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Space Jam: A New Legacy reviews find critics blowing whistle on 'brand-crossover jamboree'

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Jul 14, 2021, 8:05 PM EDT

At long last, it's time to hit the (fictional) court as Space Jam: A New Legacy finally dribbles its way into cinemas. The upcoming movie, which is not necessarily a sequel to the 1996 classic Space Jam, sees LeBron James stepping into a similar role as Michael Jordan before him, while teaming up with the Looney Tunes to play another high stakes basketball game. 

This time, James isn't taking on this version of the "Goon Squad" to save the whole world, as much as he's trying to rescue his son Dom (played by newcomer Cedric Joe) after he gets kidnapped by a no-good A.I. known as AI G. Rhythm (played by Emmy nominee Don Cheadle) and taken into a virtual universe (aka the "Serververse") that is home to every property and character Warner Bros. owns — including Wonder Woman's amazons, the world of Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pennywise himself. Along the way, James will also try and re-connect with his son, seeing as their differing interests (basketball vs. video games) is what inadvertently caused this whole adventure in the first place. 

Despite the fact that A New Legacy serves more as a standalone than a sequel, the fact that it's a Space Jam film means that comparisons will be made between the two. So, just how did the new one stack up?

Well, early reviews have begun to come in, and so far it seems like many critics are in agreement that there's too much at play in terms of the various characters that make an appearance over the course of the movie's runtime. 

**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers below for Space Jam: A New Legacy!**

"Where the first Space Jam film pooled the popularity of Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes with the same cross-promotional congeniality as, say, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the standalone sequel makes both LeBron and the Tune Squad’s celebrity subordinate to that of the almighty Intellectual Property," says The Guardian's Charles Bramesco. "The climactic game, however, doubles down by filling the CGI stands with a baffling and distracting array of filmic characters including Jane Hudson from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the erotically tormented nuns from The Devils, and Alex’s droogs from A Clockwork Orange."

"Like most corporate cinematic endeavors, Space Jam: A New Legacy tries to have it both ways, proclaiming to be on the side of the angels while doing the work of the Devil. It criticizes shameless, money-grubbing attempts to synergize and update beloved classics (as LeBron himself puts it, 'This idea is just straight-up bad') … all the while shamelessly synergizing and updating beloved classics," says New York Magazine's Bilge Ebiri. "But maybe the problem is that the picture should have gone further. The idea of incorporating LeBron and Looney Tunes into all these classic Warner properties might sound brazen, but it arguably isn’t brazen enough: The conceit loses energy pretty quickly, like a series of jokes nobody bothered to develop beyond 'What if?'"

"Space Jam: A New Legacy takes almost nothing but wrong turns, all leading to a glittering CGI trash heap of cameos, pat life lessons, and stale internet catchphrases," says The AV Club's A.A. Dowd. "Look, the original Space Jam, released long enough ago that its adolescent fans might now have adolescents of their own, was shameless product, too... But if that modest hit took inspiration from a series of commercials, this simultaneously new-fangled and nostalgia-courting reboot basically is a commercial. What it’s selling is Warner Bros. itself, via a brand-crossover jamboree with all the fun and creativity of a stockholders meeting." 

"Yet even watching A New Legacy with a fondness for the first Space Jam and a leniency that’s necessary for a lot of kids’ movies, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed by so many questions," says Polygon's Joshua Rivera. "It’s Kingdom Hearts, but without any genuine feeling. And while the excuse of having a desperate need to entertain children with a feature film’s worth of Family Guy-style references may hold water, watching it without that excuse in hand feels vulgar. Because Space Jam: A New Legacy is only really satisfying to people who care about marketing and company profits, people who approach it as a product that’s successfully been sold."

"Clocking in at two hours, it’s a slog, and an overlong Big Game doesn’t help. The Looney Tunes bunch gets a computer-generated 'update' to make them look more real alongside humans, though their old ‘toon selves are a much better visual," says USA Today's Brian Truitt. "And while it might be kind of a win if your kid suddenly wants to watch Casablanca after seeing Yosemite Sam show up in the classic film, good luck explaining who Pennywise and the Clockwork Orange Droogs are."

"To whom this is meant to appeal is anyone’s guess, except presumably the studio’s marketing department," says The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Scheck. "Children are unlikely to recognize many of the fleeting cameo appearances and cinematic references, while adults will be bored silly by the frenetic pacing that makes you feel as if you’re watching somebody else play a video game. It all feels like Warner Bros. ingested an emetic and vomited up all their intellectual property."

"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," says The Atlantic's David Sims. "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." 

"[T]his isn’t a completely flawed endeavor. The Looney Tunes are timeless treasures that can charm and elicit a chuckle from even the biggest curmudgeons," says Den of Geek's Nick Harley. "All it takes is Bugs dismissively referring to James as Cleveland or Daffy Duck letting out a classically exasperated 'Mother' to get a warm laugh out of parents and kids alike. Their antics during the Big Game do not disappoint. Kudos also must be given to LeBron James for being so open to mockery. Lots of jokes are made at the King’s expense; Jordan allowed folks to mock his baseball career, but he would have demanded a revenge game if they took this many jabs at him in the original."

"Space Jam: A New Legacy is chaotic, rainbow sprinkle-colored nonsense that, unlike the original, manages to hold together as a movie," says Variety's Amy Nicholson. "The bittersweet counterargument is that [Director Malcom D. Lee]’s massive sandbox allows him to seed curiosity about cinema history in kiddie audiences who’ve just come for the slapstick. It won’t mean a thing to today’s 11-year-old that Lee insists on giving courtside seats to a cheerleader version of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But someday it might — and until then, it’s nice to see any modern blockbuster welcome a cult film to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Joker."

Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, July 16.