Meanwhile, the Looney Tunes need some help too. They challenge a team of diminutive evil aliens to a basketball match, but when the aliens steal powers from several of the NBA’s top stars, they become monstrous beasts, dubbed the “MonSTARS.” If the toons lose, they have to be slaves to the animated aliens on their home planet. So Bugs Bunny and the gang summon MJ into cartoon land where he helps them defeat their enemy.
There’s a very deliberate intent on grounding this film, despite the kooky premise, and it’s that attachment to reality that supplies much of the humor. The script never bothers with any niceties of Jordan’s acquiescence or outright skepticism that a cartoon basketball game against aliens is just insane. Instead, the athlete willingly goes along with the task, apparently without any hesitancy to abandon his life in the real world. There’s one line where he questions his latest career choice, but other than that, the ride he’s along for isn’t filled with any qualms at all.
We also see how the absurdity of Michael’s situation is never called out as such by those around him either. In fact, there’s no human-to-human drama whatsoever. There’s nothing ever at stake for MJ as it relates to the plot—only for the Looney Tunes. Rather, Michael willingly opens himself up to this bizarre opportunity and grows from it. As one of the most intriguing “flat” characters in film history, he almost serves as an active observer to the story, if he weren’t already the very heartbeat that’s driving it.
Space Jam knows very well that it’s a kids movie and so it focuses on the most important aspect of being one: goofy, innocent entertainment. Despite some 2nd act woes during the titular basketball competition, director Joe Pytka and his writing team of Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timothy Harris, and Herschel Weingrod provide a swift and memorable storyboard, even during the live-action segments. Pytka’s experience in commercials and music videos well informs his economic pacing, but also his ability to capture the wonderful little moments along the way. The iconic opening scene is exceptional, let alone for a family film, as young Michael Jordan shoots hoops with his father (Thom Barry), whose off-screen death years later is what propels the NBA player to retire.
Jordan is surprisingly good in this movie. Letting the others around him do all the emoting, he gives realistic reactions and stays within his own personality. In fact, he plays a crucial role in grounding the film. Even the human characters around him are looney (Bill Murray and Wayne Knight). Aside from the Looney Tunes themselves, Knight is one of the highlights in the role of Stan, MJ’s vaguely-defined assistant, but really serves as the stooge for Jordan to react to. Murray, also stooge-like, has an elongated cameo as himself, a friend of Jordan, giving us some of the best dialogue of the film, almost all of which is improvised.
Not getting enough credit for its prowess as an actual comedy, Space Jam utilizes its pieces well, even when its celluloid stars aren’t on the screen. With both animated and liveaction, the humor comes from the small details along the way. When Stan is digging a 6-foot hole in the middle of the green on a golf course, a fellow golfer walks up to him and asks what he’s doing. He informs him that he’s “fixing a divot.” Where a lesser film would simply just let the joke rest in Stan digging up a golf green itself, Space Jam sees its comedic scenario all the way through. There’s also a hilarious montage later on where the five nowtalentless NBA players—Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson—are all having their identity crises. It’s exactly the kind of aftermath that would realistically happen following a group of professional basketball players suddenly, and simultaneously, not having any athleticism anymore.