Crucial to the upcoming family film Space Jam: A New Legacy is the premise that the historic Warner Bros. studios are built atop a supercomputer that algorithmically decides what movies should be made next. That detail is presented as a hilarious bit of sci-fi, but it also comes across as a guilty admission of the truth—that corporate cinema these days isn’t so much written as it is generated by passionless machines that recycle and smash together bits of intellectual property.
The original Space Jam, released 25 years ago, became a bizarre children’s classic by placing Michael Jordan, at the peak of his NBA fame, in the hyperactive world of Looney Tunes. As the spin-off of a successful advertising campaign, Space Jam represented the apotheosis of crass commercialism in 1996. So it makes sense that its sequel attempts to do the same, essentially functioning as a glitzy advertisement for the studio that created it. The cast has been updated—our hero is now LeBron James, Jordan’s successor as the reigning king of basketball—and so has the shamelessness, as James and Bugs Bunny zoom through scenes from past WB movies and marvel at how one company could have such a grand history.
I’m half-joking—Space Jam: A New Legacy does have a plot, involving a superhuman basketball game James must win to regain the love and loyalty of his son, Dom (played by Cedric Joe). And the Looney Tunes characters, who have been completely absent from theaters since the 2003 flop Looney Tunes: Back in Action, get a fair showcase for their kinetic, kid-friendly antics so that they can endure for another generation. But so much of the film, directed by Malcolm D. Lee and credited to six screenwriters, functions as brand management, depicting a dazzling cinematic theme park filled with WB’s best-known titles (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Matrix, even Casablanca) in an effort to equal the cultural ubiquity of rival studio Disney.
I can’t imagine another reason for the intricacies of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s screenplay, one where the term server-verse is uttered over and over again with deep sincerity. Whereas the original film portrayed the wacky cartoon world of Bugs Bunny as a distant planet, A New Legacy takes place in a sector of a colossal computer server populated by DC Comics superheroes and plucky British wizards. When the computer’s nervy avatar Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle, and yes, you should say his character’s name out loud) proposes building a cinematic universe around James and is rebuffed, he abducts the athlete and his son to digitally trap them in the claws of WB corporate synergy forever.
A 10-year-old viewer might tire of all this boardroom talk, so that’s where Bugs and friends come in, whizzing around James and performing visual gag after visual gag as he tries to explain the rules of basketball to them. James is a far better actor than Jordan ever was (James already proved his comedic chops in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck), but given the unfortunate assignment of being the stone-faced straight man amid a bunch of cartoon characters, his performance is competent at best. He’s tasked mostly with sighing exasperatedly and waving hello to the many WB characters he meets on his trip through the server-verse, though he does seem genuinely delighted in the scene where he finds out that he’s a Hufflepuff.
A different version of Space Jam: A New Legacy might have been able to coast by on self-awareness. For all the capitalistic desperation of the story line, Al-G Rhythm is the film’s bad guy, and his insistence on blending WB classics together is presented as villainous (Cheadle delivers his monologues about brand management with the intensity of Al Pacino in Scarface). But given that this film is premiering in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, it comes off as an advertisement for the latter service, a bustling archive of all the studio’s past favorites. Enjoyed watching LeBron wandering into a scene from Wonder Woman? Why not watch that next?
As more movies come out in theaters after a year of total uncertainty, Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like a preview of a more terrifying, siloed future, one in which having an encyclopedic media library is more important than enjoying the work right in front of you. So what if this movie essentially forgets to have a coherent plot or any real stakes; look at all of the exciting crossovers! Ironically, in the film, James’s character spends much of his time championing the value of basketball fundamentals—the idea that practice and hard work matter more than showboating on the court. It’s not a lesson the movie he’s in seems to have learned.