Space Jam - Guilty Pleasure
Tell me, have you ever been fortunate enough to have grown up with some good old-fashioned cartoons of yesteryear? From Mickey Mouse to the Looney Tunes to Tom and Jerry and so forth, they defined slapstick and animation at their absolute finest and became the ultimate staple of revolutionary art, as well as great comedy.
Well, get a load of this: when I was a kid, I was acquainted with the Looney Tunes, but through a different, more unusual method: through the NBA-Looney Tunes crossover, Space Jam.
This movie followed the life - half the time - of NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who just retired and settled for baseball with the Birmingham Barons, albeit with uncertainties over his career choices. Meanwhile, on a planet called Moron Mountain, a group of aliens known as the Nerdlucks were ordered by their boss, named Mr. Swackhammer, to find the Looney Tunes - in person - and kidnap them as exhibitions for their theme park. Thinking they were insufficient because of their size, at first, the Looney Tunes ultimately decided on a fateful match of basketball against the aliens. However, as the aliens understood the sport better, they navigated the Earth to find the best NBA players in the field and hijack their bodies so they can steal their talent for themselves. Once they returned and finally harnessed the stolen talents, the aliens transformed into a group of humanoid aliens called the Monstars, complete with their acquired basketball talents. As a last resort, the Looney Tunes decided to track down Michael Jordan, who was out golfing with his pals. Soon, the Looney Tunes, plus Michael Jordan, banded up to master their basketball talents, with Michael relearning his, and formed the Tune Squad as they anticipated the basketball tournament that would've settled the fate of the Looney Tunes themselves.
When I was a kid, basketball was one of my small pastimes, and the sport was mostly all the rage back then, so my brother and I were most excited to see Michael Jordan, one of the all-time basketball superstars, at the top of his A-game with the classic Looney Tunes characters.
Which reminds me...I didn't know about this until just recently when I discovered that Space Jam was inspired by a series of commercials. Many of them were for Michael Jordan's signature brand of sneakers, Air Jordan sneakers - among other things - and he made them in copartnership with the Looney Tunes. And yet, that still begs the question as to how Jordan came to collaborate with such iconic cartoon characters. I mean, it's like seeing Tiger Woods team up with Mickey Mouse, or the Olsen twins team up with Tom and Jerry. But in the case of Jordan and the Looney Tunes, they were a big hit on the airwaves, enough so that it prompted the production of a feature-length movie all about Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes playing basketball together. This time, the stakes were raised for them by having them fight off against aliens from another world.
Now, the first thing I will say about this movie is that sadly, the plot was just a mess. One moment, the film focused on Michael Jordan and his thoughts on his sports career, while other times, it shifted to the Looney Tunes and the aliens as they duked it out over who would have had the upper hand in their basketball game. It even felt as if the movie could easily have been on the Looney Tunes while the Michael Jordan plot was kept to being just a side plot. The movie insisted that it was about Michael Jordan and his life choices, but the structure of the movie gave off the impression that it decided to spend a portion of the movie showing us the life of Michael Jordan, and then decided to pull him into the world of the Looney Tunes without much focus except for that of the Looney Tunes.
The characters in the movie were quite varied. Michael Jordan, besides being one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, simply lulled about unsure of where his baseball pursuits would have led him. And then, when he got acquainted with the Looney Tunes, he was suddenly thinking that he might as well give them a helping hand. Also, I was surprised over just how casual he took it when he got acquainted with the Looney Tunes, of all characters, in all their existence, as in, flesh-and-blood existence. Same thing with his children, Jeffrey, Marcus, and Jasmine, who were simply just around and even helped the Looney Tunes with some of their searchings, again with the same kind of extreme casualness.
Stan Podolak, the Barons' publicist who was tasked to accompany Michael Jordan, was a bit of a goofball, as he took his job as a bodyguard, if you will, very seriously to the point of becoming something between a confidant and obsessed fan whenever he accompanied Jordan. And I think he could have made his conversations with Michael Jordan a lot less awkward if he simply told him the magic sentence: 'Your manager sent me'.
