Friday, July 16, 2021

Ready Player Dumb: SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY

From the time news of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s concept leaked, the comparison to Spielberg’s Ready Player One was inevitable. After all, both films from Warner Brothers involve video game worlds wherein a cavalcade of cameos from all manner of Intellectual Property (that joyless term) make appearances. But Spielberg’s film, for all its fluid spectacle and zippy formula, was often interested in the interplay between the airless echo chamber of the digital noise and the flesh-and-blood relationships withering on the other end of the virtual reality encasements — leading to a climax where pushing the button to delete the whole shebang seems a tempting prospect, and the hero ultimately coasts to a detente where the artificial culture is paused now and then to give our brains a break. No such reprieve is in store for the Space Jam sequel, a noisy and desensitizing blitz of branding and corporate braggadocio. Sure, it’s the sequel to a movie that was a similar calculation, but the smallness of the studio’s 1996 thinking the old beloved Looney Tunes and the surging popularity of the NBA would make sweet synergy seems almost quaint when confronted with where we are now. New Legacy finds LeBron James, as himself, sucked into the WB server at the behest of an evil algorithm (Don Cheadle, of all people) that wants to blackmail him into using his celebrity to boost old studio product. The computer offers him a chance to be in a Batman or a Harry Potter or a Game of Thrones, but when the star refuses, the servers zap him into a digital netherworld, and kidnaps his son (and eventually not only his family, but all their social media followers?). From there, the movie becomes endless noise and motion that congeals into one bland hyper-capitalist sludge — eventually culminating in nearly an hour of faux-cartoon pseudo-basketball that’s basically impossible to follow as it’s surrounded by a crowd of distracting random audience members and played by inscrutable video game rules.

So James must play this nightmare game to win their safety. And for some reason he teams up with Bugs Bunny. And to fill out the team, Bugs recruits the other Tunes, who are running wild through other WB movies in the vast solar system in the studio’s archive. Why? Because the movie wanted to insert them into old projects to remind us what they own. (That it’s a string of decidedly adult-oriented properties — Austin Powers, The Matrix, Mad Max, Casablanca, Rick and Morty — is beyond strange for an ostensible kids’ movie; at least DC is represented by Paul Dini-style animation and George Perez panels.) “Stream it now on HBO Max!” goes the missing ad. But why the Tunes? Because of the original Jam, I suppose. There’s little reference to it otherwise, and the Looney Tunes have been lobotomized, and removed of all wit and soul. They’re cheaply, roughly, blandly animated, so they don’t look quite like themselves — imagine if Disney trotted out the Muppets and they were moth-bitten and falling apart. The Tunes are made to say things like “haters gonna hate” and “well, that happened” as if they’re the idiot reaction shot comic relief in a subpar youth-baiting studio fantasy. (A low point has to be Daffy Duck sputtering that the villain is “a son of a glitch.”) The slapstick they’re given is, at best, dull copies of better gags from shorts gone by. And, worse still, they spend part of the movie as dulled CG versions of themselves, the better to have Porky Pig rap, I guess? Worst of all, though, is how meaningless and empty the movie is from first frame to last. It plays like one of those dead-eyed belated sequels cooked up for an unrelated Super Bowl commercial — a fate befallen E.T. and Edward Scissorhands of late. A New Legacy, funnily enough, has nothing new, and ends up ironically agreeing with its villain: a studio mercilessly exploiting stuff it owns and brands it can acquire to remind us of all the better original things they once did. And trick as many people to pay for it as possible.

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