Today Is the 20th Anniversary of ‘Space Jam’ Being a Terrible Movie
If you asked me to pick the worst scene in Space Jam, I would say “All of them,” because technically that is the correct answer.
But if you backed me into a corner and threatened me with physical violence (or, God forbid, another viewing of Space Jam) I would choose the scene early in the film where Michael Jordan, playing himself, gets picked up in his hotel room by his baseball team’s publicist, Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight). “C’mon Michael!” Stan says as he bursts through the door. “It’s game time! Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark!”
(I should also mention that when Stan suggests they go to McDonald’s Jordan is already drinking from a McDonald’s cup, while lying on his hotel room bed stripped to the waist. As one does.)
This is pretty heinous cinema, but you have to admit: It’s great marketing. Looking back at Space Jam today, 20 years after its debut in theaters, it seems clear that this was no accident. Space Jam is terrible on November 15, 2016 and it was terrible on November 15, 1996, but I’m not sure it was ever designed to be good. It was designed to be advertising, less a movie than a feature-length collection of commercials for all of the brands Michael Jordan promoted in the 1990s, including the most important brand of all: Michael Jordan himself.
The project even started with an actual commercial. Viewers of the 1992 Super Bowl saw Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny team up to tackle a bunch of gymnasium bullies (and pimp some fresh Nikes) in “Hare Jordan.”
Bugs’ concluding line about this being the beginning of a beautiful friendship was prophetic; the ad was a massive success, and eventually Warner Bros. decided to capitalize on it by unofficially adapting the ad into a movie. (They even brought in the director of the original ad, Joe Pytka, to direct the film.) Space Jam would gloss up the proceedings with all of the most famous Looney Tunes characters and a host of cameos from NBA All-Stars, but on a story level, it’s nearly identical to “Hare Jordan”: A bunch of macho jerks antagonize Bugs Bunny, who recruits MJ to even the odds.
Worse ideas have been made into better movies. But while the “Hare Jordan” story was expanded for the big screen, its internal logic was given no such development. As a 60-second ad, it doesn’t really matter where Bugs found Jordan, or how the two co-exist in the same world, or why a quartet of bros want to pick on Bugs Bunny, a beloved childhood icon. As an 88-minute movie, those concerns are kind of important — and kind of ignored by Space Jam’s mostly baffling premise where the Looney Tunes characters are both themselves (i.e. widely recognized fictional characters from a beloved series of cartoons) and sentient beings with thoughts and feelings who live in a hidden society beneath the Earth’s crust, like the world’s most adorable Hollow Earth theory. If they’re fictional characters, why do they live inside the ground? If they’re living creatures, does that mean their movies are weird documentaries? The movie doesn’t say.
Space Jam’s shred of an explanation for the Jordan–Bugs basketball game: The evil alien overlord of an intergalactic amusement park called Moron Mountain wants some new attractions and decides the Looney Tunes would make a good fit. He sends a bunch of sentient boogers to kidnap the Tunes, and because these aliens are so small, the Tunes decide to challenge them to a basketball game. If Bugs and his pals win, they maintain their freedom. If they lose, they become slaves of Moron Mountain.
Obviously no one deserves to be enslaved for any reason. But the Looney Tunes’ behavior in Space Jam makes it difficult to root for them. First, they challenge these aliens to a basketball game, which is wildly unfair because they’re so small; it’s the equivalent of an adult challenging a baby in an algebra contest. To level the playing field, the aliens suck the talent out of five NBA players (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Shawn Bradley), which turns them into the “Monstars,” hulking brutes capable of decimating anyone on the court. Suddenly the Looney Tunes are the underdogs, and that’s when they recruit Michael Jordan to lead their team.
When Jordan arrives in the Tunes’ home, he asks if any of them have ever even played basketball before. Before they can answer, they’re interrupted by Space Jam’s egregious contribution to the Looney Tunes cosmos, a curvaceous female rabbit named Lola Bunny. The unspoken implication is that everyone except Lola is clueless about basketball.
So, to recap, the Looney Tunes, including Bugs and Tweety Bird and Road Runner, some of the cleverest and most resourceful cartoon characters of all time, put their lives on the line with a challenge involving a sport they didn’t know how to play.
That, my friends, is dumb.
But then most of this movie is dumb. The blend of live-action and animation is impressive at times (and a nightmarish sequence rendered entirely in traditional cel animation is lovely, in a creepy way). There is craft and care in the visual side of things. Just about everything else, though, is stupid. It is stupid the way the movie brings its two characters together, it is stupid that the big final game seemingly has almost no drama or tension, and it is stupid that Bill Murray appears in this film as himself in a golf scene and doesn’t say “It’s in the hole!” (For what it’s worth, iconic Looney Tunes animator and director Chuck Jones thought Space Jam was “terrible.”)
Really the only thing about the movie besides the animation that seems like it was given a second thought was ensuring that Space Jam promoted Michael Jordan and all of the ideas (and companies) he represented. It opens with a young Michael (Brandon Hammond) staying up late at night to practice his jump shot. His father (Thom Barry) thinks he should go to sleep, or maybe play baseball; young Jordan keeps on shooting. Space Jam turns Jordan into a kind of American myth; a legend in his own time. He’s like Paul Bunyan, with the Chicago Bull subbed in for Babe the Blue Ox.
The film ends with a thematic echo of its first scene, with Jordan returning from his game against the Monstars in a cartoon spaceship just in time to take part in his minor-league baseball team’s latest game. Knight’s character introduces him, and he walks off the ship to a roaring standing ovation. It’s like something out of a stodgy Oscar biopic, as if Space Jam was based on the real events of Michael Jordan’s life during his retirement, which involved heroically saving the Looney Tunes from intergalactic indentured servitude.
(It’s worth noting that this game’s attendees seem remarkably chill to discover that they live in a world where cartoon alien spaceships are real. Jordan’s wife, played by Theresa Randle, doesn’t seem particularly shocked that he’s been missing, either. Did Jordan regularly vanish for long stretches of time without any contact with his family?)
The song playing over Jordan’s triumphant return to baseball (followed, almost immediately, by his more-triumphant return to basketball) is R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” The song’s success propelled the Space Jam soundtrack to massive sales (it went platinum six times by the end of the ’90s). Yet another product sold by one of the most effective commercials in movie history.
Space Jam made plenty of money in its own right, grossing more than $200 million worldwide, and generating hundreds of millions more in merchandising revenue for Warner Bros. (plus untold millions for the companies that benefited from the film’s multitude of product placement). It was a hit for almost all involved, yet it left a surprisingly small impact on pop culture. Michael Jordan never starred in another movie; Joe Pytka never directed one either. (“I just think he hated the whole experience, every aspect of it,” Pytka said of Jordan’s work in Space Jam.) In the years since, the film has become something of a cult classic among people who grew up in the ’90s, as clear an indication as any that anything watched in childhood can become a nostalgic favorite.
The Looney Tunes enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity, but their next big-screen showcase, 2003’s underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action, made a fraction of Space Jam’s box-office total. They’ve appeared occasionally on television, but their highest-profile appearances now are as commercial pitch men (like Road Runner, who became the face of Time Warner’s high-speed internet for several years) and as the faces of rides at Six Flags around the globe. There’s something bitterly appropriate about that sad fate. Despite Michael Jordan’s best efforts, the Looney Tunes wound up working in amusement parks anyway.