Basketball superstar LeBron James showed a lot of promise for a post-playing career as an actor with a small, yet hysterical supporting turn as a caricature of himself in 2015’s Trainwreck.
In the six years that have followed, “King James,” as he is known in NBA circles, has won championships with multiple teams and rivaled Michael Jordan for the unofficial title of greatest player of all time.
James returned to the big screen for the first time in six years this weekend, chasing after Jordan with what could be considered either a spiritual sequel or outright reboot of the 1996 children’s classic Space Jam.
Space Jam: A New Legacy stars James as a fictionalized version of himself, trapped inside the computer substructure inside Warner Brothers Studios dubbed the “Warnerverse” and forced to team up with Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang to win a basketball game to save his kidnapped son.
It’s readily apparent to be a modernization of the initial premise that saw Jordan play hoops with the “Toon Squad,” but an additional half-hour to the running time allows director Malcolm D. Lee to cram in as much I.P. as possible as an animated version of James flies across the Warner universe through Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, DC comic books, Casablanca and even the dystopian science-fiction world of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Often these one-off gags miss the mark and bloat the film unnecessarily; there’s no need for the evil clown Pennywise from It to watch a basketball game other than to be a distraction.
When the moments are well animated and ironically enough James isn’t involved, however, they can land for an amused chuckle that will sail right over kids’ heads.
James himself isn’t a terrible actor. It’s just that the screenplay from writers Terence Nance, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor is mediocre that the basketball star isn’t able to score given bad setups and bland dialogue.
With A New Legacy, James is actually probably about at the same level Jordan was as a performer in the mid-90s, but there isn’t a Bill Murray to riff off of or an Ivan Reitman producing the film to raise the comedic talent involved.
Oscar nominee Don Cheadle – whose other HBO Max film No Sudden Move is among the year’s best features – isn’t holding back at all as the villain, a computer algorithm richly named Al. G Rhythm, because that’s the level of thought being put into the narrative of the film.
Acting largely against a green screen and likely not even with James in the same room, Cheadle cranks the volume up to 11 in a performance that’s cartoonishly menacing and one that kids will enjoy hating while parents roll their eyes, perfect for the film’s target audience.
Warner Brothers’ animation department is filling up the proverbial stat sheet with this film, both in the volume of content drawn into each frame and in the visual artistry required to achieve the number of looks desired in the film. The strongest sections of A New Legacy come in the digitized world and there’s always something to look at that should hold the attention of kids on a fifth, tenth or hundredth re-watch.
A New Legacy feels very much like James need to continue to take the mantle from Jordan rather than make his own movie on his own merits.
In the end, it’s a Looney Tunes movie where the cartoons are significantly better than their live-action counterparts and the Ready Player One-esque Easter eggs littered throughout just distract from audience engagement, which is probably a good thing.
The film’s simultaneous release in theaters and home streaming on HBO Max makes it incredibly easy to watch, something that nostalgic adults who grew up in the 90s can give a shot with little effort or expense and something its intended audience – children 6-12 – can watch on a loop during a long summer break.