“Space Jam: A New Legacy” did something I had not anticipated: It was a sweet, smart, funny and engaging movie.
I suppose I did not expect this because the word-of-mouth buzz for the film has been negative. I base this on anecdotal experience; people I know cringe at the thought of this movie existing because the 1996 original is so cherished. Critics didn’t like that one either, to be sure, but it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of ’90s American pop culture: Chicago Bull basketball, R & B music, and the ongoing relevance of older icons like the venerable Looney Tunes.
The new movie has plenty of zeitgeist-y elements, but it does something more ambitious. It is a Valentine to the magic of basketball and the Toons. This tribute includes plenty of unrelated pop culture references, of course (you couldn’t expect Warner Brothers to resist meta-gags about its vast library of characters, given the current climate of expanded universes). Much of the humor comes from those references, with witty in-jokes and clever satire. The heart, on the other hand, is derived from our familiarity with LeBron James’ storied career and the rich mythology of the Looney Tunes universe.
That is perhaps the movie’s most unexpected charm. The first film loved the Looney Tunes, but it was satisfied to simply have them do their usual shtick. This film is to the Looney Tunes what “Into the Spider-Verse” is to the Spider-Man franchise. It has an encyclopedic knowledge of the lore and uses that to enhance its narrative, playfully and at times poignantly.
This is a very, very good movie. It is, frankly, better than the first one. I have never been so happy to have my expectations proved wrong.
Now I must address the elephant in the room: Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
As an actor, James is easily Jordan’s superior. He has chemistry with the toons and other actors, feeling like a real character instead of a celebrity cameo in his own film. The supporting characters in his life are also far more prominent, particularly his family, allowing him to feel more three-dimensional than Jordan. He is also more three-dimensional because, unlike Jordan, he is allowed to have character flaws and therefore a redemptive arc. It is easier to imagine this movie spawning a franchise than the previous one because it feels like a worldbuilding endeavor rather than two otherwise unrelated properties thrown together for a special occasion. Even the villain here, Al G (Don Cheadle), feels more like an identifiable character than the unremarkable heel played by Danny DeVito in the first film.
It will be interesting to see if this film can revitalize interest in the “Looney Tunes,” perhaps updating them for a new generation. If not, though, it is a welcome addition to a storyline that I never thought would be revisited.