With the NBA Playoffs are underway, let’s look back 20 years to a film which took a Nike commercial featuring one of basketball’s most beloved players teaming up with a cartoon rabbit and extrapolated it into an 88-minute mix of animation and live action which now serves as a nostalgic memoir of the ’90s: Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in a big-screen adventure called Space Jam.
The mid-90s were a weird time for Jordan, and this lighthearted film captures it perfectly. After achieving just about all he could on the court at North Carolina and then the Chicago Bulls and the 1992 Summer Olympics Dream Team, Jordan decided to leave the game with which he already become synonymous to see if he could parlay his talents literally into another field by becoming an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox minor league team, the Birmingham Barons.
I remember the day it happened. I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and worked as a dorm desk attendant where many of the basketball players who hoped to follow Jordan’s footsteps with the Tar Heels lived. Center Serge Zwikker picked up a newspaper on his way to breakfast and couldn’t believe the headlines. “Come, my friend, we must go eat and make sense of this,” he said to me in his thick Dutch accent before I ended my morning shift and joined him in the cafeteria to help sort things out.
Oddly enough, North Carolina and making sense of Jordan’s retirement are very much at the center of Space Jam. The film starts in 1973 with a pre-teen Jordan practicing shots in the backyard of his unspecified North Carolina home when his father tells him to come in for the night. A determined MJ begs to shoot a few more hoops so one day he might be good enough to play for UNC and the NBA, and while the elder Jordan is impressed with his son’s hoop dreams he admits he hopes his aspiring athlete might play Major League Baseball one day instead.
Fast forward to a news conference where Jordan says he no longer has a desire to play basketball. He’s happy his father saw him play his last NBA game, so it is now time to try baseball. Jordan subsequently remains a celebrity in any sports arena, but his time with the Barons finds him less than a champion and often, oddly, accepting charity from opposing teams. To distract himself from an ongoing slump, Jordan plays a round of golf with pals Larry Bird and Bill Murray while his PR handler Stan (Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight) keeps tabs on him.
Unbeknownst to Jordan, the proprietor of the intergalactic amusement park Moron Mountain Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny Devito) has hatched a plan to capture the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters to serve as his new attraction. Apparently, the Looney Tunes spend their animated lives in the center of the Earth, and Swackhammer’s minions challenge Bugs Bunny and friends to a basketball game to determine their respective fates despite the hidden fact that Swackhammer’s team has stolen the talent of NBA players, including Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues, to give them an edge.
Every the charmer, Bugs pulls Jordan down a golf hole and recruits him to help the cartoon characters win their freedom. What follows is a family-friendly sports adventure that offers a few genuine laughs when making a wry commentary on the merchandising of sports but sadly falls short when it comes time to show any real heart or respect for athletic achievement.
I understand many people feel nostalgia for Space Jam and its place in ’90s culture, but anyone out of puberty who views it will easily see how it was a simple money grab for both Jordan and Warner Bros. In fact, when Bugs and foil Daffy Duck question why they never get paid for all the merchandise their mugs are on, the proceedings get downright transparent in pursuing the money-making agenda.
I did chuckle when Daffy and Bugs pipe up to say “You ever see any money from all that stuff? We gotta get better agents,” but when the run time has already been replete with references to sports drinks and special brands of basketball shoes, the jokes land flatter than any free throw Shaq ever shot.
Another disappointing turn in the film involved the introduction of a female rabbit for Bugs to lust after, the ingeniously named Lola Bunny. She shows up out of nowhere (I guess it would not do in the homophobic 1990s to have Bugs crossdressing in a big-budget movie as he had so many times before in classic cartoons) to offer her assistance, only to be condescended to and treated almost solely as an object of lust.
Even though Lola proves her worth on the basketball court and offers a feint feminist rebuttal to Bugs’ sexist attitude by saying “Don’t call me doll,” the objectification of women almost immediately continues when Charles Barkley bemoans his new lack of roundball proficiency by muttering “It was this girl, five feet nuthin’. She blocked my shot.”
