October 24, 2021

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‘Space Jam’ – A Beloved Basketball Classic … and Synergy Gone Wild

Before we let our nostalgia for all things “Space Jam” (1996) dictate our feelings for the movie itself, let’s not forget that it began as a television commercial.

In fact, a couple of TV commercials, in which Chicago Bulls basketball superstar and living icon Michael Jordan was paired with the Looney Tunes characters to shill Nike shoes (remember “Hare Jordans”? These are the jokes, kids).

Here’s something to consider — had “Space Jam” become a massive blockbuster (instead of the mid-range hit it was), there could have been a slew of movies made based on popular ads. Can’t you just see it? A Commercial-verse, with titles like “Budweiser Frogs: Fully Loaded” or “Geico Gecko Goes Greek.” Thankfully, we only have “Space Jam 2: A New Legacy” to deal with, but let’s go back to the original.

“Space Jam” is, more or less, exactly as you remember it. The film offers a forced, overly complicated narrative that breaks a sweat to justify the cinematic pairing of Jordan and the cast of Looney Tunes in an intergalactic sports comedy. The result is either silly or momentous, depending on how old you are and how much nostalgia one carries for this brand of slickly packaged lunacy.

The summer of 1973 opener nicely establishes Jordan’s drive for perfection at a young age and the support he received from his father. Too bad the scene is set to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” but oh well. 

It’s a good, heartfelt place to start, and the film seems almost embarrassed by how sentimental it is, because the tone immediately becomes broad and snarky. Then we get Jordan, playing himself, knowingly making jokes about his failed baseball career.

The flashy opening credits are a full-on tribute to Jordan (as is the film itself), so the ribbing he gets while playing himself as an unimpressive minor league hitter is, as expected, extremely gentle.

The movie goes from Jordan’s baseball announcement to swooping up into the cosmos onto “Moron Mountain,” Funny, how the movie almost feels real and personal when the focus is on Jordan, but it becomes a corporate product the minute the toons show up.

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The intrusion of different tones is weird, as we get used to the Jordan segments, then the toons jarringly take over, and vice versa. A touch that wouldn’t fly today is how the alien villain refers to Jordan and the toons: “You’ll be our slaves!”

Later, Jordan makes a deal with the rotten Swackhammer (voiced by Danny De Vito) to be his servant and eternally shackled if he loses. Is the movie telling us that being under contract feels like slavery? Interesting how, for a brief moment, the movie gets all “Blue Chips” on us.

I’m not sure kids would get the references to “Patton” and “Pulp Fiction,” though the nods to “Beethoven” and “The Mighty Ducks” fit the ’90s kids demographic. It feels like the corny, feature length extension of a TV commercial that it is.

It’s pure nonsense at the plot level, but the appeal is seeing one of the greatest sports icons of all time, in his prime, alongside animated characters whose manic nuttiness is a perfect contrast to Jordan’s unflappable coolness. “Space Jam” zips along and winds up kind of weird and, at times, very funny. Perhaps the biggest problem with “Space Jam” is, other than providing an 88-minute tribute to “Your Airness,” and providing a comic workout for the tireless toons, there’s no point.

The glossy CGI and animation impresses, though it fails to fully integrate the real and unreal in the persuasive, far more painstaking and unmatched way present in Robert Zemeckis’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988). Still, when Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck go searching Jordan’s home at night, the animation and live action blend is lovely.

Ivan Reitman, who was at one point attached to direct, still gets producer credit. Joe Pytka, who directed the popular commercial upon which this is based, had previously directed the Richard Dreyfuss gambling comedy, “Let It Ride” (1989), which has a small following, but never made another film after this one.

That’s surprising, as who wouldn’t want to see a new movie “From the Director of Space Jam” touted on the poster?

The jokes are gentle and corny, like Jordan’s owning a bulldog named “Charles.” Having the aliens suck the talent out of the NBA players makes for some hit and miss physical humor, as not every iconic player can handle the light acting chore assigned to them. On the other hand, seeing Daffy Duck turn up as Dennis Rodman is hilarious (and as edgy as this gets).

At one point, Jordan yells at the Looney Tunes, declaring “You guys are nuts!” Correct. That’s why this formula works.

Not long after Daffy displays the Warner Brothers logo on his butt, he lovingly kisses it, a perfect touch. My favorite gag is the hilarious slow pan of the team after taking a beating, sitting on the bench in varying degrees of defeat. For those familiar with an odd contemporary source of dispute, let it be noted that the bizarrely controversial Pepe Le Pew is restrained here.

Jordan is so likable, it doesn’t matter that he can’t act (his legendary status allows him this luxury, though he’s affable and laid back in a way that few movie stars truly are). As a one-time-only film headliner, he at least has a major part of being a leading man down:

Jordan gives great close-up.

As for the supporting cast, a little of Wayne Knight goes a long way. Theresa Randle, the dazzling star of Spike Lee’s “Girl 6” (1996) is bizarrely wasted playing Jordan’s wife (did the majority of her scenes wind up on the cutting room floor or was the role a non-entity on the written page, too?).

Despite the amiable lead and the amusing toon antics, the film’s real MVP is Bill Murray. When Murray takes the court, a toon openly says, “I didn’t know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture.” Another perfect throwaway line. Seeing Murray, Jordan and Bugs Bunny in the same frame is surreal, though historical on some level.

The basketball sequences are fun, though they’re more of a series of slam dunks than a real game. Good luck making a case that this is a great basketball movie. Considering that this is the decade of “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Above the Rim,” the aforementioned “Blue Chips” and the G.O.A.T., “Hoop Dreams,” “Space Jam” is strictly junior league in comparison.

I’ll conclude by mentioning that the film’s very-’90s and charming website is still online, that the famous soundtrack still has some kick, there was never a need for a sequel and that, as a ’90s children’s film, you could do a lot worse.