Warner Bros. has taken a lot of heat these last few years for exhibiting a lack of understanding of their great heritage and some of this criticism has been focused on their handling of existing properties such as their stable of DC Comics movies where they tried to duplicate the success of Marvel Studios. It’s clear that Warners didn’t seem to know-how best to do this, a shame given the rich heritage and wealth of material that DC has built into it.
Back in 2003 Warner Bros. released Looney Tunes: Back In Action and hired one of the greatest modern purveyors of anarchy and looniness in the form of director Joe Dante. Originally titled Spy Jam and conceived as a sequel to capitalise on the success of 1996’s Space Jam, Looney Tunes: Back In Action was a box office failure and left the director feeling bitter at the changes forced on him from the Warner Bros. suits. He has said that the final film bears no resemblance to the film he was hired to make.
There is no doubt that Looney Tunes: Back In Action is a mess, however, it does have some moments of inspired genius, mainly thanks to Dante (the chase in the Louvre, for example). The same can’t be said for Space Jam: A New Legacy.
The frankly ludicrous story is simple as long as you don’t think about it too deeply. A hot-headed algorithm (a somewhat miscast Don Cheadle) decides to bring LeBron James into the Warner Bros. server as revenge for James’ negative reaction to one of its ideas. It challenges James to a high stakes game of basketball. If James wins he gets to leave; if he loses, he and his family and hundreds of others will remain in the server forever.
This should have been a perfect vehicle to update the Space Jam idea for the 21st century and several decisions make you wonder, yet again, if Warner Bros. know what to do with their products.
The most obvious problem with the film is that it mistakes speed for zaniness. Looney Tunes: Back In Action worked best when the characters were allowed to be themselves. There were moments in which Dante’s deft handling and understanding of the Looney Tunes characters was allowed to shine in spite of the mess surrounding those moments. Dante’s understanding of this type of humour was obvious from his first big hit, Gremlins (1984) and reached epic heights in the sequel Gremlins 2: A New Batch (1990), a film that’s as much a live-action version of Looney Tunes as it is a sequel to Dante’s original film.
Both Gremlins films used puppets in place of the likes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The humour was darker and the characters more mischievous, but the spirit was the same. Space Jam: A New Legacy has the characters but doesn’t have the spirit long associated with the Looney Tunes series. Keeping the pace up, zapping from scene to scene and zooming the camera around manically is used as a device to attempt to inject the film with a sense of fun. The problem is it doesn’t. One of the central themes of the film is it’s message to be yourself. James wants his son to focus on basketball, not realising that Dom wants other things. James must let go and let his son be the person he wants to be. During the climactic basketball game, James similarly has to let the Toons be themselves.
But the filmmakers don’t seem to understand this. Yes, the zaniness is turned up in the second half of the game and some of it is quite funny, but the characters are interchangeable. Bugs Bunny is not really the Bugs Bunny we know. Daffy does have one moment where he dresses up as Superman, but otherwise, his personality is secondary. It’s the same with the other characters. Space Jam: A New Legacy would be greatly improved if the filmmakers had listened to their own message. Updating them for the 21st Century by making them 3D and having Porky Pig rap doesn’t work for this very reason.
Another issue is the characters employed as extras. Along with King Kong, The Iron Giant and other child-friendly characters, the spectators are made up of characters you wouldn’t normally see in a children’s film including Pennywise the Clown from IT, the Night King and Ice Walkers from Game of Thrones, a nun I can only assume is from The Conjuring filns and various, unlikely gangsters (from the classic Warner Brothers gangster films of the ‘30s maybe). They could be there to provide a distraction for the adults in the audience, but if that’s so, then they don’t seem to have a lot of faith in their film.
Lastly, something occurred to me while watching Space Jam: A New Legacy which sums up the evolution of moviemaking. Back in the 1950s it’s said that the Cahier Du Cinema critics used to run to the front of the theatre so they could bask in the full glory of the images before them. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the only seats available to me and my son were right at the front. As the camera whirled around, there were moments where I felt genuinely nauseous. I often try to avoid the front seats specifically for this reason. However, there was one brief clip from the classic 1942 film Casablanca. The clip begins with a glorious close-up of Ingrid Bergman’s face. The camera lingers on her for a moment before cutting away. For me, this very brief interlude was a wonderful reminder of what film can be. Even the Looney Tunes films of that period took the time to set the scene and allow us to wallow in the beauty of the moving image. I was – very briefly – overcome by nostalgia and I couldn’t help but lament the loss of the craftsmanship employed in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
There is undoubtedly room for fast-paced action spectacle but the spectacle must be earned. Space Jam: A New Legacy misses this. Fast camera work and editing are a poor replacement for humour and character. The Looney Tunes had character. Characters which had been developed over decades. All this has been jettisoned and we are left with a shell of what could have been a truly fun family romp. There are some good moments, but they just remind us of what could have been. It also made me lament the fact that Joe Dante never got to make a true Looney Tunes movie the way only he could and should have been allowed to do.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 5/10
Space Jam: A New Legacy is on general theatrical release now.