In Defense of ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’

Depending on who’s asked, Space Jam: A New Legacy is either a harmless reboot or a desecration of the concept of cinema. For people of a certain age, the original film, which currently holds a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, may not be Citizen Kane. However, it includes the face of our childhoods facing off against our favorite cartoons in a glorified shoe commercial that still scratches that nostalgic itch. As such, the new film comes with the startling realization that the eight-year-olds who saw the first movie are now the parents, uncles, aunts, and older viewers of a property they stake ownership in. 

Space Jam has never been high-brow entertainment. Anyone who watched 2020’s The Last Dance knows that the Michael Jordan in McDonald’s and Nike commercials was, in many ways, as fictional as his cartoon co-stars in his only movie role. The Michael Jordan of Space Jam is a humble retiree who spends time with his family in a quaint suburban home where neighbors are just a honk away and, despite an onslaught of disingenuous praise, wants to be one of the guys. It’s not a great movie, but it was perfect children’s entertainment from an era in which Disney didn’t have a monopoly on family entertainment. 

A New Legacy isn’t much different. LeBron James was destined to take the reigns as soon as he entered the NBA. Despite getting drafted over 18 years ago, he’s the rare superstar athlete with a brand that rivals Jordan’s. Never shy about how His Royal Airness inspired him as a player, businessman, and media personality, James is a household name to those who watch the game religiously and have never seen it alike. If Space Jam 2 wasn’t in the works, his genuinely hilarious turn in Trainwreck made a bigger role seem more an inevitability than idle speculation. 

Michael Jordan and LeBron James have something bigger than Steph Curry, Shaquille O’Neal, or even Kobe Bryant built. It’s not merely a case of an athlete spreading his wings into other territories. It’s a case of one successfully building himself an empire comparable to his dominance on the court. LeBron may have more detractors thanks to social media giving everyone an opinion on everything. Still, he’s been the face of the NBA for nearly two decades and, while most athletes are long retired 18 years after their draft, he’s still one of the best players in the world. He’s also one of the most candid, speaking openly about his struggles, faults, and path to greatness. Add to that the fact that LeBron has been acting in cinematic commercials since he was fresh out of high school, and he’s more than prepared for the job.

All of this is on full display in Space Jam. It starts with a flashback similar to the original, but save for the predictable conceit of an NBA star playing basketball with Looney Tunes in a game whose stakes make no sense whatsoever. It’s a version built in his image for a 21st-century audience in the same way that the original used Jordan’s media persona to certify his place with a young audience near the twilight of his dominance. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy has obvious flaws. James is a solid comedic actor, but when he’s forced to cry, act scared, or yell at his fictional family, his lack of polish shows. Jordan, on the other hand, never took off that face we saw in commercials. Furthermore, regardless of any faults, the original film has one of the quintessential soundtracks of the nineties. The new one has a set of talent seemingly collected by Cheadle’s scenery-chewing Al-G. Rhythm to include Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper, John Legend, and a slew of other rappers that the original audience is probably too old to know or care about. It’s a little long-winded, self-aggrandizing, uneven, and strange. In other words, it’s the perfect follow-up to the original. 

James may not have written and directed this project, but it’s clear that he wanted it to be built in his image. In the first film, Wayne Knight jokingly, but not-quite-jokingly tells Jordan to “Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark.” LeBron’s 21st-century take on the same commercial appeal is not all that different than the originals. In short, the relationship between Hollywood and commercial enterprises is not as modern as viewers pretend. While the damage done by this cannot go understated, Space Jam: A New Legacy neither furthers nor detracts from society in any discernible way. At its heart, it’s an unabashed love letter to Warner Bros. and LeBron James made by Warner Bros. and LeBron James, and that’s okay.

In many ways, this makes it true to the Looney Tunes’ roots. The early Looney Tunes adventures show their age in ways that, at their best are charming, and at their worst will make you wonder why they’re still around.

However, while it’s easy for modern audiences to think that Bugs and Daffy lampooning Humphrey Bogart films was something high-brow and refined, it was serving a similar purpose as Space Jam’s infamous cross-promotion of other topical children’s films like Casablanca, Game of Thrones, Austin Powers, and Fury Road. Is the commercialization of these properties a valid concern? Yes. But it’s no different than the original parodies of Maltese Falcon made before its timeless place in history made it into a sacred work. If anything, the original Space Jam wired children of the 90s to see a version of Bugs Bunny that wasn’t quite in line with the classic version. While Bugs’ voice in A New Legacy left much be desired in this one, the personalities are more in line with the wholesome nihilism of old cartoons.

Children’s entertainment always comes with the conceit that it’s not above criticism. In some ways, this is true. A film’s quality is never above reproach, and a family film starring LeBron James and Don Cheadle is no exception. It’s an incredibly flawed but mostly wholesome movie that does little to address anything of substance other than its maker’s wallets, LeBron’s image, and Warner Bros. need for contemporary intellectual property. This is okay. 

Kids don’t care about the adult movie references, just as those children of the forties didn’t care about the literary references, adult humor, and film parodies of their time. Perhaps the forced commercials for other Marvel films are off-putting, but the ire behind it doesn’t sit in LeBron James, Ryan Coogler, Malcolm Lee, or Warner Bros. laps. It continues a flawed entertainment tradition that also serves as product placement that’s been around for as long as children’s entertainment. Right or wrong, Space Jam isn’t the harbinger of any new problems. It’s a contemporary culmination of practices around since Bugs first tricked Elmer Fudd into shooting his friend or poked fun at the company he helped create. 

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