The Space Jam sequel will see the light of day after twenty five years of development hell. So it only makes sense to look back at what inspired the LeBron James follow up. When it comes to Space Jam, people fall into one of two categories. They’re either a nineties kid who made this a cult classic, or a Looney Tunes fan, like Chuck Jones or Joe Dante, who despises the character assassination of these classic icons. Either way it has cemented itself in pop culture history.
The genesis of Space Jam came from a series of Nike commercials selling their new product Air Jordans. These commercials teamed up basketball superstar Michael Jordan with animated celebrity Bugs Bunny, fighting off Marvin the Martian for the famous shoes:
These commercials were so popular that Nike and producer Ivan Reitman commissioned Joe Pytka to helm an extended advertisements- I mean a movie. Coupled with some up and coming animation directors, Space Jam became the sole box-office hit of Warner Brothers Animation before it was brought to its knees by plagiarizing the Disney formula and under-marketing their original movies. But that was back in the nineties when apparently everything was glorious, and not blinded by nostalgia. How does it hold up today?
Pitching the plot of Space Jam is complicated because four writers combine two contrasting genres that go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. The first half deals with Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan) during his baseball years following his retirement from basketball. The other half centers around the outer space theme park owner Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito), who’s looking for new attractions for Moron Mountain. The solution? The Looney Tunes, who are not willing to go without a loophole. They challenge his minions the nerdlucks to a basketball game thinking they have the vertical advantage. Little does Bugs Bunny (Billy West) and company know that the nerdlucks steal the talent of famous NBA players and transform into the hulking Monstars:
So do the Looney Tunes take them out with their clever wit and arsenal of weapons ranging from guns to dynamite? Nope! They enlist Michael Jordan to teach them how to play basketball, lest they become slaves to the now towering invaders.
Watching this for the first time since its initial release, there is a lot to unpack. As everyone and their mother has pointed out, this is not a movie; this is an hour and a half long commercial. Right after the intro sets up a potential biopic of Michael Jordan’s life, there’s a shameless plug for merchandise every fifteen minutes: the NBA, MLB, clothes, theme parks, food, toys, and especially shoes. One of the most infamous plugs comes from Wayne Knight playing Jordan’s wormy sidekick:
Of course product placement is expected to financially contribute to film production, but when it’s the main drive behind greenlighting a big-budget Hollywood experience, that’s a problem. It doesn’t help that the subplots involving Michael’s family and the NBA players barely impact the crossover outside of advertising more sports gear, even twenty-five years later. Jordan has charisma to play himself in an uncensored analysis of his life, but not the range to embody an everyman abducted into a world of animated insanity, unlike his sidekick who knows how to react to the discovery of cartoons in the center of the Earth. Anyone who gets a doctor examination from Daffy Duck should exhibit some astonishment after discovering that animation can take on a life of its own.
Speaking of which, the second problem is the Looney Tunes. Not so much the animation nor the professional voice acting from veterans like Billy West, Danny DeVito, Dee Bradley Baker, Bob Bergan, Bill Farmer, June Foray, Maurice LaMarche, Kath Soucie, and Frank Welker. Those two elements are the best components of this advertisement. For almost a century these cartoons have used violence and wit to defeat anyone that crosses their path: Elmer Fudd’s shotgun, Daffy Duck’s inflated ego, Yosemite Sam’s pistols, Witch Hazel’s butchering skills, and Tweety’s unnatural strength. They have taken down opponents thrice their size, which makes it baffling that they are crying for help. The Road Runner gets neck injuries, Speedy Gonzales gets caught in a mouse trap, even Bugs Bunny who’s outsmarted enemies on earth and in space is on his arms and knees begging like Oliver Twist. If this was the Bob Clampett Bugs Bunny that would make more sense, but this universe clearly favors Chuck Jones’s style despite treating the legend harshly during production. The aliens might have advance weaponry, but unless Mr. Swackhammer has gallons of turpentine, acetone, and benzine, the threat is non-existent. There’s also the introduction of Lola Bunny: A new character that was supposed to bring in more of the female demographic, but is now the nightmare of grown-ups remembering that Warner Brothers intentionally sexualized a rabbit to promote bestiality. Saxophone music, check. Skimpy clothing, check. No personality, check. Certain human qualities, check. There are a few moments where they harken back to their roots of slapstick and sarcastic wordplay, but these are not the Looney Tunes you’re looking for.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this basketball game is the ultimate difference between freedom and slavery. In that case, there are enough fouls to turn this into a wrestling match: punches, kicks, stamps, and even a body slam. This makes the most dishonest sports teams look like saints by comparison. Rarely does it embrace the rules unless the plot demands conflict, and even then it’s resolved as quickly as it’s brought up. Although for the Looney Tunes sake, they resort to their classic antics at the end of half-time, and yes that includes Pepe Le Pew who is known for more than just being a cat chaser.
If anything in this time capsule holds up, it’s the animation. Directed by Tony Cervone and Bruce W. Smith, the animation is a phenomenal response to Disney’s dominance in feature films at the time. It’s not on the same level of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but similar techniques are implemented to make the characters feel three dimensional in hand-drawn form: shading, fluidity, and interacting with real people. When the cartoons take center stage, they feel more alive than the humans because great care is put into their reactions and timing, even if some animators don’t look back on this fondly. It’s easy to mock the dated computer effects, but they’re so bizarre that they work in favor of the insane script.
Space Jam has its extreme audiences on both sides for good reasons. Is it a good representation of the Looney Tunes? Aside from the animation, no. Is it entertaining to watch from a nostalgic or an ironic perspective? Yes, because there’s a lot to cringe at in a so bad it’s good angle. This might be a glorified commercial, but its a landmark in high quality animation. The two genres don’t blend well together, but it’s fascinating contemplating the thoughts behind everyone approving the script. The Looney Tunes are out of character, but the talented voice actors breathe new life into them following Mel Blanc’s passing. This nineties commercial is complicated to come to terms with under an unbiased viewpoint, especially since future takes on the Looney Tunes would be more warmly received despite not making as much collateral. But its cult following says a lot about how even corporate propaganda can entertain people for polar opposite reasons. If you don’t mind putting up with all the shameless plugs and want to see some spectacular animation, there are worse distractions. But if you want something true to the Looney Tunes formula that experiments with new ideas, skip this and go watch either the Duck Dodgers series or Looney Tunes: Back in Action. As for the sequel, the trailers have a better idea of what makes these timeless comedians tick and fixes the first movie’s problem by having the basketball star ask the animated cast for help. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how a product of one decade adapts to a different era for both its new audience and customers.