Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Have you ever seen a movie that was so weird yet so entertaining at the same time? Well, that depends on the type of movie you’re talking about. As children, we watched movies with ridiculous and out-of-place concepts without a second thought. Nonetheless, these films always have an innocent charm that makes them stand out from the crowd. With that said, here’s another question: ...What happens when you mix the Looney Tunes characters and basketball?
The Looney Tunes need no introduction. These characters are considered among the most timeless and comedic in animation history, dating back to the Golden Age of Animation. These cartoons define comedy in their catchphrases, comedic timing, and slapstick. As these characters continue to develop, younger generations are recognizing their importance. However, when it came to their theatrical films, it was quite a challenge. Their previous compilation films mixed old and new animation, resulting in success and failure.
When the 90s decade came, a strange idea came into fruition. It began when NBA player Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny teamed up to promote the Air Jordan shoes to younger audiences through Nike commercials. The commercials were so successful that filmmaker Ivan Reitman and a Nike executive pitched a film project involving commercial director Joe Pytka. Thus, Space Jam was born. Upon its release in 1996, the film was met with mixed reviews. While they praise the technical achievements, they were divided between the concept itself and the out-of-place merits. Even veteran animator Chuck Jones hated the movie. In spite of this, the movie was both financially successful and a cult hit.
A sequel, on the other hand, was NO easy task. The executives, at the time, were so desperate for a follow-up that Michael Jordan declined the offer and wanted to keep it a secret from the animators involved. Meanwhile, Joe Dante wanted to make a faithful Looney Tunes film, because he didn't like Space Jam. Through a constant production battle between Dante and studio interference, Looney Tunes: Back in Action was released in 2003. A marginal improvement from the critics, the movie was a box-office bomb due to poor marketing and heavy competition. In fact, it flopped so hard that Warner Bros. Feature Animation closed down.
After the success of Warner Animation Group and LeBron James' new acting career, a sequel was greenlit years later. This movie looks like it's going to be a slam dunk thanks to Malcolm D. Lee's directing, Black Panther's Ryan Coolger's producing, and cameos from Warner Bros. properties. After years of waiting, how is the sequel? To provide a clear understanding, this review will both be written from a general and fan's perspective.
To rescue his son (Cedric Jones), LeBron James recruits the Looney Tunes to help him win a basketball game against a rogue AI (Don Cheadle).
A Familiar Yet Different Story
A sequel or a follow-up isn't always easy. For Space Jam, it’s no exception. In the first movie, aliens attempt to kidnap the Looney Tunes for their amusement park. Thus, they recruited Michael Jordan to help them in a basketball game against the aliens. Even the original concept art showcased an outer space theme.
From the trailer and marketing, it appeared that this would be a standalone sequel with a video game and cyberspace twist, as well as new villains. Still, the movie does not shy away from familiarity. Conceptually, one of the story's issues is that there are some moments that are similar to the first film, or predictable plots, whether it is LeBron's relationship with Dom, or the Looney Tunes expressing themselves during the basketball game against the Goon Squad.
It is true in theory, but the execution helps make this story a bit more emotional and different than the first. When LeBron or Dom are featured in a scene, the movie's heart shines through in its depiction of respect and love between generations. In fact, that doesn't just apply to human characters; it also applies to Looney Tunes. While the Looney Tunes are famous for their cartoon comedy, there is a new, genuine element when Bugs Bunny feels lonely and tries to carry on the legacy without his friends. In other words, the movie is more character-driven, which we'll discuss shortly.
The movie is also faithful to the spirit of Looney Tunes. It is handled better than the first. Some awkward and questionable moments do occur, such as Granny speaking the latest slang or Porky Pig rapping. For the rest of the movie, however, the movie understands what makes these characters special and keeps the laughs going. Every time the Looney Tunes appear in the film, the movie is funny. Human characters...sometimes, but not often.
Sadly, we are then confronted by the elephant in the room: Warner Bros.' overuse of its own IPs to promote its own products. To date this review, this sequel will be one of the divisive among viewers and fans. On the one hand, it is kind of cool, seeing all these properties and characters appearing in this movie. Like other companies, Warner Bros. has done this before with their former Lego movies and 2018’s Ready Player One. This mainly applies to the creative and visual liberties inherent in the concept itself, which will be discussed soon. Admittedly, the idea of mixing Looney Tunes into different movie franchises is not that bad. It actually has the potential to be either self-contained shorts or its own film. However, due to its focus on the basketball game, others would call their appearance in this sequel an "amoral cash grab" instead due to their meaningless existence.
That may be true but here’s the thing: that is kind of the point since the first movie did something like that. Remember the movie was created due to the Air Jordan commercials’ success. Subtlety was never the selling point. Yes, the first movie was illogical, but the concept was so beyond anyone’s comprehension, we had no choice but to be entertained. Though the sequel's story is technically a downgrade, at least there was a noble attempt and effort to keep the entertainment value high.
Unbelievable Variety of Animation & Effects
It is no surprise that technology has been significantly involved since the first. If there’s ANYTHING that the sequel has improved since the original is the technical levels of animation and visual effects.
The biggest highlight of the visuals is the grand return of hand-drawn animation. It is breathtaking seeing this art medium when the mainstream has been overwhelmed with computer animation. With Spike Brandt as animation director, he and his animation team did a phenomenal job capturing the look and feel of the characters during the Golden Age. Their character animations also deliver the emphasis on squash and stretch. It is eye-catching seeing the colorful Looney Tunes World where every corner is literally home to certain characters and gags that anyone would love and recognize. That doesn’t stop there. There are also moments where the hand-drawn characters blend into live-action sequences and archive footage whenever they visit certain WB properties. There are even a couple of worlds with a distinctive animation style whether it's Bruce Timm’s animated DC universe or a Wonder Woman comic filtered with “Ben-Day” dots.
