Disney put twenty painful years into making a film adaptation of Artemis Fowl. When the film was finally completed and everybody knew it was a steaming pile of shit, Disney kept pushing back the release date until they straight-up cancelled the theatrical release altogether and unloaded it directly onto Disney+.
Does anyone out there even remember Morbius, the film whose development dates all the way back to Sony’s ill-fated plans for an Amazing Spider-Man cinematic universe? Yeah, Sony made a movie in which Jared Leto (a heavily problematic actor to begin with) plays a scientist who turns himself into a vampire by experimenting on bats. This turned out to be a surprisingly problematic subject matter in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its origins. Thus the film was quietly punted into the January dumping grounds of 2022.
Because that’s what a movie studio does when they’ve got a lemon on their hands: They cut their losses to the contractually obligated bare minimum and sweep that turd under the rug like it never happened. Even if it was supposed to be a huge tentpole release, they save whatever face they still can and move on.
We should all be astounded that WB didn’t do this for Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Remember, the studio is billions of dollars in debt, fresh off their self-inflicted black eyes with regards to the Tenet rollout and that HBO Max fiasco. They had to get their asses bailed out by AT&T, causing scores of layoffs and cutbacks, only for AT&T to unload WarnerMedia onto Discovery Inc. after only three years. WB is absolutely not in a place right now where they can afford another high-profile disgrace.
Last but not least — as I discussed in a previous blog entry — there’s the fact that this movie took fifteen freaking years to get off the ground. And with every trailer, with every promo clip, WB reinforced the notion that this movie should’ve stayed in development hell. The writing was on the wall and everybody knew that this movie was going to suck. If any of the studio execs had a single brain cell between them, they would’ve banished this film to some godforsaken release window or offloaded it straight to HBO Max.
But no, in their infinite wisdom, the Powers That Be released this movie in the middle of July. Smack in the middle of summer primetime. For the whole world to see. That’s how confident WB was in this picture. Or more likely, this is how desperate they were to make sure the film was a hit.
So, how bad is it? Well, where to begin?
Our antagonist is Al G. Rhythm, played by Don Cheadle. He’s a superintelligent AI nestled deep in the heart of Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. Basically, he’s the brains of the operation, e-mailing all sorts of new ideas to the studio higher-ups.
I’ll repeat that: According to this movie — this big-budget summer tentpole movie that WB made for the singular purpose of promoting themselves — WB is literally run by a computer program. Let’s give that a moment to sink in.
Anyway, WB is set to launch Warner 3000, a new initiative that makes super-photorealistic CGI doppelgangers of celebrities and puts them into movies. Never mind that this is hardly a new concept, as motion capture and facial scanning have been cornerstones of CGI for the past couple of decades. The point is, Al comes up with this idea — as he supposedly comes up with all the great ideas — and he gets none of the credit, so he’s understandably pissed off.
Enter LeBron James (playing himself), a once-in-a-generation sports talent who came to be an international superstar through years of single-minded hard work. Al comes up with the bright idea of bringing LeBron to the WB studio lot to try to pitch him on Warner 3000 and bring him on as a celebrity partner. LeBron rightly calls it the stupidest idea he’s ever heard, and the AI’s fragile ego gets hurt. Though the Warner 3000 turns out to be a nicely convenient plot device to get live-action people into the world of the Looney Tunes, so there’s that.
Thus Al digitizes LeBron and challenges him to a basketball game in front of all his social media followers. If LeBron loses, then he’ll be Al’s celebrity partner in the WB Serververse (where all of WB’s intellectual properties are stored in digital form), appearing in umpteen different projects forever. But if LeBron wins, he and Al’s hostage can go free.
This brings me to James’ fictional son (Dom, played by Cedric Joe). There’s friction between the two because Dom isn’t much for physical sport, but prefers to tinker away at his own heavily stylized basketball video game. (Basically a neon-lit “NBA Jam” for the mobile gaming/Twitch streaming crowd.) Thus Al kidnaps Dom, steadily persuading the kid to join up with the Artificial Intelligence, while James has to beat Al at his own game to get his son back. Al even takes the step of modeling the big basketball showdown off of Dom’s video game.
Basically, it’s Hook. We went through all of that to get to a bullshit retread of the conflict from Hook.
Oh, and there’s an added wrinkle: Dom used his dad’s connections to get help from actual basketball superstars in crafting his game. Thus we get supporting turns from the likes of Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard (Rip City represent!!!), Diana Taurasi, and Nneka Ogwumike as the superpowered Goon Squad facing off against our heroes.
So where are the Looney Tunes in all of this? Well, it turns out that Bugs Bunny is the sole remaining resident of Looney Tune Land. Everyone else went their separate ways to find their places in various other WB franchises. This leads us through too goddamn many unfunny parodies of other WB properties, in which the Looney Tunes occupy classic central characters.
First of all, any parody — any good parody, I should say — is subversive in a sincere way. It’s a means of poking affectionate fun at another property, hopefully in a way that examines the original from a new and more comical perspective. All of that is lost when it comes from the top down, and the parody is explicitly made in a crass and flavorless show of corporate synergy.
Secondly, there’s the matter of the properties being parodied. There’s the DC superhero lineup, of course, but Mad Max: Fury Road? “Game of Thrones”? Freaking Casablanca? Seriously, who in the nine hells was this movie made for? Is this a movie for adults who somehow think this insipid worthless plot is anything compelling, or is it for the grade schoolers who are watching goddamn Rick and Morty?!
