Space Jam is quite possibly the most “90s” movie ever made. Not that I’m saying it’s one of the definitive films of the 1990s, but it perhaps best sums up how outright bonkers movies in the 1990s could be. Known equally for the absurdity of its premise as it is the fact that its original website still remains intact today (only recently being updated for the first time in twenty-five years to feature the trailer for its upcoming nostalgia-fueled sequel), Space Jam is nothing short of a 90s fever dream of a movie.
Trying to summarize the 1996 film sounds like you’re just pulling a bunch of random names and words out of a hat… which may in fact be how the film was made to begin with, come to think of it.
The story revolves around NBA icon Michael Jordan, and how he’s pulled out of retirement by the Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the whole gang) to help the cartoon characters win a basketball game to prevent them from being enslaved by an alien amusement park in space. If you didn’t grow up watching it, that probably sounds like the weirdest idea for a movie ever. In fact, it may sound that way even if you did grow up watching it.
Yes, Space Jam was one of those live-action/animation hybrid movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though that’s about as far as the comparison with a genuine movie miracle like Roger Rabbit should go. Space Jam is a nostalgic favorite for 90s kids, but it isn’t really what I would call a good movie, though it may still be worth a watch for the sheer absurdity of it all.
The movie was a big deal in the 1990s for a number of reasons: partly because it was Michael Jordan’s acting debut, and also because it was a big cinematic return for the Looney Tunes. Though whoever the hell decided those two things should be combined must have been some kind of madman. But I do remember the merchandising and advertisements were everywhere back in the day.
To elaborate a little more on the plot, the story takes place during the time Michael Jordan had retired from basketball and became a baseball player. He’s having trouble adapting to his new career, and feeling out of place. So things start off as a kind of fictionalized biopic. And then we travel to the far reaches of space, where a cartoon amusement park called Moron Mountain is losing business (maybe giving a theme park a name that insults its guests wasn’t the best idea). The boss of the amusement park – a fat, goblin-like alien named Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito, because of course) – wants a new attraction that will bring crowds back to Moron Mountain. At that very moment, Swackhammer’s colorful lackeys happen to be watching Looney Tunes cartoons, and Swackhammer decides the Looney Tunes will be Moron Mountain’s new star attraction. So he sends his goons (diminutive creatures called Nerdlucks) to Earth to kidnap the Looney Tunes. Yes, this is the same movie as the Michael Jordan story.
When the Nerdlucks manage to find the home of the Looney Tunes (which is apparently at the center of the Earth, I guess), Bugs Bunny tricks the aliens into thinking the Looney Tunes are required a chance to defend themselves in a friendly competition before they can be enslaved (with the Tunes picking the competition, since their freedom is at stake). With the Nerdlucks being such small creatures, the Looney Tunes choose basketball as the deciding competition, figuring it will give them an easy win.
Things look good for the Looney Tunes, but the aliens have a trick up their sleeve. Travelling to the surface world, the Nerdlucks steal the talent from basketball greats of the time: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Patrick Ewing. And thus, the pintsize Nerdlucks transform into the hulking Monstars! This puts the freedom of the Looney Tunes in severe jeopardy, so the Looney Tunes do what any reasonable person in a crises would do: kidnap Michael Jordan through a golf hole! Duh!
It only takes a couple of short minutes for Michael Jordan to be convinced the Looney Tunes are real, and only a few more for him to agree to help them in their basketball game. And so the stage is set.
Oh yeah, and Bill Murray shows up as himself sporadically for some reason (an element which the film itself makes fun of later on). Also Wayne Knight is in the movie as Stan Podolak, a publicist who wants nothing more than to please Michael Jordan, and is strangely the only person who seems concerned when the NBA legend goes missing.
Do you need a minute to take all that in? I don’t blame you if you do. To be fair, the movie is entertaining in its own way, and the enjoyment isn’t always ironic: there’s some good Looney Tunes humor to be had, the blending of live-action and animation is among the better post-Roger Rabbit examples of the sub-genre, and Michael Jordan’s acting is actually pretty decent, considering he was an athlete with no acting experience at the time. The film’s soundtrack was well received (particularly “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”). And Wayne Knight is a highlight of the film whose comedy bits might just outdo the Looney Tunes themselves (but then again, when isn’t Wayne Knight a highlight?).
So I don’t dislike Space Jam, but it is more of a hodge podge of random elements strewn together in a mad frenzy than it is a good movie. This is evidenced by the sporadic pacing of the picture, with a number of what should be key scenes just flying by. An example of this is the aforementioned moment when Michael Jordan meets the Looney Tunes. “You’re a cartoon, you’re not real” Jordan tells Bugs, before the famous bunny proves how real he is by giving Jordan a massive smooch, which is apparently all it takes for Michael Jordan to completely accept this alternate cartoon reality and not question any of it ever again. And when we finally get to the big game, it just kind of suddenly happens with little build. Really, the only thing of note that happens in between Michael Jordan meeting Bugs and the big game with the Monstars is when Bugs and Daffy travel to the surface world to retrieve Michael Jordan’s basketball gear from his house, which kind of tells you how little there was to the plot outside of the key premise (though the subplots with Stan Podolak digging to find Michael Jordan and the NBA players with stolen talent no longer being able to play basketball are kind of fun). But if all you’re looking for is some 1990s insanity, you could do a lot worse than Space Jam.
Space Jam has had something of a lasting legacy: it introduced Lola Bunny to the Looney Tunes franchise, I Believe I can Fly became one of those rare movie songs that took on a life of its own, and that damn website just won’t die. But like the film itself, Space Jam’s legacy is comprised of assorted bits and pieces, as opposed to a truly memorable whole.