THE INITIAL RELEASE (1996)
The 1990s was a lucrative and successful decade in the long history of the legendary Warner Bros studios. The early part of the decade saw them emerging with juggernaut television series like ‘Animaniacs’ and ‘Tiny Toon Adventures’. Their finely crafted sense of comic timing coupled with the timeless sense of wonder and charm typically associated with their Looney Toons franchise was what made their shows runaway successes which are still popular in the public consciousness to this day. Whilst their cartoons and partnership with DC Comics led them to golden bounties, a new territory was still to be explored by Warner Bros when they noticed the success that was the Disney Studios ‘The Lion King’ in 1994. An affiliate of Disney Studios, Max Howard, was brought in to Warner Bros to head their new feature film division. The first feature they would ever create was ‘Space Jam’; an idea born from a mutual partnership between Nike. NBA Star Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny took on Marvin the Martian in a basketball game in order to advertise Nike shoes back in ’92. From there it became a series of adverts that culminated with Jordan’s agent pushing for a feature film along with the director of those ads, Joe Pytka. The intention was to market a family friendly picture for all that would benefit the brand involved, the studio and the career of Michael Jordan.
The production itself saw Jordan being overall disenchanted by the whole experience. The director went on record to say that Michael Jordan wasn’t pleased at the process due to the amount of directions he had to take and the lack of control he had on the set. Most of the star’s time between scenes was spent on his private court that was known as the Jordan Dome. His basketball scenes were shot against a green screen. The film saw a blend of fully 3D computer animated characters from the Looney Toons walking around in a live action setting with real life actors. The effects themselves can be credited to ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ innovator, Ed Jones and his fellow gifted animation experts.
The budget for the film was 80 million dollars provided largely by its sponsors. It’s box office draw was a phenomenal 230 million dollars worldwide. It remains one of the highest grossing animated films of all time and undoubtably the highest grossing basketball movie ever made.
MY FULL EXPERIENCE (1996) (2014)
COME ON AND SLAM AND WELCOME TO THE — Jarring juxtaposition of Michael Jordan playing basketball with the Looney Toons.
Yes. It’s almost hard to believe this film exists – and yet here we are 18 years later.
‘Space Jam’ was something of a wonder to me as a kid. The advertisements worked their charm on me. There was a buzz about school as this was dribbling its way into my local cinema. I didn’t even care for basketball. This just looked like pure lunacy and being a young ‘Animaniacs’ fan I had to whine to my dad for money to go see this with friends. I arrived riding a hype train wearing my Nike trainers drinking Coca Cola soaking in the merchandise like an obedient young consumer. The bright colors and the vibrancy of everything going on were easy to watch. I can’t describe my exact reactions, but I can recall talking with friends throughout sharing sentiments of glee. As with most cases, friends being there heightened the experience.
The VHS release of the film was a marked date in my household. I picked up a copy as soon as it was available. It had a holographic cover which was a neat concept at one stage and NOT AT ALL gimmicky. Simpler times. Even from that one year difference between cinema to home video, I had sensed that the film might not be as good as initially thought.
For this revisiting of my once proud indulgence, I fished out a VCR player for this trip back to my childhood. I still have the same copy I owned with the same holographic cover, albeit the tape is quite a lot dustier since it was last used. Fortunately, it still worked.
In case you are not familiar with the plot of ‘Space Jam’; I will give a brief rundown:
An owner of a space theme park is looking for new attractions for his park. He decides to send down his cronies known as The Monstars to capture the Looney Toons and make them his new attractions. In turn, a basketball challenge is made with the terms that if The Looney Toons win they go free and if they lose they must work in the space theme park forever.
Some would use the term “contrived” to describe this type of plot, but an argument could be made that this bizarre story is in keeping with the manic brand of lunacy suited to the Looney Toons. Although that being said, an argument could also be made that the intention for the film was not to capture the essence of the beloved toons, but more to shoehorn in the basketball and corporate sponsors without any sense to the reasoning behind it. There is a glass half empty, glass half full metaphor in here somewhere.
