Words by Deyscha Smith
Making Space Jam: A New Legacy was never going to be an easy task. The first Space Jam wasn’t just an entertaining flick back in ’96; it was, and still is, an iconic movie that is rooted in the cultural fabric of the basketball world. Like it or not, it was a true classic not just in box office sales but as a piece of content that resonated with millions, LeBron James included.
As his longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter, the CEO of The SpringHill Company and a producer of Space Jam: A New Legacy, tells us, it was important, first and foremost, to honor the OG.
“The main thing was that the first one is a well-known brand and franchise and did so well, so we had to make sure that we honor the legacy of the first film, and the title [of] Space Jam, while also producing something new and interesting and different, which is not going to be an easy task,” Carter says.
Those behind the second installment knew the weight of taking on a movie like this. Especially LeBron.
James originally turned down the film when approached about it 15 years ago. “I didn’t think I was ready to do anything of that magnitude,” he told Entertainment Weekly this past March. “I wanted to continue to focus on my game and give it as much as I could.”
And James wasn’t the only one who initially hesitated. The film’s director Malcolm D. Lee admits that he, too, was reluctant at first. It wasn’t until he read the script and saw the “emotional spine” of the film that he became intrigued.
Having directed films that reflect the Black experience, such as The Best Man (1999), Roll Bounce (2005) and Girls Trip (2017), Lee says his goal has always been “to make the so-called African-American movie or Black movie universal,” whether it be marriage, fatherhood or taking a trip with a group of friends.
In the case of Space Jam: A New Legacy, Lee saw those universal themes represented in the very foundation of the film’s script. The story is about a Black father, played by James (and bearing the same name), who struggles to connect to his younger son, Dom (played by Cedric Joe). James, a pro basketball player, wants his son to follow in his footsteps, while Dom is more interested in video game design and wants to attend a gaming convention instead of a basketball camp. He’s nervous about disappointing his father, who, in an attempt to connect with him, ends up bringing Dom with him to a meeting on the Warner Bros. lot. There, execs pitch James the technology for the super-transformative Warner 3000 that can digitally transport him into any movie or film.
The dynamic between a Black father and his Black son intrigued Lee. “It’s a family and it’s a father and son who are having a bit of a disconnect because the father was like, I was successful doing this one thing, which was basketball, and you should do that too,” Lee says. “And the kid is more interested in coding and building video games. So that was intriguing, because when do we ever get to really see Black kids engage in that way with computer science?”
Without spoiling the movie, here’s the gist of how things go down: After James chooses his pro ball career over entertainment and declines the Warner 3000, the algorithm of Warner’s server-verse, a CGI humanoid who goes by the name of Al G Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle) starts feelin’ some type of way. He kidnaps James and Dom and sends them into his “digital-domain.” To save his family from the server-verse, Bron teams up with the Looney Tunes to compete in a basketball game against the Goon Squad, Rhythm’s virtual avatars, to get his son back.
Based off a handful of real-life athletes who dominate the game today, the Goon Squad includes: Chronos, played by Damian Lillard, who can “trigger Dame Time” and force his opponents into “slow motion;” an arachnid named Arachnneka, voiced by Nneka Ogwumike, who can dominate and dish dimes with six arms; The Brow, played by Anthony Davis, who lingers above his competitors with incredible power and speed thanks to his 30-foot blue wings; Wet-Fire, voiced by Klay Thompson, who can control weather elements like water and fire; and the White Mamba, played by the legendary Diana Taurasi, who turns into an actual snake that can play some lethal defense.
“I was excited because the first Space Jam is one of my favorite movies of all time,” Davis says. “It was my first time doing animation and the process was definitely different for me, but I wasn’t nervous and it was a great experience. Seeing my character for the first time was amazing and watching everything come to life step by step was cool to see.”
One of the guiding forces of Space Jam: A New Legacy was to show the importance of representation. From a successful Black father with a passionate son who loves computer science to the inclusion of female hoopers, the movie was created with the intentions of making these concepts more universal.
“I’m very proud that we were able to include all those folks and normalize what it means to be an American and a sports fan and an athlete, whether it’s male, female [and] a Black family,” Lee says. “It’s all a normal thing. Let’s not say, Oh, that’s an exception. I talk about the word universal, and that’s exactly what this is.”
Lee also saw an opportunity to continue to make Space Jam: A New Legacy an immersive experience for viewers. While the first film defied gravity (using “three-dimensional computer animation,” as film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his ’96 review), this installment is a blend of classic and new-school CG animation work.
“For me, it was like, Let’s have as much of a technical and fun video game experience,” Lee says. “I wanted to make it a very immersive experience, you know, as if we were all at the game as audience members.”
Production for the film began in the summer of 2019, with the live-action animation taking place through September. Filming, Lee recalls, mainly took place on the Warner Bros.’ lot, with the exception of a few locations off site, such as when they were tracking young LeBron at a high school in South Central L.A.
