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Space Jam: A New Legacy (preface)

Some movies were simply never meant to be made.

Yes, I have fond memories of the first Space Jam movie. I’m a ’90s kid, of course I watched the movie countless times on VHS. But even as a child, I knew this movie had some serious problems.

And no, I’m not talking about the nakedly commercial aspect of the movie. This is a film in which Daffy Duck proudly proclaims that he and all his buddies are wholly owned by Warner Bros., right before kissing a WB shield logo taped to his own butt. Nobody’s telling anybody anything new by saying that this was all just a big commercial, and when the film itself makes the point brazenly clear in such a comical way, it takes a lot of wind out of those particular sails.

No, my big problem with Space Jam is that it clearly wasn’t a Looney Tunes movie — it was a Michael Jordan movie. He’s the protagonist, he’s the hero, the entire story revolves around how great Michael Jordan is, and every character spends every moment kissing his oversized feet. Granted, Jordan has more than earned his accolades and his immortality in the world of sports. And this is back in the ’90s, when Jordan was still in his prime.

The trouble here is that Jordan is even worse at acting than Shaquille O’Neal. (Yes, I’ve also seen Kazaam — I stand by that statement.) In a movie filled to the brim with time-honored cultural icons, why is the entire plot focused on the only one who can’t act? Why is a freaking Looney Tunes movie built from the ground up around the only performer who isn’t the least bit funny? In a movie set primarily in Bugs Bunny’s own world, why is he giving so much of the limelight to a live-action interloper?!

Nevertheless, the Looney Tunes were still in the movie. And at a time when kids my age were glued to the TV every Saturday morning and weekday afternoon to watch the same old reruns on Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB, of course we saw the movie umpteen million times. Oh, and let’s not forget that soundtrack, a killer slice of ’90s electronica. There’s never been a better time for jock jams than the ’90s, and there’s never been a better album for it than the Space Jam soundtrack.

So the movie made back triple its reported production budget, and WB wanted to get a sequel made straightaway. Trouble was, Michael Jordan didn’t. What followed was a frankly embarrassing effort at courting live-action celebrities of the day to try and get anything off the ground. Jeff Gordon, for example, was apparently courted for a sequel called “Race Jam“. Tony Hawk might’ve been part of “Skate Jam“. Tiger Woods was apparently in the mix for a time. I can’t say for sure, but I’d stake my wallet that somebody at WB must have tried to call Wayne Gretzky at some point. (Call it “Skate Jam“, maybe?) And after all the top-tier athletes walked out, Jackie Chan passed on the proposed “Spy Jam“. (Twenty bucks says the WB execs were making up the titles before they had any idea what the plot or premise would be.)

Finally, Warner Brothers reached out to Joe Dante — he of Goonies and Gremlins fame — who graciously agreed to get another live-action/animated Looney Tunes movie out the door. Trouble was, Dante hated how the Looney Tunes characters were portrayed in their last outing. The studio wanted to make another Space Jam and Dante wanted to make the exact opposite. Predictably, Looney Tunes: Back in Action turned out to be a misshapen mess that only got tepid critical reaction and mediocre box office returns.

And that was the end of that, until a little film called Trainwreck came out in 2015.

Though LeBron James was only in that movie for a brief supporting turn, it was made abundantly clear that the man had genuine potential as a comedic actor. What’s more, King James had already come to fame as the greatest basketball player since Air Jordan himself. In 2018, James brought a championship trophy to his native hometown of Cleveland, then famously fucked off to LA so he could play for the Lakers while trying to get an acting career off the ground.

At long last, the timing for a Space Jam sequel was perfect. Nostalgia for the ’90s was in ascendance. Warner Animation Group had just taken over the world with The Lego Movie, kicking off a stellar run of movies with jaw-dropping animation. WB was desperate to revitalize their classic cartoon holdings, with results that ranged from middling (Scoob!) to catastrophic (Tom & Jerry).

Best of all, LeBron James needed a way to transition from basketball to Hollywood, and WB needed a top-tier basketball player with genuine talent as a comedic actor. On paper, this was an impossibly perfect deal.

But then Justin Lin — you know, the guy who made half the Fast and Furious movies — stepped away from the director’s chair in 2016. He was replaced by a total unknown named Terence Nance, who also quit the project — and took his cinematographer with him! — in the summer of 2019. When the film was already three weeks into production. He was replaced by Malcolm D. Lee, late of such films as Girls Trip, Night School, Barbershop: The Next Cut, and Scary Movie V.

(Side note: Yes, he’s a cousin of the far more talented Spike Lee.)

Then we have the credited writers.

  • The aforementioned Terence Nance, primarily known for the avant-garde Random Acts of Flyness and the afro-futuristic An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
  • Celeste Ballard, an Upright Citizens Brigade alumna who apparently did some uncredited rewrites for Scoob!
  • Jesse Gordon, whose only other credits are a few episodes of “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”
  • Keenan Coogler, brother of Ryan Coogler himself, here an exec producer
  • Tony Rettenmaier, who previously wrote a handful of dramatic short films and a kitesurfing biopic called Cabarete
  • Juel Taylor, whose only other feature writing credits are Creed II and a seven-minute short film

That makes six credited writers for this one movie, not to mention two directors (and two cinematographers!) who switched in mid-production. To put that in perspective, let’s look at the writers for Space Jam.

  • Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, who had both previously written The Santa Clause
  • Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, late of the script for Twins

And in the director’s chair was Joe Pytka, who had turned in some groundbreaking commercials and music videos all through the ’80s and ’90s. (He worked extensively with Michael Jackson. ‘Nuff said.) Though the legendary Ivan Reitman was so hands-on as executive producer, he might as well have been a co-director.

Look closely at the above lists. Look at the pedigrees involved with each film and how many cooks were in each kitchen. Purely on paper, this sure as hell doesn’t look like an upgrade.

And then we have the issue of WB itself. Their corporate troubles have been extremely public and heavily documented. This is the studio that gave us Pan, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Jupiter Ascending in quick succession, right before bankrupting themselves with the costly and embarrassing “let’s put Zack Snyder in charge of building a DC Cinematic Universe” failed experiment.

It was AT&T who finally stepped in to take on WB and all their billions of dollars in debt, back in 2018. And only two months ago, the corporate overlords at AT&T handed the company — and its debts! — off to Discovery, Inc. and basically said “they’re your problem now.” It’s been three solid years of layoffs and cutbacks over at WB, and they’ve had precious little to show for it. Especially since their DC Universe streaming service tanked and their HBO Max rollout was an industry-shaking fiasco.

Then the trailer dropped.

Granted, I haven’t seen the film yet. This is only a trailer, and it’s a safe bet that there are so many details we won’t know anything about until the full movie is released. But I still find myself with so many questions.

See, the original movie had a clear premise. It might have been outrageously silly, but at least it was easy to track and simple enough to be explained in 30 seconds. But now, over three months since the first trailer dropped, I’m still wondering why LeBron James’ son was kidnapped, why James himself is being challenged to a basketball game, who Don Cheadle is supposedly playing, or what our villain hopes to accomplish with all this effort.

And furthermore, where are the aliens? The whole point of the title “Space Jam” is that the Looney Tunes were squaring off against extraterrestrials. If there are no aliens in this picture, then what does any of this have to do with space?

But of course what really made headlines about the trailer wasn’t the Looney Tunes or LeBron James, but everyone tucked away in the background. “Game of Thrones”, The Wizard of Oz, The Iron Giant, the entire Hanna-Barbera stable… it was the most shameless and comprehensive mashup of WB’s entire media library since Ready Player One.

There were some who tried to kick up controversy, asking why the homicidal sexual predators of A Clockwork Orange were taking up space in a kids’ cartoon show. I’d think the answer would be obvious: It’s to show that WB owns A Clockwork Orange (specifically the film adaptation — the source text belongs to someone else). Of course we all knew that Space Jam was nakedly commercial and we all expected the sequel to be more of the same, but no, the sequel was clearly designed to go a step further.

It’s not about celebrating the Looney Tunes and revitalizing them for a new generation of fans. It’s not even about selling merchandise anymore. No, this movie is about celebrating the multinational conglomerate of WarnerMedia and its decades upon decades of iconic IPs. It’s not just a movie or a commercial, it’s a flex.

A flex that comes while WarnerMedia is billions of dollars in debt, and transitioning to a new corporate overlord. A flex that comes after a botched streaming service rollout that sabotaged the company’s relations with its own contracted talent. We’ve got a Looney Tunes movie made at a time when WB is making a clear and concerted effort at revitalizing their cartoon IPs. Of all times, now is when they decided to puff out their chests with a huge show of their cultural dominance. Now, while it’s Disney and Amazon and Netflix making all the huge headlines and dictating where the industry goes.

This show of force might have worked for WB back in 1996, when they had just purchased Turner Entertainment and Hanna-Barbera and their new television channels were kicking ass and Batman and Robin hadn’t happened yet. If WB was even remotely capable of backing up their bravado, this might have been devastating. But right now, it just looks like a desperate plea for everyone to remember WB’s glory days like they’re still on top of the world and not on the brink of another bankruptcy.

Moreover, I’m past the point of caring about whether a film was made for the sole purpose of making money — of course it was, freaking duh. I’m more interested in the question of what the audience is getting for its money. And that’s an especially prominent point with regards to this film, because the world is a very different place now than it was back in 1996, especially after the pandemic. Money is tighter, time is more valuable, and a lot of people are still reluctant to go back to the movie theaters.

Hell, most people are already annoyed enough with the godawful commercials that screen before each movie. They won’t be happy sitting through all of that just to sit through a movie that’s literally another commercial. WB could get away with that “our corporate overlords literally branded our asses and we love them for it” gag back in 1996. If audiences nowadays have to pay so much more of their hard-earned money and their precious time to sit through that today, it might not go over so well.

On a final note, it bears remembering that WB is pinning so much of their future hopes on this particular movie. A movie that took fifteen freaking years to get off the ground, that couldn’t even be completed without half a dozen writers and a mid-production change in director. Some movies were simply never meant to be made, and I’ve got a sinking feeling that this might be one of them.

In any event, Space Jam: A New Legacy is coming out on July 16th. Good luck, godspeed, and here we go.

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