I have never felt so old as I do when I say Space Jam turns 25 this year. The Looney Tunes and basketball crossover has been a staple of my life for as long as I can remember. For some reason, child-me latched on to the fact that this movie released on my birthday and that was enough to make me rewatch it yearly. I know I had Space Jam toys, bed sheets, and books. Why did younger me like this film so much? With Space Jam: A New Legacy set to release on July 16th, 2021 it feels like a perfect time to look back on this nostalgic childhood movie.
For some historical context, apparently the idea for the film came from the success of several commercials for Nike featuring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. I’m sure some executive saw how well the ads were doing and said, “How can we keep going with this? What about a movie?” I was also shocked to find out Spike Lee was supposed to help with the screenplay, but then he made Malcolm X and Warner Bros. kicked him out of the project. Probably due to the difference in vibes from these two movies.
Another thing I was unaware of was the fact that Michael Jordan quitting the NBA to try his hand at baseball was not in fact just a plotline of the movie but an actual event. (In my defense I was five years old and I’m Canadian, the only sport I knew was hockey). The film was actually put on hold because of this and resumed after MJ’s return to basketball, mirroring his life in some ways. I wonder if that’s strange, to recreate your life but now Yosemite Sam is there.
After the green screen footage was shot, they got to work on the animation. I think they got a bit over their heads in regards to this, having to hire more and more people with an eventual count of 700 animators working at 18 studios. I suppose when you’re Warner Bros you have the cash to throw around! At the time it was quite impressive for the number of VFX shots featured (over 1000) and I believe there were some solid attempts at making it a new Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the hybrid live-action and animated aspects.
The plot revolves around Michael Jordan’s life, from childhood to his basketball career. Meanwhile, in outer space, a failing amusement park run by the wonderfully named Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) desperately needs new attractions. After discovering the Looney Tunes, he sends his minions the Nerdlucks to capture them. Thinking fast in the face of laser blasters, Bugs Bunny challenges them to a game of basketball. The Nerdlucks are tiny and extremely short, so this seems like a safe bet! If the Tunes lose, they will go to space and perform in the park forever.
The Nerdlucks then steal the basketball skills of several seasoned pros and transform into giant, hulking abominations, dubbing themselves the Monstars. Bugs realizes he needs the help of the ultimate basketball star: Michael Jordan! But he’s retired, oh no! What are they to do? They kidnap him. I am not sure why so many cartoons use kidnapping as a completely normal response to situations, but I digress. Bugs explains their predicament and MJ agrees. There’s a montage of all the Tunes auditioning for the team (I’m not sure why—they all seem to join anyway) where we are also introduced to the completely throwaway sexy bunny character, Lola.
Lola is introduced with sensual saxophone music and we see a fire in her eyes after Bugs calls her “Doll”. She proceeds to run circles around him on the court and showing that she’s really the only toon who can actually play basketball with any skill. When she walks onto the court for the big game, the camera pans to a crowd of heart-eyed dogs and other animals completely captured by her looks. While she goes above and beyond to prove she’s “not just a pretty face”, the intentions with her design and the way characters react to her are clear. As someone who grew up with a lot of anthropomorphic characters in movies (animals who have human attributes), this isn’t weird to me. What is weird is the reaction to her redesign in the sequel.
Many people online believe her design has been toned down and that she’s not sexy anymore. Firstly—and I can’t believe I have to write this—the picture going around showing off her old design vs the new design isn’t official art, it’s erotic fan art. In it, Lola is posed almost like a pinup model, and parts of her have been…enhanced. I think her new design is cute! She looks like an athlete, with her arm sleeve and comfortable, confident pose. Plus real (as in humans, not cartoons) women in sport wear sports bras that flatten your assets. There’s a lot of things that feel like a better use of Twitter’s time than arguing whether a cartoon rabbit’s boobs are big enough.
To be honest, rewatching the original Space Jam as an adult—the humor falls flat. Slapstick cartoon antics are great when you’re five but not so much when you’re 30. The Looney Tunes were a fairly old cartoon even when I was a kid, with the original run starting in the 1930s and ending in the ’60s. Much of this old style of humor is revolves around extreme cartoon violence which is at odds with playing basketball. It’s a bit harder to work the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote antics into a game with concrete rules when many cartoons have much looser concepts, especially in regards to physics and how loose time seems to work. (Clocks going backwards making the sun return to the sky, etc.) In Space Jam these effects are used for punchlines with no breathing room in between to take in and laugh, so it becomes muddled.
As for the human characters, Wayne Knight plays MJ’s bumbling assistant and I just feel bad for him. He runs after the basketball star into the cartoon world though which is an impressive feat. Bill Murray is here as himself and this feels like the transitional period from classic Murray comedies to the sad old man Murray era. He’s doing an over-the-top smug actor schtick that I frankly just find annoying. He shows up during the finale of the game and does literally nothing.
The final showdown between the Monstars and our heroes the Tune Squad is all over the place, with each character showing off their animation trademarks: the Tazmanian Devil spinning around, Tweety bird struggling to lift the basketball, etc. Probably the most uncoordinated team that has ever existed. Even though the Monstars are literally channeling the greatest players in the world and playing so rough the Tunes are in casts and sporting black eyes, our heroes manage to lag by only one point. (If for some reason you want to know the scores, you’re in luck.)
With 10 seconds on the clock, Michael Jordan realizes he can use cartoon physics and stretches his arm to a frankly grotesque length to land the winning slam dunk. Everyone celebrates and they strap Mr. Swackhammer to a rocket to blast him back into space. The Nerdlucks give back the basketball pros talents and express interest in joining the cartoon world on Earth. MJ returns to the NBA and everyone lives happily ever after!
Children’s films tend to have an underlying message to them. During the climactic basketball game, the Tune Squad is doing terrible. Back in the locker room Bugs takes a water bottle and writes “Michael’s Special Stuff” on the side. Everyone drinks it and buffs out. It is, of course, a lie. The special stuff was inside them the whole time, they just needed to believe in themselves. Another part seems to directly contradict this—the basketball players losing their skills to the aliens. Their talents are an energy that is physically taken from them and they are unable to play without it. After MJ returns their abilities with a glowing basketball, they are reinvigorated and play a game together. So cartoons can have the power of belief but humans can’t? That seems kind of counterintuitive as a teaching moment. Am I reading too much into this? Probably.
It makes me think of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Although not a kids film, it has a similar message but done in a more hopeful way. Austin loses his mojo (his sexual appeal, represented with a vial of red and purple goo) and becomes depressed. Dr. Evil drinks from the vial and becomes instantly sexy, with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” playing. He later smashes the vial and Austin feels hopeless. Felicity, his lady love in the film, tells him it doesn’t matter that it broke because he’s had his mojo inside him the whole time! He just needed to believe in himself. So if a parody of ’60s spy movies can do this message (mostly) right, why can’t a kids movie about sports?
Going back to Space Jam after so long has definitely taken the nostalgia goggles off. It has a few funny moments and I still think the soundtrack absolutely slaps (it went platinum six times!!), but overall it’s just…okay. It feels dated and rushed, like “let’s do everything and see what sticks”. I’m very interested in what the sequel has to offer, with the updated CGI animation and frankly ludicrous-sounding plot. Don Cheadle is a computer AI that kidnaps Instagram famous LeBron James’ son and takes a journey with him into the Warner Bros. Server-Verse. I suppose he has to get him back the only way he knows how: with a basketball game! I’m hoping they go into the world of Mad Max. I need to see Bugs Bunny rocking a spiky leather jacket.