For reasons I cannot really explain, I never saw 1996’s Space Jam until yesterday. Followers of my blog know I’m a bit of a movie lover (hence the blog). Yet there’s plenty of films I haven’t watched. Gone with the Wind springs to mind. I still haven’t caught up with Demi Moore’s take on The Scarlet Letter and it came out a year before this one.
However, I was 17 when Michael Jordan’s collaboration with the Looney Tunes was released in theaters and it was a huge hit. I’m also a massive basketball fan and was an ardent admirer of #23 (who had just won his fourth NBA Championship in the months prior to Jam‘s release). Hell, I even had the soundtrack on CD. It featured Seal’s cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. There was also “Hit ‘Em High” and it featured the divine hop hop quintet of B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes. The biggest hit causes some trepidation nowadays as the picture opens with the crooning of R. Kelly and “I Believe I Can Fly”.
It seems a bit silly to recount the plot all this time later, but here goes. Space Jam takes place in that strange time known as Michael Jordan’s first retirement. That’s when the superstar chose to play baseball and ended up in the Minor Leagues. That aforementioned first scene set to Kelly’s syrupy ballad is actually a touching one that features MJ as a young tyke on the court with his father. Followers of Jordan know why the sequence likely had some emotional resonance with him.
The comedy begins in another animated realm where Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) lords over his minions in a place titled Moron Mountain. That locale is part of an amusement park in need of more sizzling attractions. Swackhammer decides he wants to recruit the Looney Tunes characters (against their will) to join the party. When Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil and others are given the proposition – they challenge the newly formed Monstars to a basketball game. If they win, they’re free to go and resume their normal cartoon hijinks.
Swackhammer won’t go down without some creative team building so he steals the bodies of NBA stalwarts like Charles Barkley, Muggy Bogues, and Patrick Ewing to join his squad. Bugs and company have an ace up their sleeve, however, with the greatest of all time.
The blend of animation and live-action still holds up quite well from the mid 90s. At the time, it was quite cutting edge. This Jam runs just 88 minutes and mostly flies by. Jordan isn’t asked to do Shakespeare here. He plays a version of himself and does it well. The screenplay even has some fun with his many corporate connections by name dropping his many commercial brands (from Hanes to McDonald’s) at one point. Wayne Knight (fresh off being decimated by Dinos in Jurassic Park) plays MJ’s pushy but good-hearted publicist. Jordan’s family (Theresa Randle is his wife) appear intermittently but aren’t really a focus. MJ has a game to win after all and he takes it personally.
Having the Looney Tunes posse allows for plenty of humorous moments. No, this isn’t them at the height of their glory, but they still deliver. Interestingly enough, I found myself wanting the script to delve more into certain subplots. Having been a viewer of Inside the NBA for many years, I have no doubt that Charles Barkley could have been utilized to better effect (the dude’s hilarious).
My overall reaction to Space Jam is that I totally get why it’s become so appreciated. Is it a classic? No. Does it take its limited premise and make it amusing? Yes. In 2021, Lebron James has become the face of his league and that’s warranted the just out sequel. I won’t wait 25 years to watch it and my review of A New Legacy is coming to the blog soon.
Not everything has changed in the last quarter century by the way. Bill Murray shows up out of nowhere at a couple of key times. You’re a Google search away from reading stories about the legendary actor doing that all over the world. Google may not have been a thing 25 years ago, but Mr. Murray popping up unexpectedly to make things better is timeless.
*** (out of four)