when the writers of the santa clause and trading places team up with the music video director for several of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, you apparently get Space Jam, a surprisingly witty, soundtrackheavy family film featuring NBA’s sweetheart Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the generationdefining classic which played by its own rules and has since become the benchmark for kids movies during their Golden Age in the ‘90s.
Warner Bros. was skeptical about updating the look of their iconic characters. But following a pair of successful Nike ads in 1992 and 1993 which starred Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny, the studio saw that modernizing the characters just might work. Production for Space Jam was greenlit, but paused for two years after MJ took a “break” from the NBA. It would be the athlete’s first movie deal.
Taking place during Jordan’s initial retirement from basketball in 1993 and following his time playing minor league baseball, Space Jam fictionalizes the story of why exactly he returned to the NBA in 1995. It turns out, MJ wasn’t all that good at baseball. I mean, he was no Michael Jordan. This reality is something that, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, this movie heavily uses as context. After a particularly rough game, Michael comes home to be with his family. His son asks him, “Did everyone get mad at you?” to which he responds, “No, worse. Everyone was real nice about it.” In 1993, MJ was so famous and popular that people loved him even when he sucked.
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.
Likewise, Pytka has an obvious understanding of the Looney Tunes dynamics, and the writers create a great rapport between the toons and MJ. Animation director Tony Cervone and his team fill the cartoon sequences with wacky gags and fresh cinematography to match the modern era, and the end result is a perfectly glossy, threedimensional, lived-in world that is Cartoon Land.
Eight years prior saw the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a huge innovation in live-action/ cartoon crossovers. However, Space Jam—which is still the best incorporation of the technology since—takes things even further, with nearly half of the film residing in the cartoon world (as opposed to the 10 minutes in Roger Rabbit). Here, the live-action characters pop in a set piece that, while inside of a Looney Tunes world, is more rooted in reality than you would think.
Prior to the release of the film in 1996, there was a question as to whether Looney Tunes could be relevant enough in a modern age to carry a film to box office success—a real-world narrative that also serves to parallel the in-movie conflict of its NBA superstar. Well, not only was the film a success, but it’s endured a lasting legacy 25 years later with a ubiquitous fanbase that’s more fervent now than ever.
Space Jam doesn’t just provide a new freshness for the Looney Tunes characters while also retaining the essence of the Warner Bros. properties, but it proves that these cartoons can still have a solid place in culture over five decades after their debut. And now looking back 25 years to this movie, the world of Looney Tunes continues to hold up, with their brand of antics still just as fun and entertaining.
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Despite breaking some of the rules and diverging from expected cinematic conventions, Space Jam still feels like an actual movie, albeit a different kind of movie. Ultimately, this is a love letter to basketball.
While it’s very much presented as a giant advertisement for Looney Tunes and Nike, the story within comes together with cohesive unity as it connects the dots between MJ’s initial retirement and subsequent return to the NBA two years later. It fictionalizes his epiphany and even mirrors events that show his love for the game; a love for the game that subtextualizes everything else that this film does. And yet, it speaks as much to fellow basketball fanatics as it does to kids who just want goofy, and looney, entertainment.
What Jordan did by retiring at the top of his game was unprecedented. It would have been an interesting story to follow in a cinematic medium, even if it had been told as a straightforward biography.
However, fictionalizing the events by adding Looney Tunes and truncating the two-year journey into what feels like only several days is perhaps even more unprecedented. You would assume that the flippancy of Space Jam would work against the authentic depth at its core. And yet somehow the film manages to keep its themes present, albeit subtle enough throughout that we never forget why MJ is doing all this in the first place. As it turns out, you can take the boy out of basketball, but you can’t take the basketball out of the boy.