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Non-Review Review: Space Jam – A New Legacy

Space Jam: A New Legacy is content to be content.

The original Space Jam was a calculated marketing exercise. Michael Jordan was the biggest sports star of the nineties, and Space Jam capitalised on Jordan’s brand potential while also allowing the athlete to refashion his own narrative into a family-friendly mythology. Space Jam packaged Jordan for a generation, smoothing the wrinkles out of his story by presenting a wholesome family man making an earnest transition from basketball to baseball.

It also helped Warner Bros. to figure out what to do with their Looney Tunes characters, which had largely laid dormant within the company’s intellectual property vaults. There had been a conscious effort to revitalised the company’s animation with shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and even Animaniacs, but those classic and beloved cartoons were a merchandising opportunity waiting to happen. So the logic of the original Space Jam was clear, it was an excuse to tie together two potentially profitable strands of intellectual property.

Squad goals.

Space Jam itself was something of an afterthought. The movie struggles to reach its ninety-minute runtime. It often feels like the production team have to utilise every scrap of film to reach that target, with extended riffs focusing on Bill Murray and Michael Jordan on the golf course and with a lot of the improvisation from the voice cast included in the finished film. The movie’s ending comes out of nowhere, and Space Jam struggles to hit many of the basic plot beats of a scrappy sports movie.

The movie itself was immaterial to the success of Space Jam as a concept. After all, the film only grossed $250m at the global box office, enough to scrape into the end of year top ten behind The Nutty Professor and Jerry Maguire. However, the film’s real success lay in merchandising, with the film generating between $4bn and $6bn in licensing and merchandising. Key to this was the success of the six-time platinum-certified soundtrack which remains the ninth highest-grossing soundtrack of all-time.

It really Bugs me.

In some to trace a lot of modern Hollywood back to the original Space Jam. So much of how companies package and release modern media feels like an extension of that approach, the reduction of the actual film itself to nothing more than “content” that exists as a larger pool of marketable material. After all, the unspoken assumption underlying AT&T’s disastrous decision to send all of their blockbusters to HBO Max was the understanding that HBO Max itself was often packaged free with company’s internet. Movies would no longer be their own things, but just perks to be packaged and sold as part of larger deals.

In the decades since the release of Space Jam, the industry has become increasingly focused on the idea of packaging and repackaging intellectual property. It has become increasingly common for films to showcase multiple intellectual properties housed at the same studios. Simple crossovers like Alien vs. Predators or The Avengers now seem positively humble when compared to the smorgasbord of brand synergy on display in projects like The Emoji Movie or Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Keep on Duckin’…

Interestingly, as Disney have steadily securing their intellectual property portfolio with additions like Pixar and Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. have becoming increasingly bullish about showcasing the depth and breadth of their bench. The LEGO Movie imagines a wide range of properties consolidated under one brand. Ready Player One depicted a pop culture user space lost in nostalgia for properties and trinkets. However, those movies also managed to tell their own stories, even as they grappled with the weight of brand synergy pushing down on top of them.

Space Jam: A New Legacy has no such delusions. It understands that it does not exist as a story or as a feature film. Instead, it has distilled cinema down to a content-delivery mechanism. The plot of the movie finds basketball star LeBron James sucked into the “Serververse” and forced to ally with the Looney Tunes in order to play a basketball game with the fate of the world in the balance. However, while the original Space Jam ran a brisk and unfocused ninety minutes, A New Legacy extends itself to almost two hours. There is always more content to repackage and sell, after all.

Run, Lola, Run.

A New Legacy slathers its cynicism in nostalgia, directly appealing to a generation of audiences who have convinced themselves that Space Jam was a good movie and a beloved childhood classic. A New Legacy is built around the understanding that the original Space Jam walked so that it might run, counting on the audience’s nostalgia for the original film to excuse a lot of its indulgences. After all, it would be a betrayal of the franchise if A New Legacy wasn’t a crash and vulgar cash-in. In many ways, A New Legacy does what most sequels aspire to do, scaling the original film’s ambitions aggressively upwards.

As with the original Space Jam, there is layer of irony to distract from the film’s clear purpose. In the original Space Jam, the villainous Swackhammer planned to abduct the Looney Tunes and force them to play at his themeparks. The implication was that the characters did not want to be sold into corporate servitude, stripped of their own identity and rendered as crass tools of unchecked capitalism. The irony of Space Jam lay in the fact that the entire movie was a variant on Swackhammer’s themepark and the Looney Tunes were dancing to that theme anyway as Daffy puckers up and kisses the Warner Bros. stamp on his own ass.

Th-th-th-that’s a rap, folks.

In A New Legacy, a sentient algorithm – Al G. Rhythm – is cast as the movie’s primary antagonist. The film gestures broadly at a satirical criticism of the modern film industry, with Al G. Rhythm shaping and warping the future of movie-making by suggesting things like computer-generating movie stars and producing a constant array of recycled intellectual property. A New Legacy recognises the machinations of Al G. Rhythm as unsettling and horrifying, with throwaway jokes about the theft of ideas and the violation of privacy, but the villain largely serves as a smokescreen to let the movie have its cake and eat it.