Look, say what you will about Ready Player One, at least the people who made that movie had some idea of who their audience was and what they liked. Similarly, while The Lego Movie was a shameless corporate synergistic circle-jerk in its own way, at least those filmmakers were savvy enough to realize that kids who play with Legos and Batman toys wouldn’t give two shits about an Austin Powers reference!
Which brings me to the third point: these references are dated as hell. For instance, I get that WB is coming out with a fourth Matrix film pretty soon and they want to remind everyone that the franchise is still a thing (that they own). But I’m pretty sure “bullet-time” spoofs were passe, threadbare, unfunny, and oversaturated to the point where we retired them TWENTY FUCKING YEARS AGO!!!
So what themes are we working with here? Put simply, the overarching theme is that LeBron has a major stick up his ass. He’s constantly preaching about the very real kind of success that can only come through hard work, and he’s up against the AI who can make literally anything happen just by waving his hand. Moreover, LeBron is very much a stickler for “real” basketball, and he’s working with the Looney Tunes in a heightened approximation of basketball that doesn’t even follow the laws of physics, never mind the rules of the sport.
But of course the big theme here is “be yourself”. “Have fun”. “Follow your passion”. This is made abundantly clear in LeBron’s conflicts with his son, and it’s explicitly clear in his dealings with his anarchic teammates. In theory, it’s an idea that’s nicely compatible with the Looney Tunes. In practice, it’s cloying as hell in the context of a cliched and claptrap family drama, and it only serves to make LeBron himself look like a domineering jerk. Also, this overtly individualistic message has ZERO credibility in a film specifically built around corporate synergy. It’s like going to Disneyland just to hear the trite and sugary messages about the power of imagination and how dreams come true, who the hell are you kidding?!
To be entirely fair, the animation is phenomenal. It’s utterly flawless, and I’d expect nothing less from Warner Animation Group at this point. The voice acting, alas, is uneven. I’m not terribly impressed with Jeff Bergman’s take on Bugs Bunny, though Eric Bauza makes for a fine Daffy Duck. Much as I love Zendaya, it was a mistake bringing her on while Kath Soucie is still alive and well. I appreciate that Pepe Le Pew was benched in favor of a less racist — but no less colorful or energetic — Speedy Gonzales, complete with an actual Mexican (namely Gabriel Iglesias) providing the voice. Great move.
And what of LeBron James? Well… the guy’s an athlete. He’s all about the body language and the physicality. It really is surprising how well he can act when he’s on camera, even when he has this godawful material to work with. (Or maybe the crappy material is simply up to his level, the jury’s still out on that.) But when LeBron is animated and his voice is all he has to work with, it just isn’t enough.
On the other end, Don Cheadle is doing his absolute damnedest to elevate this flick into something watchable. He’s mugging it up for the camera like no tomorrow, apparently on the strategy that if he’s having a good time, maybe the audience will have a good time by proxy. Not a bad idea in theory, and Cheadle is almost charismatic enough to make it work.
The soundtrack is okay. Sorry, but ’20s jock jams have got nothing on the jock jams of the ’90s. Still, some bona fide effort was put into the music here, and I respect that.
On a final note, let’s just say the first movie is obliquely alluded to quite a few times. The Nerdlucks (you know, the de-powered alien antagonists of the first movie) get some prominent cameo appearances by way of recycled animation. As for Michael Jordan… well, his hyped-up guest appearance leads to the only genuinely laugh-out-loud joke of the entire movie.
Yes, Space Jam: A New Legacy, I grant you one — ONE (1) — joke that was honestly funny.
I also want to give the sequel due praise for giving the plot way more balance than the first movie had. This one at least had the decency to give the Looney Tunes a subtle nod right up front, giving them a place in LeBron’s childhood. Additionally, I appreciate that Bugs Bunny and LeBron James each have their own character arcs, and they dovetail nicely because they’re both trying to reunite their families. Bonus points for contriving a way to make that final game-winning dunk into a bona fide team effort that didn’t depend solely on the magnificence of King James.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is soulless, predictable, hollow, and it’s almost entirely void of laughs, none of which are things that anyone would ever want a Loony Tunes picture to be. It reeks of a movie assembled by committee, with nobody to keep track of which bad ideas should’ve been rejected or further developed. I really do believe that LeBron James, Don Cheadle, and all the Looney Tunes characters could’ve made a much worthier sequel, if only the studio heads could get out of the damn way and quit masturbating all over the screen long enough to figure out what film they were trying to make and who specifically their audience was. Also, if they could find a more competent director and a couple of halfway qualified writers, that might’ve helped. I don’t think it’s a movie borne of spite, necessarily, just flailing panic and terrified desperation.
I find it ironic that back in 1996 — also the year of such films as Independence Day, Twister, and Dragonheart — cutting-edge CGI was all a blockbuster film needed. And here we are in 2021, with a Space Jam sequel that has basically nothing to offer but sterling animation and CGI gleaming with polish. Modern filmmakers and modern audiences alike should both expect much more by now than empty spectacle.
Potentially even more ironic, Al G. Rhythm himself turned out to be emblematic of the studio itself: A posturing, blustering, egomaniacal bully who’s all flash and no substance. A figure comically desperate for praise and attention, whose power rests on a house of cards.
You’re in deep shit now, Warner Brothers. The whole world knows it, now it’s time to start acting like it.