The Looney Tunes characters themselves still maintained some of their classic personalities from the classic shorts. Bugs was still the wisecracking trickster, Daffy was still the sarcastic duck who complained about the things thrown his way, Porky was still the stuttering pig, Yosemite Sam was still the hotheaded cowboy, Elmer Fudd was still the bumbling hunter, Tweety was still the savvy bird, Sylvester was still the sly cat, and the Tazmanian Devil was still as wacky as ever. And, halfway through the movie, we, the audience, were introduced to a new character, a female rabbit named Lola Bunny. She was a talented cartoon character with a knack for basketball, and she eventually became Bugs Bunny's love interest.
Regrettably, however, unlike the other Looney Tunes characters... she was not written with enough hijinks, depth, or charismatic charm to her. Throughout the movie, she was just there to be the Looney Tunes' more talented basketball player, as well as their sexy stand-in - especially for Bugs - and of course, take umbrage with being called 'doll'. Because of that, she fell flat as a compelling female co-lead.
At this rate, I ought to compare her to three female characters who I knew very well because of how much their characteristics and interest factors outweighed their fanservice: Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin, and Misty from Pokémon. Yes, each of these ladies showed off some skin and became the subject of every boy's fantasies, but they were memorable because they had some identifiable personalities to them. Ariel was spirited and adventurous. Jasmine was sassy and determined. Misty was stubborn and expressive. Those facets in their personalities made each of them go down as role models in the eyes of girls everywhere, and for the right reasons. It even got to a point where, if these three characters showed up in different outfits, it would have made no difference if they showed skin. And that's a sign of good characterizations among women.
Of course, it's one thing if Lola Bunny fell flat as a compelling female co-lead, but it's another thing entirely if she also fell flat as a new addition to the legendary Looney Tunes ensemble. The only major female characters who were ever established under that umbrella were Witch Hazel and Granny. Lola Bunny, if done right, could have been a very interesting character if she established some comedic quirks of her very own. But no, the movie just made her be the movie's sexy character, and nothing more. That prompts me to compare her to two more characters, inevitable as this may be: Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck. They each were established as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck's girlfriends, but they worked because they showed unique personalities that, in some ways, benefitted them and even complimented those of their boyfriends. Minnie Mouse, though not sophisticated, still had a bubbly attitude that jibed nicely with Mickey's more dashing, modest demeanor. And Daisy, more often than not, felt more like the more resolute half to Donald's wilder half, with her almost always taming Donald's inner beast whenever he lost his temper. For those reasons, those respectable personalities left Minnie and Daisy as recognizable characters for years and years, unlike what Lola Bunny started with. Her introduction, besides being the brains behind basketball, barely contributed anything to the Looney Tunes, or especially to Bugs Bunny, in a big way.
That's the bad news, anyway. The good news is, if you want to see Lola Bunny done right, catch a few episodes of her on The Looney Tunes Show. Unlike Space Jam, this Lola Bunny, voiced brilliantly by Kristen Wiig, showcased a genuinely comedic personality that ultimately jibed well not only with the other Looney Tunes characters but more importantly, with Bugs Bunny, too. This was the Lola Bunny that Space Jam would've deserved.
As she was in Space Jam, however, she was the definition of a missed opportunity.
The little aliens sent by Swackhammer to kidnap the Looney Tunes were a bumbling group of aliens who each surprisingly left behind some decent impressions. One thing I liked about them, despite their overall silliness, was that as little as they were, they were not naive and knew how to deal with who they knew were threats. This especially became true of them as they hijacked such NBA superstars as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley, and Muggsy Bogues, and robbed them of their basketball talents. And once they transformed into the Monstars, they were huge, menacing, aggressive, and were more intimidating thanks to the talents they stole.
Ultimately, of course, they, just like Lola Bunny, never left enough of a mark enough to be, as Bugs described them, 'looney enough.'
But I'll tell you what I do find loony enough: Moron Mountain itself.
At first glance, this theme park may look like an amusement park from Hell, and it may have felt like such...had it not been for Mr. Swackhammer being a complete narcissist.
No, seriously, when you look closely at the little we see of Moron Mountain, the entrance, half of the attractions, even some of the ceiling illustrations in Mr. Swackhammer's office, they're of nothing but his face plastered everywhere. In fact, why did he call his theme park and even the planet Moron Mountain, anyway? What was the aliens' taste in recreation? Did Moron Mountain get founded under the very egotistical viewpoint that Mr. Swackhammer had of the other alien races around him? Just the mere implications of what went on just seemed funny in and of themselves. At this point, why rely on the Looney Tunes when he had enough of such looniness of his own?
