Twenty-one years ago, we were all graced by a film, the likes of which had hardly been seen before. It was polarizing: many loved it, but many, including one of the most well-known creatives related to the content, hated it too. It had a soundtrack that went platinum six times featuring the likes of LL Cool J and Jay-Z. Inspired by the film, children the world over signed up for kiddy basketball leagues.
The movie I speak, of course, of 1996’s Space Jam. (The well-known creative was Chuck Jones, who thought Bugs Bunny could have handled the problem alone, in the usual seven minutes.)
In honor of the fact that the film is old enough to legally drink in the US, I brushed the dust off my VHS copy (the edition that came with the Michael Jordan coin, but no big deal or anything) to give the film that brought Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan together on the big screen another look.
The main plot of the movie revolves around an alien named Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) who owns a failing amusement park. Freaking out over falling profits, he accidentally turns hundreds of episodes of Looney Tunes on, and decides that the perfect fix would be to forcibly add the Tunes to his park. At this point, I think it’s imperative to mention that that this movie was inspired by a series of Nike shoe commercials where Marvin the Martian is in hot pursuit of Air Jordans.
Swackhammer’s minions are pathetic little bugs, and the Tunes say they’ll go if the little bugs can beat them in a game of basketball, because the bugs have short legs and arms, or something. The bugs steal the basketball powers from five star athletes who I don’t know because they aren’t Michael Jordan, and become big and buff. The Tunes, realizing they’re in trouble, steal Michael Jordan, who the Monstars overlooked because this movie is set during his ill-advised baseball career.
Michael Jordan adapts to being sucked into the center of the earth (where the Tunes live, of course) to fight aliens on behalf of classic cartoon stars really, really well. In fact, nobody is too surprised by what’s going on: Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are sent to Jordan’s house to retrieve his sneakers and lucky shorts before the game, and Jordan’s children are all about handing their father’s items over to two animated creatures living and breathing in the real world before they even know what’s going on. To be fair, the whole premise of the movie is so unbelievable that suspending your disbelief is almost a reflexive defense mechanism.
In a way, animated films had been prepping us for something like this for a few years. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1998) was a film noir where humans and toons freely interacted, and Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World (1992) is about a cartoonist who gets sucked into an animated world. Space Jam was thus a really easy premise to accept, especially if you liked Looney Tunes cartoons. And although it isn’t technically as advanced as Roger Rabbit, there is a valiant effort in play. It’s easy to believe, about ninety percent of the time, that Jordan and other humans are interacting with an animated world, and vice versa. (And, I have to say it, God help me: I like Bakshi a lot, but it outshines Cool World in this respect.)
The ten percent of the time that doesn’t hold up is when there are CGI effects which, other than Jordan’s game-ending slam dunk, look… bad. But all CGI looked awkward and weird in the nineties, and when it’s not applied to human characters, it somehow works. It’s obvious it’s CGI, but it’s not obtrusive like the groundbreaking-at-the-time CGI effects in 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia (1997) now seem today. If you’re watching Space Jam for the first time today, it will most likely be unpalatable, especially if you were born after the mid-2000s. But if you lived through eighties through early 2000s CGI you’ll at least be able to handle it.
And what of the movie itself? Is it funny or good? Well… Once the basketball game gets started it’s pretty funny. Daffy Duck dazed and begging not to go to school still makes me laugh, and there are parts that are even funnier now that I’m an adult. There’s an honest-to-God Pulp Fiction reference in the movie, for one. And the surreality of it all as an adult makes it perplexing and hilarious all it once: Daffy Duck references the dangers of steroids, Michael Jordan is just so accepting of his situation, aliens care about being able to meet Michael Jordan even though they don’t have basketball in space, and a distressed Elmer Fudd moaning, “Weh gonna be swaves…” are just some of the few stand out moments.
Of course there’s also some cheap humor like the orange Monstar getting his pants pulled down, but what do you expect? It’s a kid’s movie. Unfortunately, that kind of thing comes with the territory.
Anyways, prior to the big game, the movie is okay. It’s not unwatchable, the acting isn’t bad (it kind of feels like somebody filmed these actors and athletes just hanging out), it’s weirdly funny because of how weird the whole premise is, and it doesn’t feel like a chore. But it’s not exactly riveting. It’s just okay, and it sort of averages out the whole movie to “just okay.” And “just okay” for a film that was conceived based on, and to sell, a shoe brand is honestly much better than most films based on similar shallow premises can expect. And “just okay” still puts Space Jam light years ahead of the other big-screen Looney Tunes outing, Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), which is just a whole mess.
Despite its low points, Space Jam is an enjoyable, decent movie, as long as you keep in mind that you’re not exactly going into an Oscar winner. It probably works best for adults feeling nostalgic or new, under-ten viewers than other demographics, but it’s also no mean feat to still look good in terms of special effects, etc., after 21 years, and it can be appreciated for that, too. Affection for the movie after all this time doesn’t feel unjustified, and its fanbase is strong, judging by Fathom Events’ decision to screen Space Jam last year in select theatres, for its twentieth anniversary. The fact that Warner Brothers never took down the original Space Jam site also might say something on the topic of its fanbase. (By the way, don’t click that link if you’re on mobile. The site may download clips and stills from the movie onto your phone automatically.)
Even if you find that the movie doesn’t do it for you, you might want to check out the soundtrack. There has never been a question over whether that’s a ten out of ten or not, trust me.