Flick & Role: Space Jam

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Next up is one that most people know, since it starred the world’s most famous basketball player and bunny. Space Jam, starring Bugs Bunny, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, and underpants pitchman Michael Jordan might be the most famous basketball movie and one that has a sequel or reboot in the works.  

Two years ago—during the brief period when the slam dunk contest flirted with being entertaining—Zach LaVine’s homage to Michael Jordan’s movie work provided me with a moment of clarity: People exist who like Space Jam.

The animated-live action hit was released in fall 1996, when I was a college freshman and a Knicks zealot blissfully unaware of James Dolan’s kazoo-toting existence. Seeing a Michael Jordan movie was a soul-scarring offense, the kind you reveal when the priest delivers last rites. I only watched the movie when (not much) cash was involved, reviewing it for the now-defunct Filmcritic.com. I hated it, and here’s the review, short on insight and long on curdled wit, as proof.

LaVine is far from the only devotee. Some Twitter and Facebook polling revealed a robust number of millennials with an affinity for Space Jam. Michael Jordan plays basketball with Bugs Bunny against a group of towering monsters should inflame a kid’s imagination.

Here’s a response that captures the childhood wonder the movie inspires.

“I enjoyed and re-watched Space Jam a lot!” wrote Elias Barghash, who was 11 years old when the movie was released, on Facebook. “There was something about the ‘crossover’ element of it that really sparked my imagination and creativity. The idea of some of my favorite cartoon characters coming over to the real world because they needed help was a lot of fun, and there was something about Michael Jordan being off his game and out of his element that connected with this as well. The Looney Tunes needed him, and during a time when he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stick with baseball or basketball, he kind of needed them to remember what basketball and teamwork meant to him. As a kid who played basketball in school, I had funky dreams of wanting to play in the NBA as a grown-up, and seeing people from the real world and the cartoon world be imperfect and vulnerable struck a chord for me at that age. It was also around the time when I started discovering my own creativity and figuring out how to express myself, and seeing some of my cartoon and human heroes in situations they hadn’t been in before served as awesome fuel for creative writing. The movie was also silly, self-aware, and had a fun soundtrack!”

That’s great for kids, but a great kids’ movie makes adults kids for a little while. It’s why The Wizard of Oz hasn’t lost its thrill nearly 80 years later, why Pixar is elbowing Mother Goose aside as a name parents can trust. We all watch with a child’s amazement at how big and vivid the world can be. Watching Space Jam for a second time, I was shaken into adulthood. From the start—with the rough-cut footage of highlights that is the offspring of a videogame intro and sports drink commercial—you are constantly reminded that Jordan is a corporate entity paired with another corporate entity. Daffy Duck literally kisses the Warner Brothers logo on his ass. Wayne Knight, playing Jordan’s minor-league baseball handler, greets MJ with the following: “Come on, Michael, it’s gametime! Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ball park.” It took four credited writers to come up what line.

The Monstars were played by Shawn Bradley, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues and Larry Johnson.

The inter-dimensional game featuring the Jordan-led Looney Tunes squad and the Monstars is telling. If the Looney Tunes lose, they become the property of the Moron Mountain amusement park. Then Jordan becomes the wager—oh, the irony. If his team loses, he’ll sign autographs and play one-on-one games where he’s shackled into submission. Under the watchful eye of Joe Pytka, a veteran director of commercials, the protagonists’ brand awareness is an asset and a punishment. Space Jam is a cold reminder that everything is a business. When Entertainment Weekly interviewed Pytka last year to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary, here’s how its success was summarized: “By all metrics, when Space Jam was released in November 1996, the film was a smash hit. It opened No. 1 at the box office, was a merchandising juggernaut for all parties involved, and helped relaunch the Looney Tunes.”

Pytka is so eager to involve the profitable leads that he overlooks basic plot holes, like how the Monstars locate the Looney Tunes or how humans find themselves in a cartoon dimension. That memorable basketball game looks dated because of the technology, but Pytka’s decision to film the on-court action from east-to-west ossifies it. Ditto his poor pacing. Who’s winning the game? How much time is left? Who cares? Figurine sales are gonna be huge! And the international market will gobble this up!  

The telling part is that by having the stars lean on their own reputation, or the writers using pop culture odds and ends, Space Jam neglects its own legacy. Every great kids’ movie contains an indelible moment—a line, a scene, something: “E.T., phone home!”; “To infinity—and beyond!” The Looney Tunes and Jordan have plenty independent of this synergistic corporate exercise, but none here. Space Jam’s assets carry the whiff of merchandise, such as the soundtrack (which gets a showcase during eight minutes of end credits) or the slick jersey, which LaVine sported at the dunk contest. If you want nostalgia, get your credit card ready.

Gene Siskel, the late film critic, had a standard: Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? I think we know the answer for Space Jam, because the Tasmanian Devil turns any lunch into a story. But the stories surrounding Space Jam are infinitely more entertaining. Erik Malinowski wrote a great one about the movie’s enduring website; in his terrific oral history of the 1996 Bulls for Complex, Alex Wong described the games Jordan had on set in an air-inflated dome. That I’d want to see.

A movie is the wrong medium for Jordan, who in 1996 was at the height of his international celebrity. He worked on a stage all the time. Michael Jordan the actor pales to who he was at his job. His skills filled a screen; he was a Marvel superhero for 100 nights a year. An elite athlete does not need a movie screen; they need to be made human to prove that they do, in fact, walk among us. Wright Thompson’s profile of Jordan at 50 is more cinematic than Space Jam. Thompson pushed you into Jordan’s soul, the stuff of legends. Space Jam pushes you away from your heroes and toward your wallet.