‘Space Jam’: What is LeBron James Thinking?

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The semi-animated 1996 basketball movie “Space Jam” was an unlikely cult classic. Goofy and shamelessly commercial, it got a lukewarm critical reception at best; the film was literally based on a Nike TV ad. But its feather-light touch and zeitgeist-y flair made it a touchstone for the generation who grew up during the reign of Michael Jordan and the ascendancy of the Dream Team and the general post-history vibe of the 1990s.

This weekend — a quarter-century later, as every millennial reading this will cringe to acknowledge — Warner Bros. released its sequel, “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” On the surface, they’re alike in almost every way: equally slight, accompanied by a slew of merchandising tie-ins, Michael Jordan neatly replaced by his basketball successor LeBron James. The main differences are superficial, with the passage of time reflected in both the new film’s video-game-quality CG animation and a slew of updated cultural references and cameos.

But to anyone paying attention to the world outside, they’re radically different in one important way. The original “Space Jam,” crass as it may have been, was harmless ‘90s fluff. Its successor, arriving in 2021, borders on a moral affront.

Over the past decade, the NBA has become the world’s most aggressively activist major sports organization. Its players have stumped for voting access, put the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on NBA courts, and nearly boycotted last year’s playoffs en masse amid the protests over the murder of George Floyd. It has been a dramatic and socially significant evolution from the days of Jordan, the famously apolitical uber-jock who once quipped that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

So to watch James in 2021, the league’s standard-bearer both as a player and political activist, traipse through the sealed-off virtual landscape of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” it’s impossible to think of anything but what the league and its players aren’t saying. The film is carefully neutered to appeal to an apolitical global cinematic marketplace dominated by China. You spend its 115 minutes not recalling the lightweight delights of the 1990s, but of the moment in 2019 when NBA front-office guru Daryl Morey expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, and a clearly peeved James slapped him down, accusing him of harming NBA players “financially… physically. Emotionally. Spiritually,” saying “we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

Less than two years later, it’s Hong Kong, rather than the NBA’s revenue stream, that seems to have taken the brunt of the “negative.” The once-vibrant democracy is now largely under Beijing’s boot while the NBA continues to earn billions of dollars in China, its stars picking up lucrative endorsements amid rampant human rights abuses. Oddly, the “Space Jam” sequel is not currently scheduled for a release in China — Warner Bros. didn’t respond by time of publication to the question of whether it would be — but it bears the sanded-down, quirk-free character of the global film industry for which the country increasingly sets the terms. (As founder of the co-producing SpringHill Company, James also stands to benefit from whatever success it reaches in the global market.)

In fairness, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a children’s film, not built to carry heavy messages, and the compromises of doing business in China aren’t exclusive to the NBA. James and his peers have no inherent obligation to speak out on the behalf of Hong Kongers, or Uyghurs, or the state of American democracy, or anything else. But given the moral authority the league has flexed of late, especially over the past year, it’s hard to watch “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and think: all that hand-waving, self-censorship, and equivocating around global politics ... all to preserve the opportunity to do this?

The movie itself is a smooth-edged piece of product that betrays nothing of its stutter-step origin story. It was originally helmed by the surrealist Black auteur (and Guggenheim fellow) Terence Nance, creator of HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” who left the project in 2019 due to “different takes on [its] creative vision.” To judge by the result, that meant he wanted to do something creative, and the studio didn’t.

The finished movie follows its predecessor’s structure almost beat-by-beat, down to a hagiographic opening montage of James’ real-life career highlights. Its major updates reflect changing trends not just in pop culture, but media itself: Instead of outer space, James is threatened with imprisonment in the Warner Bros. “Server-verse,” where it’s bleakly posited that its intellectual properties orbit each other as self-contained, hermetic theme parks.

Imagining works from “Casablanca,” to “The Iron Giant,” to, insanely, “A Clockwork Orange,” as interchangeable cogs of “content” is cynical enough for one of America’s oldest and most venerable film studios. And then the film engages in a weird sort of double cynicism about its premise: Its villain is an anthropomorphized computer algorithm played by Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle, who enacts a nefarious scheme to absorb the real world into his virtual fantasia. But the film is based on the very premise that modern audiences will respond better to its groan-worthy, universe-colliding “crossover event” than the relatively modest, if dopey, scale of the original film. Its villain is pursuing, more or less, the same strategy as its creators.

Most stifling, ultimately, is the extent to which the real world is simply absent from “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Even its predecessor touched on something genuine; it has a reference to the real-life and still then very recent death of Jordan’s father, and drops a knowing joke about the NBA’s racial dynamics that it’s hard to imagine would pass today’s boardroom gauntlet. Here, however, the entire plot, a thinly sketched family drama aside, is premised on corporate synergy and “content creation”; the Looney Tunes appear more as brand ambassadors than anything resembling their origins as anarchic and boundary-pushing Chuck Jones or Tex Avery creations.

The 1996 film’s villain was a cigar-chomping, W.C. Fields-style misanthrope who wanted to imprison Michael Jordan for all eternity as a circus entertainer, condemning him to literally “shut up and dribble.” This is the same mindset that NBA players — James pre-eminent among them — have openly, and successfully, been fighting for the past few years, both in their political stances and assertion of their own agency as athletes and public figures. But the past few years have revealed clearly where they won’t step. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” feels like precisely the product of an algorithm written to scrub out anything that might threaten its, and the NBA’s, global ambitions. It’s impossible to sit through the movie and conclude anything other than that its villain has already triumphed.

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