Space Jam: A New Legacy review: This exhausting sequel feels like it was directed by a sentient headache

Space Jam: A New Legacy trailer

Dir: Malcolm D Lee. Starring: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya. U, 115 minutes.

Space Jam: A New Legacy gives us one good franchise mash up before it all becomes nauseating. In one sequence, Looney Tunes characters rampage through scenes from popular Warner Bros films, old and new. We’re treated to the image of Wile E Coyote spray-painting his teeth chrome and praying for passage through the gates of Valhalla, as he joins in on the central truck chase of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s whimsical, it’s diverting, and it even feels loosely in the tradition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Anchors Aweigh, or the Looney Tunes shorts themselves, which never shied away from the opportunity for cinematic homage.

But it’s only a brief sojourn. The rest feels like it was directed by a sentient headache. While its 1997 predecessor was essentially a feature-length extension of a series of Nike ads that inexplicably paired up Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, Space Jam: A New Legacy hopes to promote Warner Bros’s glutted catalogue of franchises – think Harry Potter, DC, and Game of Thrones. It does this through the creation of the wildly dystopian Warner 3000 Server-Verse, a whole digital galaxy of IPs. Every film has its own planet, so they’ll fly by “The Maltese Falcon” world before bumping into Rick and Morty in their spaceship. It’s exhausting just to think about.

The basic story is much the same between the two Space Jams. A basketball superstar (this time LeBron James, who’s a distinctly more natural screen presence than Jordan) teams up with the likes of Bugs, Daffy Duck, and Tweety Bird for a game that, for narratively confusing reasons, will or will not ensure the future emancipation of the Looney Tunes from a megalomaniac overlord. In this case, the villain is an algorithm named Al-G Rhythm, who’s just Don Cheadle in a shiny suit. After being sucked into the Warner 3000 Server-Verse, James is separated from his son Dom, played by Cedric Joe – a fictionalised version of his actual son Bryce, since none of the player’s family appear in the film.

There are, unsurprisingly, a flurry of basketball cameos, including Chiney Ogwumike and Kyrie Irving, alongside a more left-field appearance (à la Bill Murray’s role in the first film) that is so self-consciously dorky that it almost works. Lola Bunny returns, though she’s no longer aggressively objectified and now has the voice of A-lister Zendaya. And, early on, a cartoonified James helps Bugs reunite with his friends scattered across the Server-Verse. It’s here that the film momentarily perks up, in a warm and colourful montage that switches rapidly between locations and animation styles, and contains plenty of the traditional Looney Tunes slapstick.

LeBron James helps Bugs reunite with his friends scattered across the Server-Verse

But that one small burst of inventiveness represents the calm before the sanity-punishing storm. The audience that gathers for the game itself, so prominently featured in the trailers, essentially replicates Ready Player One’s own clash of the IP titans – down to an almost identical shot of The Iron Giant lumbering into view. To say that it’s a CGI-fuelled eyesore, or that watching it feels like being beaten into submission by the fists of capitalism, is a given.

What’s truly confounding is that among the obvious choices in this cavalcade of characters – say Catwoman, the Jetsons, or Trinity from The Matrix – are some inclusions that feel like a joke at the expense of the audience. Director Malcolm D Lee and his team decided that the droogs from A Clockwork Orange (noted rapists), Bette Davis’s character from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (noted murderer), and one of the nuns from The Devils (noted crucifix disrespectors) should be front and centre, raucously celebrating the cartoon chicken landing a slam dunk.

Are they laughing at us? Is this a taunting reminder that art is now so confined and commercialised that even the work of Ken Russell can’t escape that of easter eggs and Funko Pops? No one expected Space Jam: A New Legacy, considering its origins, to be anything other than cynical. But at its weakest, it can’t even function as effective marketing material.

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