Originating as a one-off Super Bowl commercial, the premise behind 1996’s Space Jam still feels like something you and your friends joke about rather than a full-fledged movie.
Coming almost 10 years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit successfully blended animation and live-action, Director Joe Pytka (who also directed the original commercial) brought together Michael Jordan (the greatest living basketball player at the time and now arguably of all time) with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes. The result was a film that was panned by critics but has since gone on to become a pop culture phenomenon and a staple of 90s nostalgia culture.
Dismissed by ardent Looney Tunes fans that proclaim Bugs Bunny would never ask nor need Michael Jordan’s help to defeat the evil Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito) and his band of Nerdlucks (later turned Monstars), opinion on Space Jam is largely dictated by how old you are. Much in the same way that the 80s animated Transformers movie or any of the Disney films produced from the early seventies to mid-eighties (Robin Hood, Oliver & Company, etc) holds special reverence in the hearts of people who grew up watching it, Space Jam is regarded as such by those who grew up from the late eighties to early 2000s.
Space Jam opens with R.Kelly’s now-iconic “I Believe I Can Fly” (7 years before he would release Ignition (remix)) played over a young Michael Jordan shooting hoops before leading directly into a montage of Jordan’s highlights set to the Space Jam Theme. In less than 3 minutes before Adult Jordan, Bugs Bunny or even Bill Murray arrive on screen, Space Jam has made its mark. The rest of the film continues along much of the same lines mixing the frantic energy of the Looney Tunes with various pieces of 90s nostalgia ranging from more songs by notable 90s artists (like Seal who contributed Fly Like An Eagle to the film’s soundtrack) to Wayne Knight (famously Seinfeld’s neighbour / enemy Newman in the hit sitcom).
On paper, this mishmash of elements seemingly ill-fitting of one another should not work but it is held together by the ample star power of Michael Jordan. Is he the best actor ever? No, but years of starring in commercials for a number of brands has given him a comfort in front of the camera that other athletes turned actors – chiefly Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Airplane and Howie Long in Firestorm lack (though Kareem is badass in Game of Death). Add to the fact that Jordan spends much of the film acting opposite animated figures, the resulting product could have been much much worse.
Made during Jordan’s first retirement amid his disastrous foray into professional baseball, the incorporation of this transition make Space Jam somewhat autobiographical despite its ludicrous premise. Famously Jordan would play pick up with members of the cast and crew between takes, in part reinvigorating him as he would make his triumphant return shortly after filming (a return that was featured in the film’s finale).
But more than anything, Space Jam introduced Michael Jordan to those unfamiliar with his basketball exploits. Sure, he was making well on his way to being one of the most marketable athletes regardless of the movie but that added exposure elevated him to new heights. With Space Jam, Jordan establishes his career beyond his playing days and not just as a coach or broadcaster but as an icon.
In a cast mostly composed of inexperienced cast full of athletes, Bill Murray shines and reaffirms the tone of the film. A full two years before his Wes Anderson led renaissance in Rushmore, Space Jam is not Murray’s best role in his illustrious career but it is certainly memorable. Despite consistent rumors of a reboot (mostly with LeBron James to star), there really isn’t an athlete with as much worldwide recognition and appeal as Jordan in 1996. Yes, it is completely ludicrous that Michael Jordan would be called upon to help save the Looney Tunes from slavery on an alien planet just as it is equally insane that said aliens would steal their powers from a handful of mid-tier NBA stars but Jordan and Murray with their infinite likability make it work.
This is the type of film that doesn’t get made today because it is neither a massive franchise blockbuster nor is it a small indie awards contender. These middling films that were staples of the 80s and 90s are not nearly as viable in today’s streaming market because surprise box office hits are increasingly rare. Is Space Jam perfect? Far far from it, the narrative if you really think about it is a mess, the acting ranges from terrible to atrocious but it is also a relic of its time, a reminder of the carefree halcyon days of the late 1990s. Born seemingly from one man’s extremely vivid drug trip, no one expected Space Jam to be any more than a long commercial aimed at selling shoes and toys but somehow it has etched its place permanently into pop culture history.