for adults. Yet even watching A New Legacy with a fondness for the first Space Jam and a leniency that’s necessary for a lot of kids’ movies, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed by so many questions. For example:
- Is the plot of this movie really for LeBron James to “get his son back” by ... beating his ass at basketball?
- Did they really ask LeBron James, perhaps the most affable and warm presence in professional sports, to be an incredibly stern jerk to both his son and the Looney Tunes?
- Can someone explain the decision to have the crowd watching the final game filled out by a bunch of extras dressed up as characters from every Warner Bros. movie?
- No really, why is The Mask gesticulating in the background of every shot, alongside Eartha Kitt Catwoman and Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman?
- Please, I’m begging anyone to tell me why the third act of this movie is a Spirit Halloween store come to life.
- Also, not to be overly handwring-y about The Children, but is it the best idea to have Pennywise the Clown and the Night King from Game of Thrones in the audience? As a young lad, I was very afraid of horror clowns!
- How is Don Cheadle selling almost all of Al-G Rhythm’s lines? Is he the LeBron of acting in bad movies? Does that still make sense if LeBron is also acting in the same bad movie?
The first Space Jam was born out of an attempt to sell sneakers. In a dizzying display of corporate dominance, the new Space Jam is trying to sell everything Warner Bros. has ever made. Space Jam: A New Legacy isn’t really a movie — it’s a crash course in vertical integration and brand identity, a marketing slideshow with a two-hour running time. Its viewers are taken on a whirlwind tour through every Warner IP geared toward every demographic: Wonder Woman’s Themyscira for girls and women, The Matrix for older men, Harry Potter for Old Millennials who haven’t been reading the news much, and so forth. This is how Hollywood works now. This is the future of blockbuster movies.
It’s Kingdom Hearts, but without any genuine feeling. And while the excuse of having a desperate need to entertain children with a feature film’s worth of Family Guy-style references may hold water, watching it without that excuse in hand feels vulgar. Because Space Jam: A New Legacy is only really satisfying to people who care about marketing and company profits, people who approach it as a product that’s successfully been sold. It’s like a basketball game your favorite team is winning — except the team isn’t one playing on screen. It’s the company that sold you the ticket.
Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16.