Speaking of whom, Mr. Swackhammer was just a snarky, egotistical guy who was greedy enough to order the kidnapping of the Looney Tunes and use them for his struggling theme park. And frankly, I found that idea on his end to be outlandish. Nothing about him was that interesting or intriguing, though his pursuits did leave me wondering what he did to some of the other alien nations, and how much of that could've been done all in the name of the welfare of Moron Mountain.
And, of all the characters who appeared in the movie, the weirdest and most pointless one in the movie was Bill Murray, starring as himself. He just showed up as another friend of Michael Jordan, along with Larry Bird, as he started contemplating partaking in the basketball field for the NBA. And, during the last leg of the ultimate basketball game, he showed up at the last minute to fill in the Tune Squad's then-vacant 5th spot, finally being allowed to live up to his wish of playing basketball. This was a classic example of a Deus Ex Machina...although, I will admit, Murray's explanation as to how he made it down to the Looney Tunes' world was pretty funny:
Daffy: Just how did you get here, anyway?
Bill Murray: The producer's a friend of mine. Just had a teamster come and drop me off, you know.
Daffy: Uh-huh. Well, that's how it goes.
The producer in question was Ivan Reitman, with whom Bill Murray teamed up for their mega-smash hit, Ghostbusters, and that turned this Deus Ex Machina into a cheeky bit of fourth-wall breaking. What made this even more humorous was that earlier in the film, there was only one way the humans can reach the Looney Tunes' world from theirs, and that was through the golf holes at the Birmingham Pines Country Club. If I'm being honest with myself, this was the closest that the live-action portions of Space Jam ever came to capturing the slyness of the original Looney Tunes formula.
Nevertheless, I still found Bill Murray's involvement in the movie pretty confusing. I mean, I can't see there being a reason for Bill Murray to be roped into a movie like this unless it was for star appeal. Did Murray know Michael Jordan in real life? And has he ever expressed even the slightest interest in basketball in real life? That'd be interesting to find out since I know he was a baseball fan. In fact, wouldn't it have made more sense if Murray met up with Michael Jordan during one of his baseball games? And maybe have it where Murray caught on to Jordan's basketball talents to the point of wanting to partake in basketball himself? Minimal as that may be, that would have made him a little more interesting while putting his star power to slightly good use.
Now, as much as I would've wanted everything I've pointed out so far to have been made better, there were plenty of things about Space Jam that still made it fun.
To start things off, while I still think that the acting from the live-action half was pretty weak and standard, the one live actor who gave his character, well, character, was Wayne Knight as Stan Podolak. Never mind the fact that him following Michael Jordan around, even if that was part of his job, was slightly overkill, Knight gave his character a certain giddiness and affability to him that only made him more likable as a character. Even Michael Jordan, even though he was not as good an actor as he was a basketball player, still had his moments. Maybe it was his basketball talents and ways of reacting to the crazy scenarios that made him a little tolerable here in Space Jam.
And, while Wayne Knight was the standout actor for the live-action half, there was one actor from the animated half who stood out a bit for me. And that would be Danny DeVito as Mr. Swackhammer. The way he made Swackhammer arrogant and demanding while throwing in hints of intimidation to him, really helped his character feel more like a threat despite his character's shortcomings.
Ultimately, however, I still have as big a soft spot as I do for Space Jam for four reasons.
One is the animation. I enjoy just how colorful and crisp it all was. It pertained to the physics of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons while it also was spiced up with a certain aesthetic to make it look like it was updated for the 21st century. The characters all moved fine, they all spoke fine, and their body movements felt very in sync with the animated half's cartoony nature.
While I find the design of Lola Bunny to be a little misdirected, the Nerdlucks were animated quite nicely. The quintet looked like they were small, scrawny little weaklings with enough oddness and out-there qualities to them to make them look, as far as aliens go, unique and delightful. And when they transformed into the Monstars, it was even better. Not only have the aliens gained a serious level of intimidation at that point, but the animators were pretty clever about designing them with the likenesses of the NBA players they robbed. I think that if anyone knew the NBA players from the movie inside out, they could tell right away which alien robbed who. It was all very nicely articulated, and the characters were very nicely portrayed this way.
