NBA superstar LeBron James and director Malcolm D. Lee talk Space Jam: A New Legacy with STACK.

Many basketball icons have come and gone in the 25 years since animated action flick Space Jam, starring basketball legend Michael Jordan, was first released. The late great Kobe Bryant surely springs to mind.

However, if the filmmakers behind today’s reboot, Space Jam: A New Legacy, have no idea why it took so long to envision a sequel, then everyone is unanimous that LeBron James is the hoops hero we all need today, inspiring a whole new generation.

The four-time NBA champion has always felt a special connection to the original film.

“When I was 12 years old, I needed inspiration where I was growing up,” says the Ohio-born legend. “Michael Jordan was one of those people who gave me inspiration, along with my mother. When I think back on watching Space Jam, always having a love for Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes, and then you add Michael Jordan, one of my favourite inspirations growing up? It felt like it was a match made in heaven for me.”

In the quarter century since the original film’s release, James, 36, has ascended to the top of his game on the court. Now, he finds himself in front of the camera, in an effort to carry on this legacy.

“It’s an honour for me to be a part of the Space Jam world, to be able to reintroduce it to kids today and show them how unbelievable the Looney Tunes are, and how great our sport of basketball is, as well,” he says. “There are also some things in this movie that will catch a lot of people off guard. That’s what’s exciting about it.”

The task of helming this massive cinematic undertaking fell to director Malcolm D. Lee,  best known for raunchy comedies Girls Trip and The Best Man Holiday.

Initially deterred by the film’s massive animation/CGI component, Lee says, “I didn’t chase this project and wasn’t sure I wanted to do this because of all the visual effects. I’ve never played in that kind of sandbox before. But doing a family-friendly movie that would appeal to audiences worldwide? I was definitely down for it a hundred per cent.

“In approaching this film I knew we wanted to not so much make a sequel but make a different movie. It’s a different environment we’re setting it in – not outer space but cyberspace. We also knew we had a different global star in LeBron James. For me, what was strong about it was this father-son story at its core, and we really wanted to make sure we were emotionally resonant as well as having great spectacle with all these new filmmaking techniques at our disposal, particularly with green screen and visual effects, plus the good old-fashioned animation which is still very viable and beautiful.” adds Lee.

LeBron James and director Malcolm D. Lee on the set

When STACK asks the director if he suggested an acting coach for newbie actor LeBron, he laughs, “No I did not! But LeBron is a natural and he’s been in front of the camera for a very long time. He’s been in our national and international consciousness since he was 18 years old. So he’s had a microphone or a camera in his face for a very long time. He’s done plenty of commercials and he’s done movies before. He loves to have fun and he’s a very open vessel when it comes to acting and wanting to express himself.

“So that’s half the battle – the desire to do it and the desire to be good and not have any insecurities about what you’re doing. He was always game to try something new. And to be able to tap into those emotionally resonant places that he was able to do, I was very pleased with how open he was with doing that.”

Casting award-winning actors Don Cheadle (The Avengers) as digi-villain AI G Rhythm and Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery) as LeBron’s movie wife, Kamiyah James, the film also features Cedric Joe as Dom James and Gabriel ‘Fluffy’ Iglesias as the voice of Speedy Gonzales.

As the film opens, we learn about the hard work and sacrifice it takes to be the greatest basketball player of all time – and meet with a version of LeBron who is frustrated that his younger son, Dom, who does not adhere to his own strict work ethic, preferring to play and design video games.

The family’s struggles make them easy prey for the power-crazed Al G. Rhythm, who lures LeBron and Dom into his digital domain, essentially kidnapping them and forcing them to go head-to-head in a basketball showdown for the ages.

“We’re in an era where everything is digital and electronic and on the web. Everything’s about video games and virtual reality, and so LeBron and his son go into a video game. It’s a great way to reintroduce Looney Tunes to the big screen, with the help of one of the greatest basketball players ever,” says the director.

“Basketball is the greatest sport in the world in my opinion, and we are all over the world,” adds James, who has been a part-owner of Liverpool FC since 2011. “You look at the professional leagues and you have people not only from America but from everywhere. Basketball taps into so many different households because the game just resonates with so many people in the world. And then when you add these classic cartoon characters and their humour… I mean it’s all about smiling, and being happy, and laughing together. Those are the ingredients to success.”

James enjoyed the process of playing a fictionalised version of himself, finding moments of truth nestled between elements that resemble much of his real life.

“This is a fictional version of me, but it’s also kind of who I am as well,” he admits. “Even though it’s going to be on the big screen and you’re going to see me in a different light of parenthood and a different light in terms of being a basketball player and a leader and things of that nature. But I also think it will work well for the character as I was able to implement a lot of things that I actually do when the cameras aren’t on.”

• Space Jam: A New Legacy is in cinemas now – read STACK‘s review

Space Jam at JB Hi-Fi