Remember the droogs in A Clockwork Orange? Stanley Kubrick’s incendiary adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s unforgettable novel seared the imagination with a bunch of milk-drinking, bowler-hat-wearing lowlifes who indulged in ultra-violence and rape simply to fill up their Friday night. Those sick characters from that astonishing 50-year-old film showed up again in a new film this summer. And it happens to be a children’s film called Space Jam: A New Legacy.
I will get to what the droogs were doing in a film starring Daffy Duck and LeBron James, but let us first tackle the “new” bit of that title. The 1996 feature Space Jam is a silly nineties-y artifact, based on every damn demographic being in love with Michael Jordan. In that live-action/animation feature, MJ is kidnapped by Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes to play basketball against evil aliens.
It’s an absurd affair with a great soundtrack, a wisecracking Bill Murray, and, most importantly, the coolest athlete in the world having an infectiously good time. And as we know from recent memes featuring the basketball player giggling over an iPad, when Michael Jordan laughs, we all laugh. It’s Air Jord-fun.
The new film — available on BookMyShow Stream from 19 August — is a desperate cash-grab. It replicates the basic situation, with current basketball king LeBron James forced to team up with the Looney Tunes characters in order to defeat an evil algorithm that wants to suck LeBron into the Warner Brothers ecosystem. This Warner Brothers “serververse” includes every bit of Warner IP, from the Harry Potter movies to The Matrix movies, from the DC superheroes to Mad Max: Fury Road, and the setup is simple: to outscore the basic pleasures of the 1996 surprise hit with an overdose of cameo-filled gimmickry.
Creative motivations aside, this isn’t a bad idea. This kind of messy, universe-colliding mayhem has been pulled off by animated films before — The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie and Ralph Wrecks The Internet had a blast toying with disparate properties linked only by ownership — but Space Jam: A New Legacy never appears to know what to actually do with the Warner Brothers vault. James, forced to assemble a basketball team from WB-folk, wants to draft The Iron Giant and King Kong to his squad but alas, no cross-court kaiju action is on the cards.
Instead, after a couple of fly-by appearances featuring major characters — including, rather memorably, Ingrid Bergman sitting with red-whiskered outlaw Yosemite Sam in Casablanca, Sam being the one who plays things again — the rest of the Warner Brothers superstars are turned into the crowd for the all-important LeBron James basketball match. The Flintstones are watching, Agent Smith from The Matrix is watching, The Mask is watching, Tony Soprano from The Sopranos is watching, and yeah, those nasty droogs are watching.
Also, to emphasise how clumsily Warner has played this, when I say The Mask is watching the game, I do not mean Jim Carrey is in the crowd contorting his miraculous jaw and asking somebody to stop him. I mean an animated sprite wearing a Mask costume lurks in the background. Such a waste.
We must face the truth. The one and only LeBron James — for all his monumental accomplishments — cannot act. The man is earnest and looks adequately weirded out by the film’s strange situations, but his face is so impassive he seems to already be posing for sculptors at work on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. The filmmakers realise this and transform the legend into a (much more expressive) 2D animated version of himself for a large part of the film, but the game is out of his hands.
What, indeed, to expect from a film where the evil algorithm is named Al G Rhythm?
The original Space Jam, streaming in India on Netflix, has a goofy innocence. Much of it is slapdash and inane, but the characters have personality, the lines have a sharpness, and the man in the middle carries the day. More than anything, the film rests on Michael Jordan’s ability, and willingness, to laugh at himself. After Bugs kidnaps the ballplayer and explains the bizarre predicament, Jordan objects: “But I’m a baseball player now.” “Right,” says the Bunny, lifting up a rabbit skull thoughtfully. “And I’m a Shakespearian actor.
Space Jam: A New Legacy, on the other hand, is inexplicably keen to underline James’s infallibility even in the face of all-animated opposition. His all-star team — Bugs, Daffy, Lola Bunny, the Tasmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn — rein in their trademark wisecracks in order to let the new superstar score the points. Yet this reboot features a new kind of game where hundreds of thousands of points are scored. The points hardly matter.
The lesson, however, does. On the basketball court, LeBron James donned the number 23 in tribute to his idol, but went on to create his own astronomical legacy, surpassing some of Jordan’s achievements in his wake. The Jordan-versus-James debate is endless and impossible, a debate that is beneath both those trailblazing icons. It may not have been wise of James to reboot one of the most peculiar projects of Jordan’s career, but this misstep shows that the King is, at heart, still a fan. It’s heartening.
The only moment the new film sprouts wings, in fact, is when a character says Michael Jordan is about to walk in to save LeBron, the toons (and the audience). I gasped: Could it really be him? Holding the breath is inevitable and immediate. We still believe he can fly.
Streaming tip of the week:
One of the year’s best reviewed independent films, CODA, released on Apple TV+ this week. The dramedy directed by Sian Heder stars Emilia Jones as a Child Of Deaf Parents (CODA).
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.