At the heart of Space Jam: A New Legacy is a touching, heartwarming story about the type of relationship we don’t always see through a positive prism on the big screen You have a Black father––LeBron James, playing himself––learning how to connect with his son Dom (Cedric Joe).
In this sequel to the 1996 mashup of live-action and animation starring Michael Jordan, King James learns an important lesson that he then imparts to his kid, and thus to the audience –- parenting is more than discipline and rules. It also includes having an appreciation for your children and accepting them for who they are, not for who you want them to be. It’s sweet, and a doctrine that couldn’t have a finer vehicle to express it than James, a hero on and off the court. It’s a beautiful message, but one that unfortunately gets a bit muddled in the film.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is hotly anticipated, and with good reason: LeBron is, much like Bugs Bunny, a beloved icon, and he’s a brand just about everyone associates with Black excellence. With Ryan Coogler as a producer, Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee directing, and the limitless possibilities for animation in 2021, it was reasonable to assume that Space Jam: A New Legacy would be as revolutionary as these power players. Instead, it’s a cute yet formulaic, family film. And, there’s nothing wrong with that––young kids will like it and it’s sure to make a ton of money––but adults hoping for the kind of layered, sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen in, say, Pixar movies, should adjust expectations.
The film starts with a young LeBron as a grade-school age boy on a basketball team. He’s initially distracted, not giving his best, and after a couch instills in him the importance of focus, determination, and effort, we’re transported to the present-day. We get to see his son Dom struggle with the same issues on the court, but this time around, Dom isn’t exactly passionate about basketball: he’s a gamer who’d much rather invest his attention in digital development.
It’s certainly a clever set up, not just because Dom’s virtual world is where LeBron and Dom soon end up thanks to a freak occurrence, but because, what parent isn’t bargaining with their kids to get off their phone or game devices in 2021? A contest of wills starts at the outset–-a generational conflict that’s real, relatable, and universal. As the tension deepens, a recurring thematic question emerges: What’s wrong with having fun? Dom’s mom Kamiyah, played by the exceptional Sonequa Martin-Green, tries to convince LeBron to back off a bit and let Dom just be a kid, but it’s no use. Her husband is all about success, determination, achievement, goal setting, and discipline, values that are of course crucial but suffocating when not balanced with play and enjoying life.
In short order, LeBron brings Dom with him to a meeting about an opportunity at Warner Bros––a meeting about a new tech product called the Warner 3000 that’ll scan LeBron’s likeness and use it for an untold amount of product integration. (Thus begins the first of many, many exhausting references to Warner Bros.) Unbeknownst to them both, a nefarious figure within the machine named Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) hopes to leverage LeBron’s stature so that he can go from a behind-the-scenes nobody to the big hero. However, when LeBron shoots down the idea presented by the execs, an insulted Al-G sucks Dom into his AI world, kidnapping him for ransom. LeBron follows, and learns he has to beat Al-G in a game of basketball to get his kid back. If he loses the game (naturally rigged against him in multiple ways), then everyone stays stuck in Al’s shadow universe…forever.
You know how this end, but the road getting there is at times plodding. When LeBron is first dropped into the alternative virtual world, we’re confronted with a tour of the Warner Bros. universe that feels like a sizzle reel of all its coolest properties: Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, DC Comics characters, and on and on. The branding is so intense that, when LeBron crashes into the Looney Tunes world, the hole he makes in the ground somehow turns into the Nike swoosh. Nevertheless, the animation and CGI are fun to watch, and by the conclusion, LeBron has learned the value in giving his son the space to be his own person. Towards the end, there’s a moment where he admits he’s still learning how to be a good father, and the superstar athlete almost seems like he’s tearing up with emotion. He’s trying to break generational traumas and be as much of a nurturer to his son as much as he is an enforcer, a message that’s revolutionary, nothing short of phenomenal and genuinely the slam dunk of the film.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is in theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max July 16.