After all, A New Legacy revels in Al G. Rhythm’s plans. LeBron James is turned into an animated figure and dumped into classic Looney Tunes shorts like Rabbit Season and The Rabbit of Seville. The film understands that while the audience might be afraid of the algorithm, they also yearn for it. After all, it isn’t Al G. Rhythm who structures A New Legacy so that the film spends an extended sequence touring the company’s beloved intellectual properties.

It could do with some fine Tuning.

A New Legacy is really just an investors’ day presentation that celebrates the sheer amount of content that Warner Bros. own. It’s not too difficult to imagine the film screened investors before the Discovery deal, as proof of just how many viable franchising opportunities existed within the copyright of the company itself. It’s a weird and unsettling showcase, in large part because it feels like that warning from Jurassic Park. The studio were so obsessed with whether they could do a thing that they never stopped to consider whether they should.

The film’s middle section includes a whirlwind tour of the properties owned by Warner Bros. After Bugs “plays the hits” with James, the two set off on an adventure to recover the other Looney Tunes from other beloved Warner Bros. properties. Some of these advertisements make sense: Daffy and Porky are living in the world of Superman: The Animated Series, while Lola seems to have found the Wonder Woman from the Bloodlines animated films. Others make much less sense in a movie aimed at kids, like the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote hiding in Mad Max: Fury Road or Yosemite Sam living in Casablanca.

Mediocre.

Of course, it’s debatable how much of A New Legacy is aimed at kids, as compared to the kids of the nineties. Its target market seems to be kids in the late nineties who never grew up, because they never had to. Elmer Fudd and Sylvester are hiding out in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Granny and Speedy have taken refuge in the opening scenes of The Matrix. While the original Space Jam featured odd pop cultural shoutouts to things like Pulp Fiction, at least that was somewhat contemporaneous.

To be fair, there is no art driving these choices. Many of these references serve to point the audience towards established properties. It is a sentient recommendation algorithm for HBO Max and a handy way of stoking audience interest in upcoming projects like The Matrix 4 (December 2021) or Furiosa (June 2023). It is a helpful reminder that Superman: The Animated Series has been remastered in high definition to stream on HBO Max. Foghorn Leghorn even rides a dragon from Game of Thrones to remind viewers that the show is streaming on HBO Max and that there are prequels coming.

“Holy brand synergy, Batman!”

It’s all very bizarre, but also strangely lifeless. The climax of the film finds the inevitable basketball game played in front of a crowd of familiar pop culture icons drawn from a wide range of sources: King Kong, The Iron Giant, Batman ’66, The Wizard of Oz, The Mask and many more. It feels very much like a surreal power play, a company showcasing the depth of its own vaults at a turbulent time in the industry. It leads to weird moments, like Al G. Rhythm even quoting Training Day, perhaps the film’s most unlikely draw from the “Warner Bros. Intellectual Property Vault.”

The most revealing aspect of the movie is its central conflict, with Al G. Rhythm cynically manipulating LeBron’s son Dom. Dom is convinced that his father doesn’t understand him, that his father is unable to see that his skill lies in video game coding rather than old-fashioned basketball. Rhythm is able to create a schism between father and son, using Dom’s code and his anger to attack and undermine LeBron James and the Looney Tunes. It’s a very broad and very archetypal story. There are no points for realising that Dom eventually comes around to his father and accepts that Rhythm is a villain.

The Grannymatrix.

However, it signals an interesting shift in these sorts of narratives. Traditionally, these sorts of generational conflicts played out between fathers and sons, with fathers presented as antagonistic and sons presented as heroic. The original Star Wars saga is built around Luke Skywalker trying to wrestle and grapple with his father Darth Vader. In Superman II, the eponymous superhero is forced to confront Zod, a representative of his father’s generation and the old world. Even in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is set against his surrogate father figure Ra’s Al Ghul.

The metaphor driving these sorts of stories was fairly simple and straightforward. Every generation needs to come into their own and take control of their own agency within the world. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi ends with Darth Vader dead and Luke staring out into the wider universe. Times change, and each generation has an obligation to try to create a better world than the one left to them by their parents. In the conflict between parents and children, it has generally been children who have prevailed.

Rendered speechless.

However, in recent years, the trend has swung back sharply. It’s notable that the villain in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is an errant child who doesn’t properly respect his parents, and that Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker ends with order restored when the protagonist takes the name of the beloved heroes of the older films. Shows like Star Trek: Picard are built around the idea that kids need their older generation of parents to swoop in and tell them how to properly live their lives.

A New Legacy is an interesting illustration of this trend. The movie ends with a reconciliation between LeBron and Dom, but it is very clearly on LeBron’s terms. Dom is manipulated and misled by sinister forces, and his father has to save him while realigning his moral compass. Father knows best. It demonstrates how the underlying logic of these stories has shifted in recent years, perhaps reflecting the understanding that perhaps the older generation won’t surrender the floor gracefully.

No Bunny Business…

As with Ready Player One, there’s a monstrous Peter Pan quality to A New Legacy. It is a film about how the culture doesn’t have to change. It can be recycled and repurposed forever and ever and ever. At the end of Space Jam, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny parted ways. There was an understanding that the two worlds existed apart from one another. However, A New Legacy ends with the collapse of these worlds into one another; the “Serververse” manifesting itself in the real world. As LeBron walks home, Bugs asks if he can move in.

Of course, with HBO Max subscription, the audience can take Bugs home anytime they want.

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