During that time, Lee recalls that James, who had come off an injury during the 2018-19 season (when the Lakers finished 37-45, missing the playoffs), was “trying to get back to his greatness.” That summer, after early 2 and 3 am workouts and training sessions, James would report to set around 7 or 8 am showered, ready to rehearse and, most notably, ready to do whatever it took to make the film great, even if that meant taking direction on things like jumping higher to do an alley-oop dunk for a scene.
“I remember one moment, one of our motion capture performers had to throw LeBron an alley-oop, and we put the camera behind the basket,” Lee says. “So, it was a very small window to get the shot. So, I said, Hey, don’t throw it too high. And LeBron said, Too high? That was after the third take, because the first two takes weren’t quite there. So, LeBron caught it kind of high and really just threw his arm back and threw it down and I jumped out of my seat. And he didn’t say anything after that, but I know he wanted to say, Was that too high? And I loved it because I wasn’t really trying to motivate him, but it was kind of a happy accident.”
“It’s so challenging when you’re doing a scene and you gotta visualise the Tunes actually being there,” James said in a teaser for the movie. “For me, being able to produce a movie like this, but also be able to star in a movie like this, it’s very humbling.”
After filming the live-action portion, the next task was refining the visual effects and animation. And yet, as the pandemic hit in 2020, meetings, even recording sessions, were suddenly forced to happen virtually.
Jeff Bergman, the voice of Bugs Bunny, says that unlike other films he’s been a part of, he didn’t get to meet the other voice actors or record with them in person.
And yet, even with the limitations, there was still a sense of purpose to make Space Jam: A New Legacy as iconic as the original Space Jam. Bergman knows probably better than anyone what it’s like to not only have to uphold the legacy of a beloved franchise, but to do it justice. He did, after all, replace the legendary Mel Blanc, the long-time voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, after Blanc’s death in 1989.
“I don’t even think I was fully aware of it, but I just think that my nerves were responding to what it [making Space Jam: A New Legacy] meant,” Bergman says, recalling what it felt like to take over for Blanc. “It was daunting, but I think one of the things that helped me through it was staying connected to what I loved, which were those characters.”
Connection, Bergman goes on to explain, is what drew him to voice acting in the first place. And although he wasn’t the voice of Bugs in the first Space Jam, Bergman knows that Space Jam: A New Legacy is a film that everyone, regardless of whether you were old enough to have marveled at the first one, can connect with and enjoy.
The film’s arrival is also a testament to James’ legacy.
“He is probably one of the most important people in our world today, not just as a basketball player but how he lives his life and the human being that he is, and what he does for so many people,” Bergman adds. “To have that, plus the fun and silliness of the Looney Tunes, I just can’t even tell you. I had no idea what it was going to be until we saw the script and started to get into it, and it was so much more special than I could have ever imagined.”
Space Jam: A New Legacy has a lil’ something for the culture, too, from the alter-egos of the Goon Squad to the movie soundtrack, which includes tracks that feature artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Saweetie, Lil Wayne, Lil Baby, Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper and more.
“You know, you never can tell how people are going to respond, but we tried to be as up to date with the sneakers, the fashion, how the game is played, trying to find great angles and really have the authenticity of basketball,” Lee says. “That was certainly something I was concerned about, like, you know, Space Jam, I don’t know if I want to do that because we’re going to break too many rules for basketball. But I think that the hoopers will feel good about the movie and I think that we’ve got some things that will be indelible for the culture and that will last long after the movie is gone out of the theaters.”
In many ways, the arrival of Space Jam: A New Legacy is as timely as the times we’re in right now. Many, many people, over the span of generations, have been waiting for the franchise’s return after 25 long years. For the younger generation, this might be their first-ever experience with the franchise, or their first time watching the Looney Tunes in a minute—if ever. And for others, seeing this movie will be the first movie-going experience since the beginning of the pandemic.
Lee created the film with the intention of it being viewed in the theaters. While streaming services have given us blockbuster flicks from the comfort of our homes, enjoying a film like Space Jam: A New Legacy is a different experience when being viewed in a proper theater.
“I think we all want, I can’t say all people want it, but a lot of people do want that experience of being in a movie theater and smelling the popcorn, having soda and having a shared experience, theatrically,” he says. “Like, Oh my gosh, did you see that? Yeah, you could watch it at home on your surround sound, or you can see it on an iPad or whatever, but you know, nothing beats that theatrical experience, you know? Where you can have that collective ooohhh or that collective laugh or that collective sigh together. And, you know, I think that this could bring people back to the movies. I mean, hopefully there’s movies before that pave the way, but I’ll just say that Space Jam was meant to be seen on the big screen.”
And with everything we’ve experienced over the past year, the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy couldn’t have come at a better time. Normalcy, as we’ve learned, isn’t guaranteed, and while we’re not all the way there quite yet, things are starting to look up. Theaters are making their return, too, and with that, a blockbuster movie, starring the biggest basketball star on the planet alongside some iconic cartoon characters, is exactly what we’ve been waiting for.