Review: Space Jam: A New Legacy is an OK Warner Bros basketball movie

Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG. 116 minutes)

3 stars

The hybrid live-action animation films Space Jam and Looney Tunes Back In Action have been favourite family films since 1996 and 2003, respectively.

Space Jam paired then super-hot basketball superstar Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny and the Warner Bros animated catalogue. It was fun, but the Jenna Elfman and Brendan Fraser-led Back In Action was an old-fashioned slapstick-hijinks comedy that really matched the vibe of its overly enthusiastic cartoon stars.

Bugs Bunny, left, and Daffy Duck in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Picture: Warner Bros

Bugs Bunny, left, and Daffy Duck in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Picture: Warner Bros

Many years down the track, Warner Bros dusts off this successful formula once again.

Bugs Bunny, Sylvester the Cat, Daffy Duck and their pals still have it, but this film sinks or swims on its live performer, in this case the LA Lakers basketball star LeBron James.

As a young boy, LeBron (Stephen Kankole) is schooled by his basketball coach that getting serious is the only way he'll fight his way out of his poor neighbourhood.

Years later, James has been at the top of his game for a long time, taking the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat to the finals multiple times before his current role with the Lakers.

But success for this film version of LeBron James has come at the expense of the relationships with his kids, particularly video game obsessive Dom (Cedric Joe).

Dom has developed his own video basketball game where he has built his dad's signature moves into the action, but LeBron thinks this is a waste of time when the boy has so much potential on the court.

Father and son go to the Warner Bros studios where LeBron is being pitched a role in their new digital universe by some flaky executives (Sarah Silverman and Steven Yuen) and their artificially intelligent producer Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle).

Wandering the server room in the studio basement, father and son get digitised and pulled into the Warner Bros cyber-sphere, where the previously friendly Al-G shows his true colours as an evil mastermind who kidnaps Dom and sends LeBron to the Looney Tunes world.

To rescue his son, LeBron must assemble a basketball team and win against a rival team assembled by Al-G.

But the film's six writers go for earnest and moral over screwball, and it is the wrong tone to strike

LeBron is making plans to draw from the wider Warner Bros universe for his team, with Superman, Batman and King Kong, but Bugs Bunny plots to use the game to reconnect his old friends, including Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Tasmanian devil et al. But the rival team is drawn from some big-time real-life contemporary basketball legends as well as LeBron's son Dom.

Raising the stakes for this showdown, Al-G has kidnapped and digitised hundreds of real-life basketball fans including LeBron's family (Sonequa Martin-Green, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Leigh Alexander) and he is threatening to keep them in the digital universe forever if LeBron's Looney Tunes team lose.

If you're a fan of American basketball there will be a lot to enjoy about this film, including the many industry cameos such as Phoenix Mercury WNBA player Diana Taurasi and LeBron's Lakers colleague Anthony Davis as themselves.

The basketball fans will enjoy the plays and the drama of the court too, but I'm going to bet that most of the audience in this country watching this film aren't going to be too familiar with much of this.

The US does tend to think itself the centre of the world in sports and in pop culture. It loves mythologising its sports and its sporting heroes on film, but WB has invested a lot of money into a film that imagines the whole world is in love with this sport and this sports star in particular.

Having just listened to the LeBron James episode of the podcast Smartless, I at least had a clue about this astute businessman and family man with a strong moral core and so I appreciated who this character was on the screen. He gives a natural if restrained performance, but he does seem to unclench once the action moves courtside.

But the film's six writers go for earnest and moral over screwball, and it is the wrong tone to strike.

There are some brilliant moments as LeBron and Bugs, in a flying saucer stolen from Marvin the Martian, fly through the WB galaxy and we see the Potterverse, meet Superman in Metropolis, meet one of the Khalesi's dragons from Game of Thrones, and step aside for the Mystery Machine. Big WB hits are mined for laughs as Elmer Fudd is introduced via an Austin Powers clip, and Granny comes out of the world of The Matrix.

The animation is a hybrid of styles, from original Tex Avery-era two-dimensional cel style to Pixar-styled fleshed-out, high-resolution versions of our favourites.

Director Malcolm D. Lee made the hilarious Girls Trip, but this film feels too workshopped and audience-tested to match that same organic sense of humour.

This story Magic moments but too moralistic first appeared on The Canberra Times.