“Send this clown to the rejects” – Al-G Rhythm
I’m one of those people who just have an incredibly soft spot for animation. Especially classic, hand drawn animation. It’s something that has fascinated me since childhood. I guess I loved cartoons before I discovered I loved films. I learned very early on that there were different levels of cartoons. From the sweeping grandeur of a Walt Disney film, majestic in their storytelling, artistry and technical abilities to the slapstick violence of the Tom and Jerry cartoon shorts, to the anarchic, madcap zaniness of a Looney Tunes cartoon from Warner Bros. I loved them all. And still do.
But time hasn’t been kind to these cartoons. While the skill it took to create them, both visually and in their writing is unsurpassed (frankly, I don’t think it ever WILL be), the form of the art has of course changed. It has had to evolve, with the technology available to create it. Computers now take care of the grunt work of animation, and while this has proved a boon that has allowed for the establishment of studios like Pixar, who are easily the modern-day equivalent of classic Disney (and are now, of course a Disney brand). Pixar can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. They just keep on pumping out remarkable classic after remarkable classic. (Okay, there was ONE slight mis-step in Cars 2, I thought that putting the characters in a spy story was pushing it too far)
But along with the amazing technological leaps, has also come a shaming of the content of the original cartoon shorts produced in the forties and fifties as part of a full supporting programme at the cinema. Back in the days when an evening at the cinema was literally that. Your ticket bought you a newsreel, a B movie (shorter and cheaper), an A movie (the one you actually came to see) and a few cartoons.
These cartoons were produced with adults in mind. They were never aimed at children. Warner Bros created comedies aimed at adults, with a likeable streetwise rabbit with a Brooklyn accent, a pig with a stammering speech defect, a sociopathic duck with rage control issues and a full cast of supporting, deeply flawed, characters. They became identified as kids’ shows when the shorts were sold off to TV as fillers and found a new audience. And that’s when the problems started. They became dumbed down, gentler and as time moved on, they had to be politically correct, adhering to the wisdom of the day that they be inoffensive.
Sheer anarchy and inoffensive don’t really blend. And perhaps it’s best to just view these characters as a representation of the past. And leave them alone.
BUT…. A staggering 25 years ago, a film called Space Jam was released which brought our favourite characters back to the big screen in a live action/animation film with basketball star Michael Jordan. And to be fair, it worked pretty well. Well enough to warrant an unrelated movie by Gremlins director Joe Dante in 2003 Looney Tunes: Back in Action (which I felt was the better of the two, to be honest). Now, 18 years later, the Looney Tunes characters are back again, and I wish they weren’t.
If that reading last sentence has shocked you, imagine how it felt to write.
I came to this film as a Looney Tunes fan. I’ve probably spent too much money over the years in buying the collected editions of the classic shorts on discs and I’ve spent far too much time watching them over and over. (In fact, if I feel down, my main go-to is to reach for a Looney Tunes disc and it’s been this way for years and I have no intention of changing. If it works, it works, right?)
Space Jam: A New Legacy is a strange beast. On the one hand, it’s a remake of the original Space Jam, where the Tunes characters recruit basketball star Michael Jordan to help them win a basketball game to secure their freedom. It has a solid cast that included Wayne Knight and Bill Murray and Danny DeVito. It was a crazy, enjoyable script that caught the spirit of the cartoons and it was fun to watch. However, director Malcolm D. Lee seems to have missed the point of the characters and how they react and relate to each other. As originally conceived, they were sharply satirical. A mocking look at ourselves taken to extremes. Their reactions could always be understood if you realised that they were parodies of our flawed selves. To laugh at Daffy Duck having a complete meltdown in sheer frustration is to laugh at ourselves when it happens to us, and it softens the blow.
But let’s take a look at the plot, albeit meagre.
A rogue algorithm (Don Cheadle) in the Warner Bros computer system kidnaps the son of basketball star LeBron James. James is on the cusp of ruining his relationship with his son Dom (Cedric Joe) by pushing the kid to play basketball when all he wants to do is create and develop his basketball video game.
LeBron James is challenged to a basketball game against the bad guy team of the Goon Squad – with the handicap that his team has to be selected from the rejects, i.e., the Looney Tunes characters. It’s a by the numbers plot about a family who find their way back together again, and contains a positive message about being yourself…blah, blah, blah.
And this is the problem – it’s actually a pretty boring film. There’s nothing really new here. We know from the outset that LeBron and his son will be okay at the end, because the fact of the matter is that this isn’t a new adventure for the cartoon characters, it’s a PR piece for real-life LeBron James and of course he’s not going to be shown in a negative way because he’s the idol of millions. And in trying to explain this facet of the film, I’ve reached the core problem at the heart of the film.
I don’t watch sports, so I’ve never seen a LeBron James game, but I understand he’s acknowledged as a great player – maybe the best of his generation. I’ve heard his name, I know what he does for a living, but that’s about it. It turns out that however great his skills are with a ball and a basket, they don’t extend to acting. He’s actually a dull character on screen. Michael Jordan has a magnetism and a likeable screen presence. James is awkward and self-conscious, and just plain dull. Don Cheadle tries to chew some scenery in a hammed-up performance at odds with his usual laid back approach, but that doesn’t work. By the time Bugs Bunny shows up, I was already deep in the throes of apathy following over-exposure to James and the oddly hyped-up Cheadle.
Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester and Foghorn Leghorn can’t save this – nor Marvin the Martian – not even Wile E. Coyote can save this. Particularly as they’re all stifled by the politically correct, must not offend and God forbid make anybody laugh edicts of our culturally sterile modern day. (Harsh? Watch the film and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.) What makes it worse is that for the duration of the game, the Tune Squad are made to look more “realistic” as they’re in the “real” world, within a virtual reality world. It doesn’t work. Just…. no.
More than half the film is spent on this “for all the marbles” basketball game, which outstays its welcome after around ten minutes but does on…and on…and on… The ONE fun aspect I discovered is that the audience watching the game all seem to come from the Warner Bros properties and include the DC Universe, Pennywise, Flintstones, Mad Max etc. Kong and the Iron Giant are also in there, giving the game an almost Ready Player One vibe, but without that film’s charm or ingenuity. I’ll overlook the plain fact that this is Warners’ blatant product placement scheme, using a Warners film to push other Warners films.
At its heart, this is an over-long basketball movie with cartoon characters. If you’re looking for a decent Looney Tunes film, look to the original or better yet, Looney Tunes: Back in Action. There’s nothing here for fans of the classics.
There's only one way to round this off....
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