This film features basketball star Michael Jordan as our titular hero much to its overall detraction. The Looney Toons recruit Big Mike knowing that he is their only hope to defeat the space dwelling, basketball playing Monstars who have gained the combined talents of some of the NBAs brightest stars. The on screen pairing of the Toons and Jordan is welcome early in the film due to the fact that the chaotic cartoons draw your gaze away from the noticeable hollow performance given by Mister Air Jordan. The problem therein lies where your lead actor is hollower than the basketball he is carrying. A film with this style of hybrid animation and live action blend only works well when the dynamic of the actor and the toon is enthralling to watch on screen. The best example of this type of movie I can muster is ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. Bob Hoskins and the animated Roger Rabbit equally share onscreen presence that brings across their chemistry via the parallel of their two opposing personalities. Roger Rabbit is meant to be loud and annoying. Hoskins is meant to be the grizzled veteran cop who is tired of obnoxious toons. Hoskins plays his role to a tee. Both are engaging on screen. In the instance of ‘Space Jam’, you are always drawn looking at the toons, this is down to the lack of screen presence shown from Jordan. It is not a shocking revelation, I’m sure you’ll agree, that a basketball player isn’t the best fit for acting in a feature film.
However, I’m not going to be hard on Big Mike though. He was clearly disinterested in the overall process of filmmaking. Despite this fact he showed up for his job, got it done and he isn’t the worst aspect of the film. The writing is the truly bothersome part. This being a product of the ‘90s means that ‘Space Jam’ is stuck with the mind-set of the decade. The ‘90s catered to a crowd of kids with attitude; the MTV generation. This may not seem relevant, but it directly equates to the fact that this is a movie targeted specifically at this demographic. Therefore the jokes told are outdated and there is little to no substance for those who are above the age of the intended target audience. The ‘90s had seen mature animated films for kids and adults before. It was animated comedies that were still largely rooted in targeting just kids alone aside from one or two subtle innuendos. This was the pre-Shrek days we are talking about. In this day and age, it is almost a requirement to have broad appeal in your animated comedies. You need the adult market. You need the college market. You need the kids. You need something for everyone.
‘Space Jam’ is an entertaining movie to pop on for your very young kids when they want to turn off their brain for a while. They will enjoy the colors. The animation is still great to this day. I give full credit to the animators in that area. This is a positive, though great looking animation does not make for an animated classic in my view. There needs to be substance and it is severely lacking here.
Speaking on the lines of lacking substance. The film introduces us to a newly created Looney Toon known as Lola Bunny. This is not a female equivalent of Bugs Bunny as that would be marginally more interesting than what we have. The character was brought in as a way of grabbing the attention of a young female audience. Unfortunately, Lola offers little in the way of anything more than an overly sexualized cartoon rabbit meant to serve as temptress to Bugs Bunny. Initial signs on her first appearance point towards a hint of more personality in her fiery nature, which is maddening in the sense that they could have made her a far more fleshed out character. Alas when you are writing a Hollywood blockbuster, laziness can often prevail in favor of just one more shout out to the sponsors.
The predictable conclusion of ‘Space Jam’ comes with The Toons rallying together in a montage of preparation that leads to them defeating the Monstars. The game itself also holds a Bill Murray cameo from out of nowhere, which is about the only noteworthy moment to be said about the entire unfunny last hour and a half of the movie.
It is with a heavy heart that I say ‘Space Jam’ does not hold up to what I remember. The premise is goofy. The entire movie plot can be broken down into one paragraph and it mercilessly dragged along its 100 minute run time. The writing is below par for a kids movie. The acting is poor. The animated characters are not utilized to their full potential. The main star Michael Jordan looks lost in every scene. The only three pointer scored for me is it’s admittedly great aesthetics. The look of the film feels as authentic as you can get with this tale. Its special effects department has come along leaps and bounds since they worked on Roger Rabbit. Despite a pretty color scheme, I can’t in good fate recommend anything else about this. I’d give this one a miss if you haven’t seen it before. I won’t claim this to be a popular opinion, but I see the appeal limited to it being a time waster for an overactive young kid to sit, watch and digest.
Now with all of that being said; I still look back fondly on the excitement I had the very first time I saw it. From now on though, the only excitement I’ll get out of it will come from its immensely catchy theme song.