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Pump Up the Jam! Exploring the Long and Bizarre 25-Year Road that Led to Space Jam: A New Legacy

Warner Bros. actually considered replacing Michael Jordan with Tony Hawk, Tiger Woods, and Jeff Gordon.

By Josh Weiss

In the official making-of book for 1996's Space Jam — which features an absolutely unhinged foreword penned by Danny DeVito (look it up, you won't be disappointed) — co-authors Charles Carney and Gian Misiroglu reveal that there was some early "water-cooler conversation" amongst the film's team of animators regarding a potential "Space Jam II" as production entered its final weeks. 

A second court-side team-up between Michael Jordan and the Loony Tunes should've been an easy slam dunk (pun very much intended) for Warner Bros. once the first movie netted (another basketball pun!) just over $230 million at the worldwide box office and an additional $1.2 billion from tie-in merchandise.

Instead, audiences would have to wait 25 whopping years until the Merry Melodies cartoon crew hiked up their nylon shorts for another high-stakes game of hoops in Space Jam: A New Legacy (now streaming on Peacock for the very first time), which saw modern-day NBA All-Star LeBron James leading the team of illustrated icons to victory against a rogue artificial intelligence played by Don Cheadle.

For More on Space Jam:
'Space Jam: A New Legacy' pays tribute to original but is more of a 'standalone' sequel, says voice of Bugs Bunny
Move over, Goon Squad! Space Jam's original Monstars are back in 'Teen Titans GO!' crossover
Space Jam director reveals the 1996 film's original, homerun ending that didn't make the final cut

Why Did It Take So Long for the Space Jam Sequel, A New Legacy, to Get Made?

Chatting with Animated Views back in 2012, veteran animator Bob Camp recalled how the studio attempted to get a Space Jam sequel off the ground as early a 1997. Joe Pytka was purportedly on board to return as director, while a producer assured WB of Jordan's commitment to the hybrid project. As such, animation co-directors Tony Cervone and Spike Brandt approached Camp (then working at the studio as a storyboard artist for shows like Tiny Toon Adventures) to sketch out some early ideas for Space Jam 2's villain, even though a script didn't exist yet. Nevertheless, he got to work, whipping up designs for a new alien baddie called Berserk-O! (Mel Brooks was most likely going to voice the character) and his two subordinates: O!-No and O!-Yes. The whole thing fell apart not long after when it became apparent that the aforementioned producer had given an over-exaggerated report on Jordan's interest.

“I felt the whole point of it was — like a lot of sequels — just to cash in on the success of the original,” Camp told Animated Views. “It wasn’t like it was a great idea that people wanted to make a movie out of. It was just, ‘Hey, Michael Jordan is a cash cow! Let’s milk him for all we can!'”

Despite the major setback of losing such a bankable figure, Warner Bros. decided to press forward in the hopes of replacing Jordan with other other sports icons such as race car driver Jeff Gordon, golfer Tiger Woods, and pro skater Tony Hawk. That's right, people: in some other timeline, we got a multitude of Space Jam-inspired spinoffs like "Race Jam" and "Skate Jam" (those were the actual titles). As if that wasn't crazy enough, erstwhile WB executive Max Howard also pitched team-ups with Clint Eastwood and Jackie Chan, the latter of whom was reportedly in talks to take the lead in "Spy Jam."

Michael Jordan speaks to Looney Toons characters in a locker room.

Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Tweety, and the rest of the Tune Squad would once again appear alongside flesh-and-blood humans in 2003 with the release of Looney Tunes: Back in Action helmed by Looney Tunes super-fan, Joe Dante (The HowlingGremlins). While made in the same stylistic vein as Space Jam, the film was totally unconnected from its 1996 predecessor. Had Dante's love letter to classic cartoons done much better at the box office, though, a Space Jam follow-up might have actually gone into production much sooner. Sadly, Back in Action grossed just under $70 million globally against a hefty budget of $80 million. 

Talk of reviving the Space Jam IP as a vehicle for LeBron James began over a decade later in 2014. The project ebbed and flowed over the next several years, with directors Justin Lin (Fast & Furious franchise) and Terence Nance (Women Who Kill) coming and going throughout the lengthy development process. At long last, the movie gained a ton of momentum in 2018 once Black Panther writer/director Ryan Coogler signed on as producer.

Malcolm D. Lee (Night School) was hired to replace Nance as director and principal photography officially kicked off in June 2019. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could stop A New Legacy, which actually made its original release date of July 16, 2021. Carrying a massive $150 million price tag, the long-awaited follow-up failed to match the cultural or box office success of the original.

Many of its detractors, Pytka included, described the movie as being less of a worthwhile feature and more of an overlong advertisement for Warner Bros.' catalogue of entertainment properties. A little harsh, especially if you're a fan of Hollywood's current fascination with the multiverse (the plethora of callbacks and cameos are a lot of fun for any lover of pop culture). By the end of its theatrical run, Space Jam: A New Legacy had only grossed $163 million worldwide, though such a lackluster figure can at least be partly attributed to the dampening effects of the health crisis. Space Jam 3 seems unlikely to happen, but ask us again in another 25 years.

That's all folks! Make up your own mind about Space Jam: A New Legacy by streaming it on Peacock right now!