- "Space Jam: A New Legacy," which debuts in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, currently holds a 37% "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes from 78 reviews.
- The zany, meta humor that made "Space Jam" endearing is lost in this new edition, critics say.
- Instead, it is replaced with "shameless" plugs to Warner Bros. massive vault of intellectual property.
LeBron James may be king of the basketball court, but that title doesn't transfer to the box office. At least not when it comes to "Space Jam: A New Legacy."
Warner Bros. attempt at recapturing the nostalgic love for the 1996 "Space Jam" helmed by Michael Jordan is a massive air ball in the eyes of critics. The 2021 film, which debuts in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, currently holds a 37% "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes from 78 reviews.
While its predecessor also fell flat with critics 25 years ago — it holds a 44% "Rotten" score from 80 reviews — it became a beloved sports comedy, especially with younger audiences.
"Space Jam: A New Legacy" may not inspire that same esteem.
"It fills a two-hour hole in the schedule, which will keep parents happy, and it brandishes the brand, which will keep shareholders happy," wrote Bilge Ebiri in his review of the film for Vulture. "Whether it could have also been a good movie might not have crossed anyone's mind."
Helmed by James, "A New Legacy" follows a similar formula to the 1996 film — famous basketball champion gets sucked into the world of the Looney Tunes and must play a high-stakes game of hoops.
In this iteration, James, playing a fictional version of himself, is at odds with his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe), who dreams of being a video game developer instead of a basketball star. While visiting Warner Bros.' lot to see a new system called Warner 3000, a new technology that can copy James and insert him into different movies and TV, Dom is kidnapped by an evil A.I. by the name of Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle).
In order to save his son, James must team up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the iconic Tune Squad to win a basketball match against AI-G's digitized champions.
The zany, meta humor that made "Space Jam" endearing is lost in this new edition, critics say. Instead, it is replaced with "shameless" plugs to Warner Bros. massive vault of intellectual property.
"Short of asking audiences point blank to subscribe to HBO Max, 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' is as shameful a display of product placement as one would hope to endure," wrote James Marsh in his review for South China Morning Post.
Here's what critics thought of "Space Jam: A New Legacy" ahead of its debut on Friday:
"Here's the thing about basketball: It is extremely watchable. Here's the thing about Space Jam: A New Legacy: It's not," Mary Sollosi wrote in her review of "Space Jam: A New Legacy" for Entertainment Weekly.
"You will be amazed by how little the basketball game resembles an actual sport, and how hard it is to sit through," she added.
Sollosi speculates that this new movie exists for only two reasons: for Warner Bros. to flex its massive collection of IP and to build up the legacy of James.
"The studio ostentatiously flips through its library of properties throughout the film, most notably in a series of brief clips of James gathering Tunes who have relocated to 'The Matrix' and 'Austin Powers' and, most distressingly, 'Casablanca,'" she wrote. "There is not much to be taken from these scenes, not even the pleasure of nostalgia; no meaningful reference is made to these films in spirit or content."
And then there is James, who is regularly referred to as "king" throughout the film.
"The man's stature, already impressive, grows a little bit more when he gets to stand atop this enormous chunk of movie, now piled up with his many other achievements," Sollosi wrote. "Just as a film, though, for people to actually watch? Algorithmically speaking, it's no slam dunk."
"I've never seen anything like it," Richard Roeper writes in his review for Chicago Sun-Times. "I also hope to never see anything like it again, and I wish I could unsee what I have seen."
Roeper was also critical of Warner Bros.' overindulgent use of its IP within the film. There's a moment early in the film when James is being shown the Warner 3000, which has inserted him into a game of Quidditch from Harry Potter, where the sports star balks.
"LeBron says it's an awful idea, one of the worst ideas he's ever heard, and he rejects the pitch — and then the movie pursues the exact same path after acknowledging it's a terrible concept," Roeper wrote.
The film is teeming with nods to the studio's archives, including "The Wizard of Oz," "Mad Max" and "Game of Thrones."
"As Al-G Rhythm (ugh, that name) co-opts Dom by pretending to be his friend and encouraging his dreams, LeBron and Bugs Bunny round up the Looney Tunes gang, all of whom have been inserted into — you guessed it — Warner Bros. properties, e.g., Daffy Duck is in a Superman adventure in Metropolis, Yosemite Sam is at Rick's Cafe from 'Casablanca', Lola Bunny is about to take the speed and endurance test to become an Amazon a la 'Wonder Woman,'" Roeper explains.
"With the exception of a few clever one-liners and visual gags, it's more exhausting than amusing," he said.
For a movie co-starring the Looney Tunes, "Space Jam: A New Legacy" keeps its animated Tune Squad sidelined for much of the movie.
The film "takes almost nothing but wrong turns, all leading to a glittering CGI trash heap of cameos, pat life lessons, and stale internet catchphrases," A.A. Dowd wrote in his review for AV Club. "Its first misstep: keeping Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the gang on the bench for about as long as it would take the audience to watch three and a half 'Merrie Melodies.'"
The Tunes are largely secondary and tertiary players, sequestered away until one of them is needed to shout a quippy one-liner or fall victim to a well-placed anvil. The Tunes get a makeover toward the end of the film where their traditional 2D animation is traded for a 3D "plush doll" look.
James, who shined in 2015's "Trainwreck" as Bill Hader's sidekick best friend, was "as flat and rigid as a backboard," Dowd said. The basketball champ turned actor spends most of the film interacting with animated characters, a difficult feat for even the most seasoned Hollywood stars.
"As someone who grew up with 'Space Jam,' I wanted nothing more than to like 'A New Legacy,'" Germain Lussier wrote in his review of the film for Gizmodo.
"I distinctly recall 'I Believe I Can Fly' and Air Jordans, and I love watching basketball and sci-fi movies, so on paper, the film is right up my alley," he said. "The problem is, the new film is so dense and manic, with a hugely uneven tone, that the end product feels like white noise."
Like other critics, Lussier cited the rule-less basketball game climax — which he noted was an arduously long sequence — and the abundance of random Warner Bros. IP as detriments to the film.
"The team behind 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' has pulled off the impossible," he said. "They've taken two of the most dynamic and entertaining things on the entire planet and made them boring. One of those is LeBron James, an iconic, generational basketball champion, and the other is the Looney Tunes, a timeless, hilarious, adaptable, and unforgettable set of characters.
"On their own, each is amazing. Put them together and, apparently, it's anything but," he wrote.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.