Back in 1996, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Space Jam, a movie inspired by Nike ads featuring Michael Jordan playing basketball with the Looney Tunes characters, would garner such a tremendous following. Yet here we are 25 years later and the Tunes are back facing off in the game of their lives in Space Jam: A New Legacy, only this time instead of Jordan they’ve got L.A. Lakers superstar player LeBron James, and the court is in cyberspace.

During a Space Jam Block Party event at the Mae Grant Playground in Harlem last Friday, The Beat had the chance to chat with Space Jam: A New Legacy director Malcolm D. Lee. No stranger to helming comedies, the new Space Jam is a stark departure from Lee’s past work which includes films such as Girls Trip and Night School. Lee divulged the unique experience of working on Space Jam: A New Legacy and how the film is made for theatrical viewing.

Taimur Dar: You’re no stranger to comedies having directed films like Girls Trip and Night School. With Space Jam: A New Legacy though it’s obviously geared towards a family and younger audience. Did you have to adjust your filmmaking approach in any way?

Malcolm D. Lee: Not really because at the end of the day we’re talking about characters and story and plot. It’s all about setting the right tone. So that’s where I start—setting the right tone and story. I thought the story that we had was a great one. It’s a father/son story [that was] very relatable and completely universal. It was definitely in my wheelhouse, showing an all-American family who happens to black on the big screen and normalizing their lives. I had to make sure [the] music was appropriate and the language was appropriate. No R-rated ad-libbing. The [Looney] Tunes don’t curse anyway. And I didn’t worry about LeBron cursing too much either. It’s all about knowing what genre you’re dealing with and the story you’re trying to tell. Fortunately we had great actors and a really good script.

Space Jam A New LegacyDar: Speaking of actors, Zendaya voices Lola Bunny in the film. While she hasn’t done as much animation voiceover work compared to the other Looney Tunes voice actors, there’s definitely no denying her talent. How did casting Zendaya as Lola come about?

Lee: We wanted somebody who really embodied the spirit of Lola. And Lola is strong, empowered, takes control, [and] super feminine. Zendaya was almost like a perfect choice because she’s having a moment right now. She’s taking control of her brand and she’s very sure of who she is and what she believes in. She’s a great actress and she’s also very funny. We were lucky to have her.

Dar: On the animation side of things you have Spike Brandt as the animation director for Space Jam: A New Legacy. What was the collaborative experience like working with an animation veteran like Brandt?

Lee: Spike is like the master of all things Looney Tunes. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a master at hand drawing. [He] really was one of the keys to my success and the movie’s success because without him, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never had experience doing animation before and thank God he was there by my side to guide things along and also be a great collaborator. It wasn’t like, “It’s gotta be this way or nothing.” He was very open but also super knowledgeable about the craft and the expressions of the Looney Tunes [like] how to squash and stretch. I learned so much under him

Dar: Is there a particular era of Looney Tunes that you particularly gravitate towards?

Lee: I think it was the era that I was watching them [in] the ’70s and ’80s. There was that earlier style that was a little less “attractive” to me. We came back to the Bugs Bunny and Daffy that I remember. Some of the earlier designs were broader in the smiles and the eyes were bigger. These Tunes resemble the ’70s/’80s. The ones in Space Jam: A New Legacy are the ones that I remember.

Dar: Though we’re still not completely out of the pandemic, things in the U.S. like movie theaters are slowly but surely returning to normal. The communal aspect of the movie-going experience has always been vital, so as a filmmaker what hope do you have for the future of the movie theater experience? 

Lee: You hit the nail on the head. I hope that people will feel safe enough to come out because Space Jam: A New Legacy is built around the theatrical experience. That’s what you alluded to—That communal experience that we haven’t gotten to have in almost a year. Films like The Fast and the Furious, Black Widow, and Space Jam are completely worth it. It’s built for the 50 foot screen and surround sound. So I hope people come out and enjoy the movie the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Space Jam: A New Legacy arrives on Friday, July 16, 2021, in theaters and will be available in the U.S. on HBO Max for 31 days from the theatrical release.