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LeBron James' 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' swaps outer space for cyberspace (review)

Back in 1996, Warner Bros. Animation trotted out Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd and their whole Looney Tunes crew for a live-action/animated experiment injecting NBA celebrities like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley for "Space Jam."

Now the long-awaited sequel to this kid-friendly sports comedy, "Space Jam: A New Legacy," is being dribbled out into theaters and streaming platforms for a modern generation, and it's difficult to figure out exactly who this movie is geared toward.

Names on the backs of the jerseys may have changed, and instead of being transported into outer space, we're blasted into the digital realm of virtual reality. But hoops are still featured front and center in a game that's become much more star-driven than a quarter-century ago.

Related: First 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' trailer recruits LeBron James and Bugs Bunny to battle the Goon Squad

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" launched into theaters and HBO Max on July 16, 2021. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The original movie was a showcase for His Airness, Michael Jordan, who'd just come off a three-peat NBA Championship with the Chicago Bulls. Here, the Los Angeles Lakers' megastar LeBron James takes the reins in a 2021 update that triggers a slight sense of nostalgia and often registers as light entertainment if you can tolerate the dizzying marketing blitz.

"Space Jam" was a joyous, lighter affair with its internet-free landscape, VHS tapes, and Jordan's goofy, good-natured performance. Its sequel is a different sort of sporting event with a lesson-learning agenda and jaded attitude more suited to today's hyperactive digital age.

Director Malcolm D. Lee's new film opens by mirroring the flashback opening of the first film by showing a young King James back in Akron, Ohio circa 1998 playing a magical Gameboy before dashing out into the court to display his not-quite-stellar talents. We're treated to another long highlight reel ala a similar victory collage starring Michael Jordan in the 1996 version.

Jump to James' mega mansion in Los Angeles where he sternly lectures his video game-designing son Dominic (Cedric Joe) on the benefits of hard work and focus on the court. "Star Trek: Discovery's" Sonequa Martin-Green plays James' wife to bring a contrived sense of domesticity to the uber-rich family environment. 

The always-great Don Cheadle portrays Al-G Rhythm, a spurned-computer algorithm who needs James' celebrity for his own egotistical plans as he's stuck inside the Serververse in relative anonymity. But that all changes when Cheadle's greed unites James' superstardom with Warner 3000 computer technology to gain the recognition and respect he feels he deserves.

When James and his child get sucked inside the cyber universe Tron-style while at Warner headquarters, the insanity begins. Since this is a Warner Bros. release, expect a barrage of references to "Batman," "Harry Potter," "The Matrix," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Iron Giant," "Game of Thrones," and of course the lovable gang of classic Looney Tunes characters.

A montage of characters in "Space Jam: A New Legacy." (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Inside the Warner. Bros. Serververse, James is forced to assist Cheadle's villainous algorithm in fulfilling his destiny by blackmailing James into playing a basketball game in front of the world's largest audience of James' social media followers. The stakes are James getting his son back if he wins, or getting imprisoned inside the Serververse forever if he fails. All this against the AI's digitized champs, the Goon Squad, powered with skills from today's basketball stars.

While James embarks on a recruiting drive for his team, he's transformed into a cartoon character and navigates the technicolor realm of Looney Tunes World where he meets Bugs Bunny to begin his odyssey. At last, some levity arises to remove us from the droll real world.

This $162 million movie feels extremely long in its runtime and often bogs down in the live-action segments, but the film's CGI animation (crafted to look like traditional hand-drawn toons) is eye-catching and charming. 

Sure, it's easy to dismiss this vibrant cinematic confection as a Lebron James vanity project to try and one-up Michael Jordan's legacy, but that would be reducing it to pure ego and ignoring its efforts as family-friendly summertime entertainment, where it remains perfectly suitable if you ignore the R-rated guns and knives movie shout-outs.

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" stars LeBron James (center) as himself, Don Cheadle (right) as Al G. Rhythm, and Cedric Joe (left) as Dom James.  (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Bugs Bunny (doing his best James T. Kirk imitation) decides to commandeer Marvin the Martian's flying saucer in an effort to reassemble the original Tunes Squad and this bit of sci-fi frolic while traversing the Serververse to Superman's Metropolis and Hogwarts' Castle excels.

Bright spots include Bugs Bunny as Batman and James playing Robin The Boy Wonder in DC World, especially when Daffy's Super Duck appears on the scene to save the day. 

Nods to "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Austin Powers" with Elmer Fudd as Mini-Me, Yosemite Sam as "Casablanca's piano player, and even age-inappropriate cameos by "A Clockwork Orange's" violent criminals, The Droogs, "Game of Thrones" White Walkers, and "It's" murderous Pennywise The Clown, bombard viewers with endless Warner Bros. licensed properties.

This exercise in self-promotion and glaring additions of silver screen cash-cows eventually succumbs to a tiring two-hour commercial long before the climactic showdown between the Lebron-led Tune Squad and the rogue algorithm's Goon Squad on the cyberspace court.

While all these pop-culture callbacks are fun, the novelty soon wears thin with heavy-handed lectures about fatherhood and allowing your offspring to follow their own dreams instead of urging them towards something they're reluctant to gravitate to.

Jordan's "Space Jam" clocked in at a lean and brisk 87 minutes, and that included nearly 15 minutes of opening and closing titles. This uneven remake is a bloated two hours that might induce young ones into a serious nap, especially during didactic moments between the vibrant universe-hopping mayhem showcasing flashes of adult films they know nothing about.

The original "Space Jam" movie was released in 1996. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

There might not be real outer space in "Space Jam: A New Legacy," but if an overlong descent into cyberspace is on your itinerary, and you're a bonafide Lebron James superfan, you may be lured into the cinematic hybrid's colorful calamities. 

You might even be titillated by seeing cameos of current NBA and WNBA stars like Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi and Damian Lillard and their mutated video game avatars.

So, should you pass the ball on "Space Jam: A New Legacy?" It's worth a watch if prepared for the elongated runtime, R-rated film references, and non-stop King James hype. Otherwise, skip it and load up Michael Jordan's fun 1996 original as a remnant from a kinder, gentler time instead.

And whatever my misgivings, I must admit that Lebron as Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus and Granny as Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity from "The Matrix" brought a big smile to my face. Whoa!

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" is currently in theaters and available on demand and HBO Max.

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