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Space Jam: A New Legacy replays the '90s favorite, whether you need it or not

Dunking off HBO Max on Aug. 15, the follow-up to the 1996 film misses its free throw.

LeBron James is a new face, but the storyline of Space Jam 2 is all too familiar.

Watching Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like playing a game of compare and contrast with its 1996 predecessor. There's a tender throwback mother-and-son opening scene to mimic the father-and-son opener in the original film. There's even a high-energy montage of lead actor and NBA star LeBron James in the opening credits, similar to the one showcasing former Bulls legend Michael Jordan first time round. Unfortunately, there's also the recycled plotline about winning a semi-animated basketball game to defeat the bad guys. 

This new 2021 Space Jam -- streaming on HBO Max until Aug. 15 after enjoying a winning opening weekend at the box office -- is dubbed a standalone sequel, but it feels like neither its own thing nor a worthy follow-up. The film centers on an evil artificial intelligence named Al G. Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle) who traps James and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) in the virtual world of the Warner 3000 ServerVerse. To free his son and everyone else pulled into this digital domain, James has to win a basketball game against AI G.'s Goon Squad with help from the Tune Squad, which is composed of digitally enhanced basketball stars. 

Sound familiar?

The film grapples with being a 21st century follow-up to a '90s classic. On the one hand, the filmmakers seem intent on showing how far animation technology and CGI have come over the last 25 years, injecting visual effects and 3D animation throughout, and giving the plotline a 21st century upgrade with the inclusion of an evil algorithm. 

On the other hand, Space Jam 2's desire to tap into the nostalgia associated with its predecessor leaves the sequel feeling unoriginal and predictable. The film is at least cognizant of the strong parallels between it and the original, in which the Looney Tunes enlist Michael Jordan to help them win a basketball match against aliens who want to enslave them. At one point in the sequel, Bugs Bunny says to James, "You want me, a talking cartoon bunny, to play with you, an NBA superstar, in a high-stakes basketball game? Sounds awfully familiar." 

But that self-awareness doesn't save the sequel from feeling like nothing more than a money grab. Instead of building on the original film's storyline, Space Jam 2 simply forces the old plot into a modern-day framework, disregarding true originality and creativity.  

The underlying conflict between James and his son in the film also feels predictable and lazy. Dom is more passionate about creating video games than playing basketball, which doesn't sit well with his NBA All-Star dad. Al G. uses this disagreement to pit Dom against his father and recruit him to the Goon Squad. Eventually James, with the help of the Tune Squad, comes to realize the importance of having fun and staying true to yourself. It's an important message, but one that's painfully overused in cinema. 

There were some fun elements sprinkled throughout the film, like the regular digs at James for team-hopping with the NBA ("What brings you to Tune World, doc?" Bugs Bunny asks at one point. "Ran out of teams to play for?"). There are also fun callouts to other Warner Bros. properties like Harry Potter and DC Comics, with cameos by everyone from King Kong to Superman to Pennywise. These tidbits help keep parts of the film interesting, but they're not enough to keep it afloat when stacked against an overall lackluster storyline.

Although the original Space Jam came out over two decades ago, it remains a timeless family movie, in part because it doesn't rely on special effects to carry it. Space Jam: A New Legacy falls prey to what many blockbusters today are guilty of, which is placing spectacle over substance. That, to me, isn't much of a legacy at all.