We've got to start somewhere, so why not with the question that I've been kicking around in my head since I finished Space Jam: A New Legacy: how can anyone worship a God vindictive and hateful enough to allow this movie to exist? No wait, that's the other question I've been kicking around. The one I wanted to open with is, why is this movie so insufferably bad as a vehicle for Warner Bros. to parade around every goddamn brand they own, when it was merely annoying when The Lego Batman Movie did exactly the same thing in 2017? How does this feel even worse than when Disney (a more pernicious and insidious company by far than Warner Bros.) did their version of it 2018's Ralph Breaks the Internet? A movie that I hate like it stole my girlfriend and took a shit in my kitchen sink, and yet Space Jam: A New Legacy is the kind of deep-down just-plain-nasty kind of bad that makes me look at Ralph Breaks the Internet and say to myself, "but you know, the character designs weren't that bad..."

Part of the difference, obviously, is that Lego Batman had a chance to earn some goodwill before it turned in a disgusting display of corporate autoeroticism, thanks to some thoroughly splendid jokes in its first half, whereas I am not sure if there is a single thing in Space Jam: A New Legacy that isn't some degree of bad. I suppose I should credit it with the presence of some nice-looking 2-D animation, done the old-fashioned way, or at least the old-fashioned-on-computers way, so that it has the flexibility and fluidity of the wonderful old slapstick animation practiced at Warners in the middle of the 20th Century, which is at least ostensibly what A New Legacy is here to celebrate. But even this is kind of more the pleasure that leads to suffering, when around the midway point, the 2-D characters are zapped by the villain and turned into fully-rendered three-dimensional models, an act that fills them all with screaming, horrified disgust at how repulsive they look now. And that's just, like, a pretty big inadvertent admission for the movie to make.

Accidentally letting us now how shameless and disgusting it is turns out to kind of be A New Legacy's thing, though. This is a film whose plot - whose very inciting incident, the wellspring from which all the rest of it bursts - is that putting a famous non-actor like superstar basketball player LeBron James into a movie would probably be a very stupid and bad idea. Something that could only be whipped up by an algorithm designed to maximise the number of human eyeballs watching in the spirit of morbid disgust, not the hope for aesthetic pleasure. And moreoever, that it would be craven and tasteless to present this theoretical LeBron-starring motion picture as apart of an undifferentiated whirlwind of "content" that reduces all cinema and television into a grey paste, where artistic quality and entertainment value are much less important than how hard a brand name "pings" as it hits the most lizardlike part of the viewer's brain. I want to reiterate, to make it clear: this is the film's very explicit message. Doing these terrible, inhumane, artless things is the clearly-expressed motivation of the unambiguously unlikable villain.

And yet A New Legacy is in fact a film starring LeBron James, the ostensible "appeal" of which is that it serves a quick survey of some of your favorite Warner Bros.-controlled brands, such as DC Comics, and Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, and Austin Powers, and King Kong,* and Casablanca... Like, Casablanca, Casablanca? "Here's looking at you kid", "Round up the usual suspects", "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'"? That Casablanca? Even acknowledging that what's going on here is that they're probably assuming, probably correctly, that Casablanca is one of the tiny handful of black-and-white movies that a substantial number of normal people have heard of (no, we were never going to see LeBron James traipsing through Dark Victory or Objective, Burma!), it seems so... petulant to bother with digging up the corpse of a 79-year-old masterpiece of the studio system just to make the almost-explicit argument that it functionally indistinguishable from Wonder Woman 1984. It feels sort like a dog pissing on a bush to lay claim on it. "This is Casablanca. It is ours. We own it and can do anything we want to with it." Yes, you do, and yes, you can, Warner Bros., and I'm sure all of the eight-year-olds in the year of our Lord 2021 are suitably impressed.

Of course, the primary piece of media that A New Legacy is parading about is the 1996 Space Jam, in which professional basketball player Michael Jordan looked unspeakably miserable to be interacting with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters, reduced to unfunny comic figures playing sci-fi basketball. It has remained a key generational touchstone for reasons as mystifying to me as the text of the Voynich manuscript. The thing to do would be to say something along the lines of, "Space Jam: A New Legacy is so bad, it even makes Space Jam look good!" and I cannot do that. In fact, there are elements of A New Legacy that are distinctly better: James isn't going to be winning any awards for his acting, but he's far more comfortable in front of a camera than Jordan was and obviously much less self-conscious about interacting with animated characters to be inserted later. Also, I have mentioned already that the 2-D animation is solid; it comes from a place of less obvious contempt for the characters than Space Jam, though it's a pretty clear step down from the tender loving care given to them in 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action. For a decent chunk of the movie, maybe a quarter of its overall running time, James is himself an animated character, and they do a very fun job of converting him into a realistic-enough looking human caricature who can be comfortably fitted into the squash-and-stretch gag that are occasionally trotted out when the film can be shaken loose from its believe that the really fun thing is to show off the other movies and series you could watch right now on HBO Max.