Blatant sexism aside, the film’s greatest failure is that it never pays tribute to Jordan’s athletic prowess in any way other than to have him as the star player and coach of the Toon Squad. The animated adversaries making up the “Monstar’ team are fairly generic brutes who muscle their way all over the Warner Bros. team in the first half of the contest because simply giving his Airness the ball isn’t enough to keep the Toons from getting skunked 66 to 16.
Jordan tries to motivate his teammates, but their only previous athletic training had been to work out once with Richard Simmons (again, it was the ’90s, and I guess the Warners had a piece of those Sweatin’ to the Oldies VHS cassettes) so his words fail to inspire. Bugs gets the idea to have Michael offer his players a water bottle full of “Michael’s Secret Stuff” as a placebo to get them back in the game, but that liquid courage can only get them so far.
Ultimately Jordan, with the help of Knight and Bill Murray, save the day and return topside, where MJ decides to give the NBA one more chance after restoring the stolen skill sets to the live-action ballers.
So, what are impressionable children (presumably the target audience for this tale) or anyone else to take away from all this? Other than trying to honor your deceased father’s dream, I am not sure.
The Looney Tunes only showcase of animated versions of Harlem Globetrotter skits on the court and don’t develop any tenants of teamwork or tenacity during their trial. They simply rely on the best player ever to lace up his trademark sneakers to carry them the whole time. It all seems like an opportunity to deliver a message about persistence was thrown out in order to pimp more merchandise with Jordan, Bugs, or both, on it.
Another disappointment is when Bugs doesn’t seem to learn anything about his misogynist attitude towards Lola (or maybe females in general). He attempts chivalry by pushing the object of his affection out of the way when one of the Monstars is about to squash her, but then he steals a kiss from Lola Bunny at the game’s climax in what could be interpreted as sexual aggressiveness (if animated rabbits can be accused of such behavior.)
And sweaty Michael Jordan doesn’t change much as a result of Space Jam either. His infamous penchant for sports gambling is on display when he offers to take the place of the Toons on Moron Mountain if they lose the game, but there really is no reason for him to showcase such selflessness. Should the audience celebrate the fact that he ponied up a chance never to see his briefly glimpsed (and barely mentioned) wife and kids again on the outside chance he can’t champion over yet another challenge? Sadly, I am not sure.
In fact, I am probably overthinking all of this. Space Jam is children’s entertainment and you probably should view it for just that, but the only real highlights in it for anyone else two decades later are the occasional witticism of Murray and the songs on the soundtrack.
The music ranges from ’90s hip-hop parody by the “Whoop There It Is!” duo known as Tag Team, a soulful seductive song about loving basketball by Barry White and Chris Rock, and an inspired cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” by Seal and the underused inspirational tune “I Believe I Can Fly” by pied piper of R&B (and later pee) R. Kelly.
Yet even that great song calls out for more than Space Jam is willing to offer, and it only briefly plays
when Jordan is practicing in his North Carolina backyard and then again when he decided to hang up his baseball cleats and take it to the hoop once again. Maybe the audience is supposed to get emotional when Jordan returns to the baseball diamond via a spaceship and the uplifting music swells, but I only felt someone was trying to sell me Space Jam: The Soundtrack when R. Kelly was signing his sweet song about determination and self reliance.
Ultimately, the stark truth about Space Jam is revealed if you stick around past the eight minutes of credits. Porky Pig has uttered his classic line letting the audience know “That’s all folks,” when Jordan lifts the Looney Tunes logo out from under his animated co-stars to stare directly and blankly at the viewer to ask “Can I go home now?”
The answer may be in the words of another famous Tar Heel, Thomas Wolfe in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again:
It’s this way: you work because you’re afraid not to. You work because you have to drive yourself to such a fury to begin. That part’s just plain hell! It’s so hard to get started that once you do, you’re afraid of slipping back.
Maybe MJ knew this truth far too well, or maybe he just needed the money. He certainly did not need the work. We can only hope Lebron James never gets so hard up for cash that he seriously considers making Space Jam 2: Monstars’ Revenge.
- 88 minutes, rated PG
- Director: Joe Pytka
- Starring: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, voice of Danny Devito, Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, ’90s NBA
- Cinema Scoreboard rating: Many foul balls and errors, but the game is saved by Bill Murray and a bumpin’ 90s soundtrack; C