Speaking of universes, the Warner Bros. Serververse is a virtual space where each planet is inhabited by certain Warner Bros. properties. Despite the comparisons between Ready Player One and other crossover movies, there is one franchise that anyone seems to overlook: Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts is a video game franchise that combines Final Fantasy and Disney properties. Think about it: You travel through a void into different worlds and each world you visit contains characters based on a particular franchise or property. Sometimes, your appearance would change when visiting and adapting to that world. Besides that, this movie’s visual effects were provided by Industrial Light & Magic, the same studio that provided effects for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The CGI animation in the environments is well-detailed and the effects help authenticate the cyberspace feeling. Once the Looney Tunes characters transition from 2D to 3D during the basketball game, their designs don’t look that bad. Granted, this isn’t the first time but these designs are respectful with a nice amount of texture to their hair, fur, etc. To the movie's credit, the Looney Tunes aren't happy with their new looks so this change isn't permanent. Plus, the character animation is energetic and fluid enough to display their comedic expressions and capabilities. Fascinatingly enough, the Goon Squad’s designs are imaginative and based on the selected NBA guest stars’ nicknames. For example, "The Brow" is a harpy-like man visually based on Anthony Davis and one of his nicknames. Of course, what’s a Space Jam movie without basketball? Comparing to the basketball game in the first film, the match between the Looney Tunes and the Goon Squad takes an exhilarating combination of video game power-ups, zany cartoony humor, and a ginormous crowd of WB cameos and spectators.
The only issue to critique with the visuals is going back to the concept of the Serververse itself. As creative as it is, there isn’t enough time to get immersed into each world the characters visit. Despite its runtime of 115 minutes, the film gets hindered from its full potential, where each property has 15 seconds of fame with an imaginary sign that says, "Go see our properties". No matter what side of the fence you’re on, we can all agree that the animators and visual artists did an amazing job.
A Team Roster of Tunes and Cameos
Twenty-five years later, the sequel continues the same driving factor that its predecessor established: having an NBA player playing with the Looney Tunes characters. In the first film, Michael Jordan was the straight-faced yet pure player willing to help the wacky Looney Tunes against the aliens. Though the characters were one-note, their interaction, at the time, was meant to convey balance between the serious and goofy nature throughout. The sequel kind of did that too but added a little more emotion to their characters.
LeBron James is the famous NBA superstar who has a hard time letting his son follow in his footsteps due to avoiding a similar mistake he made years ago. While he has a bit of an ego, LeBron does deeply care about his family and has a love for the Looney Tunes. Speaking of which, Dom is Lebron's son who designs video games passionately and wants his dad to be proud. Though the story involving their relationship can be predictable, the heart helps benefit the movie’s message of following your dreams and respecting among generations. The rest of the human characters like the James family are simply emotional support and Lebron’s friend Malik is forgettable comic relief.
The Looney Tunes characters are back and have brought some familiar yet refreshing layers to their personalities. Bugs Bunny, for example, retains his smart-aleck attitude while acting as a determining cartoon trying to keep his spirit alive without the others. Daffy Duck is still the constant show-stealer but also acts as a co-coach in order to gain a reputation. The most changed out of the cast is Bugs’ basketball-playing girlfriend Lola. Since her debut in the previous movie, Lola had quite a history and changes throughout her appearances. Shen went from a sex symbol to a kooky romantic voiced by Kristen Wiig and now, a strong independent woman. Nonetheless, she maintains her no-nonsense and tomboyish nature and is willing to help LeBron rescue his son.
And then, we have our antagonist Al-G Rhythm. Accompanied by his assistant Pete, Al-G is a hardworking AI that is desperate for recognition for creating the Serververse and will stop at nothing till he gets what he wants. He can be persuasive, but could also be arrogant whoever refuses his offer and would go to extreme measures. In addition, all of that personality is fueled by a charismatic performance from Don Cheadle. You can tell he was having fun in this movie. In fact, the rest of the actors did a good job as well. LeBron’s performance and interaction with the Looney Tunes are more believable as well. The voice acting on the Looney Tunes is solid with Zendaya providing her own take on Lola’s character.
It would be a crime not to mention cameos. It is unbelievable that there are so many characters from familiar properties, including movies that aren’t aimed at children. It is quite understandable that there may be another reason for the criticism. Admittedly, it is kind of fun spotting and pointing some characters, even though some shots involving certain characters get a little repetitive. There are even two unexpected cameos that I triple-dog-dare not to reveal and will catch your guard down. Though simple as before, the characters, at least, have more empathy and talented performances.
I won't lie: it was not an easy movie to write about. As a result of a deeper analysis, it is clear to whom the movie is targeted. Generally speaking, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a reasonable sequel with an average plot, predictable elements, and forgettable side characters. But from a fan's perspective, this is a decent follow-up with more emotion and a commitment to the Looney Tunes legacy, beautiful animation and effects, and solid performances. Space Jam may not be a perfect franchise, but both of these movies maintain what both love and hate about them. Families, basketball, Looney Tunes, and animation fans—especially those who want to see 2D animation on the big screen—should check it out. For average viewers unfamiliar with the film and its "controversy", it is best viewed as a rental. It is foul play in some aspects, but it is still an enjoyable game. That’s all folks!