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'Space Jam: A New Legacy' delivers manic fun, but it's no slam dunk

'Space Jam: A New Legacy' delivers manic fun, but it's no slam dunk

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"Space Jam: A New Legacy” is nearly impossible to parse, at least in a traditional review. The first film, “Space Jam,” is a bizarre cultural artifact, a frenzied treatise on the career of basketball legend Michael Jordan as mediated through the 1990s trend of pairing live-action with animation. But even those who have fond childhood memories of “Space Jam” seem to regard it with a sense of irony. It’s unclear who was gunning for a sequel 25 years later, except perhaps Warner Bros. executives, rich with a century’s worth of intellectual property.

Yet with another once-in-a-generation basketball talent ready to step into Jordan’s Jordans in the form of the affable LeBron James, all you have to add are those beloved Looney Tunes characters, plus director Malcolm D. Lee and producer Ryan Coogler, and you have a sequel.

What is the lens through which we should view “Space Jam: A New Legacy”? Nostalgia? Irony? The filmmakers try for both, while also trying to amuse new audiences. The result is a frenetic piece of filmmaking that is incredibly meta but lacking in self-awareness. It wants to comment on the algorithms that rule our lives, but it is exactly the thing that it points to: an upcycled Frankenstein’s monster of intellectual property spraying a stew of Easter eggs and Halloween costumes at the viewer, praying that something sticks.

In fairness, Lee and everyone on screen seem to be having a blast. The film also demonstrates motivational clarity for the characters that was sorely missing from the first film. James plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, as a father who wants to motivate his kids to put in work on the court. Cedric Joe is Dom, LeBron’s son, an aspiring video game designer who wants to pursue his passion and get some recognition from Dad. Don Cheadle is Al G. Rhythm, a rogue Warner Bros. algorithm who lures Dom and LeBron into the “Warner Bros. Serververse” in order to challenge LeBron to a basketball game and garner fame in the process.

Frankly, the title is misleading — there is no jam in space. This movie should be called “TRON Jam: ‘Ready Player One,’ Basically,” because once LeBron gets digitized into the Serververse, get ready for the onslaught of IP. He zips around the planets of content with Bugs Bunny in tow, assembling a team of Looney Tunes characters, plus DC Comics characters, “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter” and more. We have to give it up for the sheer audacity of the mad genius who populated the crowd at the Tune Squad vs. Goon Squad game. It’s attended by every character that has ever been in any Warner Bros. property ever, from “Scooby-Doo” to “A Clockwork Orange” to a nun from Ken Russell’s controversial 1970s church-criticizing masterpiece “The Devils.”

This game of recognition has its charms, but it’s ultimately an empty practice, as these beloved movies are flattened into a cheaply rendered catalog to be flipped through, denying their true resonance and undercutting any emotional drama that might play out on this busy digital court. We’re at a Space Jam, after all!

The Looney Tunes were always a wild, menacing and violent bunch, and they haven’t changed a bit. Despite James’ best efforts, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is just as manic as the first, leaving one feeling as if they’ve been hit by a truck driven by Bugs Bunny, synapses fried by one of Wile E. Coyote’s sticks of dynamite. If that’s the rubric by which we’re measuring success, it’s indeed successful. But when it comes to cinema, this is a ransom note, not a love letter.

In theaters and on HBO Max on July 16.

What “Space Jam: A New Legacy” • 1½ stars out of four • Run time 1:55 • Rating PG for some cartoon violence and some language

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