The film broadly breaks down into three parts, not at all equal in length. There is, first, the hacky story of how LeBron, having been shamed out of playing a secondhand Game Boy during basketball practice in the 1990s (he is playing The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle, no less, a tiny nod that actually did strike me as tolerably clever), has grown up to treat his own children as little basketball stars in waiting. And this has poisoned his relationship with his son Dom (Cedric Joe), who is busily programming his own game, which appears to be an unremarkable NBA Jam clone. I mean, the point that a 12-year-old doing this is amazing is still well-taken, but it's just not a very interesting-looking game. At any rate, in an attempt to patch things up, LeBron takes Dom with him to Warner Bros., where a pair of manically peppy executives played, distractingly, by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun try to pitch him on this new thing where they'll make a digital LeBron avatar that can be plugged into movies, as a CGI character actor. It is quite impossible to understand what the fuck is supposed to be appealing about this, and LeBron's response makes it clear that he doesn't understand anymore than I do, but this royally pisses off the sentient algorithm (Don Cheadle) that came up with the pitch. In a fit of anger and desperate for validation, the algorithm, named Al G. Rhythm, decid-

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"Al G. Rhythm"

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Fuck you.

So, The Villain Character Played By Don Cheadle (the actor is way too into what he's doing, for what it's worth), decides to kidnap Dom into his cyberspace kingdom - that's the "Space" of the title, this time around - and yada yada yada, stage a basketball game between LeBron and whatever team he can conscript out of the entire Warner Bros. "serververse", against Dom's video game being manipulated by the smartest computer program in the world.

Part two is when LeBron ends up a cartoon character in the shittiest corner of the serververse, where the Looney Tunes used to live. Now the only person left is Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman, who's just not quite there, and it feels really itchy and uncomfortable. No other character sounds quite as bad, or bad at all really, not including the other ones voiced by Bergman), who has been driven a little, well, loony as a result of his isolation, and is very sad that all of his friends aren't around to keep him company-

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Seriously, fuck you.

Anyway, this awful sentimental simulacrum of Bugs Bunny, the greatest sarcastic self-superior asshole in the history of American animation, decides to trick LeBron into conscripting a team made up entirely of the Looney Tunes, and not at all the powerhouses LeBron wants. To find them, they have to travel through different brands, such as DC World, which has the grotesque effrontery to model itself after Batman: The Animated Series, a triumph of animation design whose taint sweat A New Legacy is unworthy of drinking. Other lands include Mad Max: Fury Road, where the Coyote and Roadrunner race through the climax; Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me - fucking really? In 2021? Whatever - where Elmer Fudd is Mini-Me; Casablanca, where Ingrid Bergman whispers in soft-focus close-up "Play it, Sam", and Yosemite Sam starts hammering out "Chopsticks". Which is neither the most nor the least offensive way that could have gone.

Part three, and quite the longest, just under half of the brutally long 115-minute film, is the basketball game, where the 3-D Looney Tunes chafe under live-action LeBron's grumpy insistence on playing by the rules, despite Dom having programmed this to be wacky basketball. In an astonishing turn, LeBron must realise the value of his son's game and in so doing allow the Looney Tunes to be their weird, anarchic, goofball selves, in order to stop the Don Cheadle character from taking over the world, or something. At least hundred of thousands of human beings have been scanned into the serververse, to serve as spectators for the game, while all of your favorite Warner Bros. properties aimlessly wave their arms in robotic gestures that make it very clear that the assistant director in charge of the extras basically just said "you're at a basketball game! woohoo!" The Warner Bros. properties include such fan favorites as Alex and the droogs from A Clockwork Orange and Vanessa Redgrave's nun character from Ken Russell's The Devils (a film that Warners has been hellbent on burying for years now, so fuck you yet again), so at least somebody involved in costuming the extras was up to some perverse mischief. It somehow just makes it worse.

The filmmaking during this last sequence, drowning in shiny digital clutter and edited to within an inch of its life, is bad, but not, like, "I want to drink lighter fluid"-level bad. On the purely technical merits, this is, again, probably better than Space Jam, which isn't an impressive thing to be, but at least it is. The character animation is expressive. I like the 3-D coyote, though not any of the other 3-D characters.

No, what drives A New Legacy deep into the ground, many feet deep where it will never see daylight again, is the sheer unrelenting crassness of it. This isn't "we have brands, and we will tell a story with them", which is the standard Disney managed - barely - to scratch past with Ralph Breaks the Internet. This is pure, unmitigated wallowing in the sordid meanness of cross-promotion, an artless commercial for all the things Warner Bros. owns that you like, or might like, or maybe have heard of. The basketball sequence is just pure nonsense, visually and comically, barely legible even as an exaggerated slapstick version of the real sport. And it takes place against a hideous backdrop of pointlessly aggressive Easter eggs (seriously, the nun from The Devils gets a whole lot of screen time. I really cannot start to understand why, but if it's foreshadowing an impending restoration and high-def home video release, all is forgiven, and I will come back to give this movie a five-star review). All this comes after a full hour of the crudest, junkiest filmmaking, with tattered scraps of self-awareness that storytelling-by-algorithm is terrible and maybe even evil, but not enough to avoid storytelling-by-algorithm. So really, there is just nothing here, nothing at all that I do not find absolutely contemptuous. Space Jam: A New Legacy has no motivations that come from a humane place: it's all about brand management and creating new marketing opportunities, and while it has a prettier face than the 1996 film, it somehow manages the incomprehensible feat of having an even uglier soul.




*...not really? They have the rights to the 1933 film that was originally produced by RKO, but ownership of the character himself has been determined through a nasty tangle of legal challenges spanning decades, and the short version is that in the 2020s, any new story about a skyscraper-size gorilla named Kong is ultimately the purview of Universal Pictures.