Stockwell review: ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ a visual treat

One of my favorite topics to cover in my film class is the subject of animation. Unlike traditional forms of moviemaking, what makes it different is the concept that the entire production is created and controlled. Filmmakers literally can do anything they want with an animated film. Since everything is either drawn or rendered, the only limit is imagination.

The one confusing point of discussion is the idea of cartoons. Technically, those artistically wonderful little items toward the end of our great newspaper created by talented individuals who work in limited “panels” are cartoons. When it comes to films, “animated cartoons” is a much more complete definition. While generally thought to be just for kids, they are really for kids of all ages.

On a different topic, it recently was Chocolate Éclair Day, and the best way to celebrate is by having – well – a chocolate éclair. However, if you happen to be traveling, you can only find “plane” chocolate at an airport, and if you plan to go to outer space, you’ll be able to get a Milky Way.

I am sure you snickered at those jokes.

But since we are on the topics of outer space and animation, this week’s review looks at “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which landed in theaters (and on HBO Max) last week.

LeBron James plays a fictionalized version of himself, the perennial all-star and four-time NBA champion. His two sons, Darius and Dom, are also basketball players, but Dom (Cedric Joe) is very interested in computers, and expresses a desire to focus on developing video games. With the urging of his wife, LeBron begins to encourage Dom and his passion.

When the family take a trip to the Warner Bros. studios, the artificial intelligence software system (AI-G Rhythm, portrayed by Don Cheadle) intrigues the young computer wizard. After an argument and a trick, both LeBron and his son get drawn into a virtual reality. Using Dom as bait, AI-G Rhythm requests that LeBron assemble a team of Warner Bros. characters to play against his own team. He sends the elder James out into “Tune World,” and then uses the young James to help create a version of a game to beat his father.

Unfortunately, “Tune World” has only one resident left, good old Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman). The “evilness” of AI-G Rhythm becomes obvious to LeBron, and with the help of Marvin the Martian (Eric Bauza), they travel to the outer reaches of space and reality to assemble a new version of the “Tune Squad.” Can they reclaim the magic to defeat the “Goon Squad” and free everyone from the clutches of the powerful computer program before it deletes the Looney Tunes forever?

Now, fully noting that I watched the Chicago Bulls throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and Michael Jordan is one of my all-time favorite players, and I deeply enjoyed the original “Space Jam” in 1996, my skepticism about this film was certainly present. However, I gave the film a chance.

What I really enjoyed is that the movie doesn’t ignore its roots, which is fantastic because it eliminated my concern. It is a standalone sequel, not a remake, reboot or attempted “better” version of a classic film for a new generation. It is its own movie, yet allows for some fun “Easter eggs” along the way. There are a couple of posters and references to the first film, and Sylvester’s attempt to get the star from the original is laugh-out-loud funny (you have to see it for full effect – no spoiler here).

Acting wise honestly, it is pretty good. Cheadle is a pro (much like Wayne Knight in the 1996 film), and Cedric Joe is talented. His performance is excellent and really makes you feel and root for him. LeBron is a basketball player who, like his before-mentioned counterpart, plays himself, which isn’t too hard to do even for a non-actor. Actually, his animated version beautifully captures his essence and what it would be like if you were transported to “Tune World.” I found myself laughing at some of the antics (the “non-legged” version is really funny).

And animation wise, the film really has it going on. Back in the ’90s, the green screen approach was static at times (limitations on technology), but fun nonetheless. This time, director Malcolm D. Lee (cousin of Spike), who is very good at over-the-top comedy (see “Undercover Brother” and “Night School”), uses a hybrid approach with live-action, traditional animation, virtual reality, and 3D animation. The result is a visual treat. The basketball game is marvelously done, including the “wall” that separates the fans from the players.

What I also give credit to the film for is addressing the issue of pushing children into something because a parent wants them to be in it. Dom plays basketball because his dad does, but his true joy comes from computers. Instead of letting him follow that path, LeBron pushes him toward basketball, which leads to the film’s major conflict. In the end, allowing the young James to pursue his passion is what helps everyone, and it is a great lesson to be shared.

The logical comparisons between the two films are natural, especially if you are from the older generation (the films are 25 years apart). Though I loved the first one (I still own the VHS copy), I do have to admit my skepticism was erased after I was done. I had a lot of fun, and most likely you will, too. Not only are the antics goofy (I was honestly hoping for that), the trip through all the other film locations is beautiful homage to the Warner Bros. legacy.

The 115-minute movie is in theaters and on HBO Max, and is rated PG-13, which is fair because a couple words might not be suitable at grandma’s house.

One last thing before I head out, what kind of chocolate should you give someone from outer space?

A Mars bar.

Happy viewing!

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor of film and broadcast journalism at McHenry County College, teaching Introduction to Film, Advanced Film and Introduction to Public Speaking.