So I watched Space Jam: A New Legacy the other day. I reached the end of my streaming queue about four months into the pandemic, so at this point I’m pretty much willing to watch anything.
I came into the movie with the lowest of expectations. I was fully cognizant of the fact that this movie is a children’s movie created for the consumption and enjoyment of children. It is not a “film” or “cinema” that I can unload on.
Kid’s movies are basically JV cinema and for the most part need to be graded on a curve. I suspect most people who produce and make these types of movies are fully aware that they aren’t making the next Citizen Kane. They aren’t angling for an Oscar here. The movie itself doesn’t even have to make sense, it just needs to be loud and bright and engaging enough to hold the attention of child for at around ninety minutes.
Any adult who is bashing or critiquing this or any children’s movie for it’s cinematic or narrative elements is a deeply disturbed human being and needs to touch grass. It’s like 80% cartoons for fucks sake. Do those people get mad when Wily Coyote falls off a cliff and isn’t killed? Do they scream at their television when episodes of Spongebob go off the rails? It’s a kids movie.
So instead of reviewing this movie like I were a “film critic”, I am going to instead talk about it’s place in the larger zeitgeist. See what I did there? I have set the table so that I can shit on this movie all I want because I’m bashing the context, not the content. Let us begin.
One cannot help but compare this movie to it’s spiritual predecessor: Space Jam. This might be a hot take, but the first Space Jam was a shit movie. Michael Jordan is a terrible actor. Daffy Duck is the only funny Looney Tune. In fact, I would say more than half the Looney Tunes are far more problematic than they are entertaining. Pepe le Pew was the first cartoon to be cancelled. Porky Pig wears a shirt but no pants (pervert). Foghorn Leghorn probably would have voted for Trump. I could go on and on.
The fact is that Space Jam was at the time little more than a paper-thin plot buoyed by existing IP and the most famous athlete on the planet earth, designed to sell sneakers and Looney Tunes toys. Mission accomplished I suppose.
That’s sort of how all children’s programming goes though, isn’t it? When you really think about it your favorite Saturday morning cartoons were little more than elaborately constructed commercials designed to trick you into buying Transformers toys and Pokemon cards and GI Joe action figures.
Most “adult” programming is profitable for one reason: advertisements. Your favorite thirty minute sitcom is more like 22 minutes of sitcom broken up by two four minute commercial breaks. Live sports are basically just a vehicle with which to serve you, the captive sports fan, more and more advertisements.
Making children’s programming profitable is a little more nuanced. And let’s be real the only reason anything is on television is to make money. It’s hard to explicitly target children with ads for a variety of reasons. There are strict FTC rules about serving ads to children. Also kids have a dogshit attention span and they can’t be bothered by ads. So how do you reach them? You disguise the ads as content. The formula is quite simple:
Make some stupid, half baked cartoon that will be focused grouped and tweaked in such a way that children, like moths to a flame, cannot turn away from it.
Make a million complimentary products based on that cartoon like toys, merchandise, video games, and theme parks.
So to me it’s helpful to think of the new Space Jam movie as just another installment in this long legacy of adults trying to sell shit to children. This time around, though, it wasn’t just the Looney Tunes that Warner Brothers had to leverage. They don’t carry the same cultural cache as they once did. I don’t think any kids born in the last 15 years are even aware of the Looney Tunes. I’m not even sure they are still on television. Even when I was a kid, nearly 20 years ago, I was only obliquely aware of the Looney Tunes extended universe. The Looney Tunes are ancient history in terms of content, a vestige of a more simple time in children’s programming, the 1930s.
Instead of Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes, it’s now LeBron James and the Looney Tunes and DC Comics and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and The Matrix and every other property falling underneath the massive umbrella of the Time Warner conglomerate.
(Side note: I simply could not fathom why the creators of Space Jam thought to make a strung out reference to The Matrix, a Rated-R movie that came out nearly 20 years ago.)
Yet in this installment of Space Jam, it was a little unclear what exactly Warner Brothers is trying to push. Are they trying to make children into fans of media conglomerates? The first time around it was pretty simple; Looney Tunes merchandise and basketball sneakers. That time it worked like a charm. It bred an entire generation of kids and adults who would gladly stab each other to death for a pair of Jordan IVs and are obsessed with Lola Bunny’s dump truck ass.
I guess what I’m struggling with here is what exactly this iteration of Space Jam is. It’s not trying to be a good, because it’s a kids movie and, well, it’s just not good. And it doesn’t seem to be explicitly trying to sell children anything. I’m sorry but no amount of propaganda and mass psychology is going to want to make people buy LeBron’s trash basketball sneakers or re-watch Game of Thrones.
I think at the end of the day this movie is pure, uncut nostalgia, and the Space Jam people are just trying to get a taste for themselves. I’m sure the folks at Warner Brothers have had this one in the chamber for years, waiting for the perfect Michael Jordan substitute to emerge from the basketball ether. I suppose it could have been Kobe Bryant, but he sexually assaulted a woman in 2003 and took himself out of the running. Enter LeBron James, the most unproblematic basketball star of all time and the only logical centerpiece of a Space Jam reboot. I’m sure in 25 years when the next “Chosen One” appears they will reboot it once again.
Much like how it feels like we can begin to make out our destruction slowly appearing on the horizon, in some ways it feels like we are at the end of the line culturally, too. The amount of existing IP out there is so overwhelming that the idea of anything original and novel breaking through to the nonexistent mainstream is a fantasy. We live in a fragmented world of content, and we sorely miss those cultural monoliths like Space Jam that for a brief second made us feel like we were participating in something larger than ourselves. But instead of trying to make new cultural monoliths, we just remake the old ones hoping to recreate that feeling. It feels like we’re going in circles here.
It seems like we are collectively yearning for a simpler time, and this has manifested itself in myriad ways in our culture; the election of the “Make American Great Again” guy, the renaissance of trading cards and children’s toys, and rebooting every fucking movie and tv show ever made. It only makes sense that as we are subjected to a hellish new capitalism-turned-feudalist system, witness the retches of a crumbling American empire tearing itself apart from within, and hurtle towards climate catastrophe that we would find comfort in the familiar.
I know as a child I absolutely LOVED the original Space Jam, and I’m sure millions of other millennials out there would agree. Space Jam: A New Legacy is that familiarity that we as a generation need. As much as I wanted to hate it, I just couldn’t. Yes, it’s a movie for kids. But not todays kids. Todays kids could give a shit about the Looney Tunes. No, its a movie for the kids we were 15 or 20 years ago. It’s a movie for the inner children of a generation of millennials who aren’t sure if there will be another Space Jam in 25 years because they aren’t sure if they will be around to see it.