I especially liked this one cartoon that Jordan's kids watched on TV, with the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. Starting as a rerun of "Beep, Beep", they were up to their usual shenanigans, with Wile. E. Coyote being on a tightrope with an anvil in his hand. Then, all of a sudden, Porky Pig arrived, actually asked for the cartoon to be stopped, and told them both of the emergency union meeting they had to attend. Then, the Road Runner sped off with Porky trying to catch up, while Wile dropped the anvil he was carrying so he can catch up, too, only for the line he was on to fling him into the air...
...and that's it! No "That's all, folks" catchphrase, no TV test card, no nothing! The camera just stuck to that one shot for at least five seconds. If I saw a live cartoon broadcast and saw something like this happen, I'd have been just as bewildered as Jordan's kids were.
The second is the blending of that animation with live-action. Whether it's animated characters in a live-action setting or live-action characters in an animated setting, the effects applied to all of them and their worlds still left me with the impression that these characters and worlds were real, and that they coexisted alongside each other. Even when I saw Michael stretch his arms, or get smooshed into a ball, or saw Stan get squashed flat, you could feel a bit of their impact, like the cartoon physics could easily have happened to them at any given moment. Now, as to how the Looney Tunes world was located underneath North Carolina, of all places, that's anyone's guess.
The third is the voice acting. Yeah, I know that Wayne Knight and Danny DeVito did a great job with their characters, but the voice actors of the original Looney Tunes characters had enough fluxations to give them all the distinguishable characteristics that made them so legendary. Whether their characterizations were faithful to the cartoons or not, there was no bad performance I could remember from any of them. Even the voice acting on the new characters was something to be admired. The actors of the Nerdlucks did a nice job of giving them rascally yet curious, uncertain, and determined voices that gave the impression that they were trying to appease his boss. And as the Monstars, the actors made them sound like tough guys who were proud of what they gained out of the NBA players' talents, once again while trying to please his boss. Even Kath Soucie, the voice actress of Lola Bunny, despite the sultriness in her voice, still gave her enough of a likable voice to elevate her character into a level of slight modesty. That's what kept her from being a complete bore as a character.
And believe it or not, the fourth reason this movie drew me back was the soundtrack.
This part of the movie provided a uniquely flavorful, diverse collection of songs that allowed the music artists to put their talents to great use. They ranged from the funky 'Space Jam Theme,' to the rhythmic 'For You I Will,' the proud 'Fly Like an Eagle,' the witty 'Basketball Jones,' the upbeat 'Givin' U All That I've Got,' and I swear, one of the most beautiful, passionate songs you will ever hear from R. Kelly.
I know that what this guy did in his later years was messed up beyond all reason, but this song still resonates with me just because of how powerful it is. I dare you to listen to it and not feel it touching your soul.
You know what? I might as well throw this in to get you guys interested.
This soundtrack even went on to become one of the highest-grossing soundtrack albums of the 1990s, and impressively so, I think.
The more I think about it, it occurred to me that the animated half of the movie felt much stronger than the live-action half. Regardless, Space Jam had a bit of a cult following thanks to its stylish imagery, blending of the classic with the modern, a mix of live-action and animation, and, for better or worse, new characters who were thrown in to compliment the classic Looney Tunes characters. And while I still respect Space Jam for toying around with those ideas and for looking as attractive and stylish as it could have been, Space Jam was looney for both the right and wrong reasons. Michael Jordan's acting was wooden, and part of it felt more like a product of the times more than it was a promising new story to be told of basketball and the Looney Tunes.
Is Space Jam the slam dunk as I remember it? Of course not. But, thankfully, it still had enough good shots to keep me hooked for a little while longer.
My Rating: C+
— Come on, Michael. It's gametime! Get your Haynes on, lace up your Nikes. Grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade. We'll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the Ball Park.
Why do I get the feeling that Stan just summed up Michael's entire promotional background in that one conversation?
— Just so you don't get the wrong idea, Michael Jordan hopping from playing basketball with the Chicago Bulls to playing baseball with the Birmingham Barons and then back again did happen in real life. It was just modified a little for this movie.
— The movie took its time to dwell on how things went down for the NBA players after their talents were stolen. They seemed like they were still the regular, famous basketball players, except they absolutely tanked at basketball. For example, Charles Barkley, while wandering the streets, was asked to play basketball with a ragtag group of kids once they recognized him. But then, he did absolutely nothing but block the players and try and fail to catch and dribble the ball. He was so bad at that point that he was dismissed from the group, being mistaken by them for a talentless lookalike.