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Space Jam: A New Legacy Review: Putting On A Clinic

It seems only appropriate that "Space Jam: A New Legacy" is about basketball, because there has never been a movie easier to dunk on. The film's cast consists of an athlete as the main actor and a half-dozen cartoons created and voiced by wildly inventive people who died decades ago and took the magic with them, and shoves so much intellectual property in your face that you're forced to either mock it or — to paraphrase Kent Brockman — embrace your new pop culture overlords.

In the end, after the corporate content-flaunting and the rapping Porky Pigs and the scenes of LeBron dressed as Harry Potter wash away, there is one essential question to be asked: Is it fun? The answer, jaded inclinations aside, is yes.

25 years ago, a puzzling '90s movement came to pass when teenagers suddenly began wearing baggy, frequently bootleged sweatshirts and tees featuring decades-old Looney Tunes characters like the Tasmanian Devil. Sometimes, they were dressed like rappers; other times, athletes. It was the era of "attitude," of Kriss Kross and fanny packs, overalls and "Wassup?!?" commercials. It yielded perhaps the strangest of all '90s cultural phenomena: A full-length feature film cash grab with a cast that included the world's best basketball player, Bill Murray, and a bunch of cartoons playing basketball in outer space.

Somehow, "Space Jam" has evolved to the point where it is remembered fondly. It captured a time when entertainment was sincere and unafraid to be silly, sticking its chin out without using sarcasm and detachment as a shield for criticism. Today, if you try and show a kid most "classic '90s" stuff like the "Free Willy" films, their eyes glaze over, but somehow, "Space Jam" still delights.

So it is for "A New Legacy," which will similarly enthrall little people with its unique blend of off-the-wall plotting and unadulterated athlete idolatry. LeBron James is this generation's Michael Jordan — both as an athlete and, unfortunately, as an actor — and much like Mike, he seems to be having fun in his "Space Jam" turn, which goes a long way.

Getting Looney With It

As tends to happen in films about basketball superstars recruiting cartoon characters to play intergalactic basketball, the plot has a tenuous relationship with reality. We start out with young LeBron in a 1998 flashback, intrigued by a Bugs Bunny Game Boy cartridge but told that if he plays the game, it will keep him from achieving the focus required to be a basketball star — so the Game Boy is tossed in the trash and it flickers ominously, as if it will impact the plot. It will not.

Fast-forward a few decades and now he's King LeBron, as some snazzy opening graphics combine game footage with cartoonery to show us. He has a big mansion, a surprisingly small bed, and a kid named Dom (Cedric Joe) who would rather design games than dribble balls. He and his dad have a falling out during a WB pitch meeting (as tends to happen with fathers and sons), causing Dom to join forces with Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) — an all-powerful AI despot who oversees the Warner Bros. movies and TV shows in a land he calls "The ServerVerse."

Through a series of events that aren't entirely well thought out, Mr. Rhythm insists that LeBron (who also gets sucked into the ServerVerse) play him in a basketball game. Al and Dom create artificial, enhanced versions of NBA and WNBA stars for a team they call "The Goon Squad." King James must go into the ServerVerse and recruit teammates for his "Tune Squad." At first, he wants such greats as Superman, the Iron Giant, and Trinity from "The Matrix," which would have made for an interesting movie. But instead, Bugs Bunny talks him into getting the "Jam" gang back together.

Needless to say, this all builds to a chaotic, climactic basketball game that takes up the majority of the film. We could go on discussing plot points, but that would seem to be beside the point. This is a film for people who order an ice cream sundae just for the whipped cream, so let's get to the sugary sweetness.

When LeBron and Bugs first meet, they recreate a series of classic "Looney Tunes" gags, from painting tunnels on rocks to the "Rabbit of Seville" bit with the spinning chair. This is the litmus test. If you or your child laugh at these scenes, keep watching "A New Legacy." If neither of you are buying in, you might as well just turn off the film or leave the theater at that point.

Next, the newly aligned bunny and baller must recruit the other Looneys. This leads to a fun sequence in which they travel from planet to planet in the "ServerVerse," each dedicated to a Warner Bros. movie or TV show (which makes you wonder about a WB dud like 1999's "Wild Wild West" — does it get its own planet too? If so, could someone please go check on Kevin Kline to make sure he's okay?). Tweety and Granny in "The Matrix" is cute, Elmer Fudd and Sylvester in the "Austin Powers" movies is inspired, and Yosemite Sam in "Casablanca" will put a smile on your face.

Then it's time for the big game, which Rhythm sets at a virtual basketball court. Half the audience are normal people, sucked into their cell phones via LeBron's social media, while the other half are Rhythm's digital denizens, made up from iconic WB properties.

I tawt I taw a guy from Clockwork Orange

This is where a lot of the "New Legacy" dunking comes in, with adults dismayed at the images of Fred Flintstone and the Night King hanging out alongside the nun from Ken Russell's "The Devils." This is the end of times, they warn, the beginning of pop culture eating itself and true creativity drowning in an ocean of executive-encouraged IP renewal.

Sure, that's one way to look at it. Another is that when we were kids, we loved mixing our G.I. Joe, Star Wars, and Transformers toys together. Who wanted to hang out with the lame kid who insisted that Optimus Prime couldn't be friends with Han Solo? There's a vicarious, almost primal thrill to be had in the sight of Yogi Bear occupying the same frame as King Kong. It's also a lot of fun to spy tiny Easter eggs, like the Burgess Meredith Penguin (from the classic "Batman" TV show) and Danny DeVito Penguin (from the 1992 Tim Burton film "Batman Returns") hanging out together, cheering on the game.

Sure, one can assume that Stanley Kubrick would not be thrilled about his Droogs appearing in a feature-length ad for the NBA, one in which LeBron falls into the ground Wile E. Coyote style and leaves the imprint of a Nike swoosh. But one could just as easily assume that Margaret Hamilton would be thrilled to see her Wicked Witch making kids smile once again.

It would be a lot of fun to freeze-frame these basketball scenes and look for other such details among the crowd. It would be even more fun, however, to someday get a behind-the-scenes production video of director Malcolm D. Lee ("Girls Trip") instructing the well-detailed extras who filmed these crowd reaction shots: "Okay, I need the flying monkeys from 'Wizard of Oz' and Daenerys Targaryen from 'Game of Thrones' to look up at this tennis ball and pretend it's Granny from 'Looney Tunes,' leaping 30 feet into the air to slam a basketball and break the backboard. Don't worry, it'll look great in post."

As an actor, LeBron James is ... well, a tremendous athlete. But he seems to be really enjoying himself, as does every other human in a scene opposite him. Chief among these is Cheadle, truly a national treasure who can even make a character named "Al G. Rhythm" into something worth watching. There's a very funny Michael Jordan joke, lots of good one-liners, and enough Looney Tunes lunacy to remind you what made those classic cartoons so great — even if the characters now have voices that don't sound quite right, gags that aren't nearly as clever, and ill-advised moments of computer animation.

If you're willing to check your agenda at the door, there's a lot in this "Space Jam" sequel to make you smile. So put on your fanny pack, your backwards-facing jeans, and your airbrushed, bootleg Taz t-shirt and head out to the theater — and get ready to party like it's 1996. Undoubtedly, 25 years from now some basketball player who is currently five years old will star in "Space Jam 3," and critics will despise it. But to that child, today, "Space Jam: A New Legacy" represents everything they could ever want.