Sunday, February 2, 2014

Space Jam

Space Jam is one of those movies I saw at least once as a kid, only to barely remember it years later as an adult; though I remember liking the movie as a kid (because I was a kid), I eventually began to wonder why exactly I liked it in the first place. What I eventually learned later, however, is that the movie was based on a series of Nike commercials that featured Looney Tunes characters alongside famed NBA basketball player Michael Jordan. In a fit of nostalgia, I recorded the movie on my TiVo (R.I.P. Blockbuster) and found the time to watch it sometime afterwards. After having done so, I found it…to have some problems.

The film opens with a scene of Michael Jordan as a kid (Brandon Hammond) practicing shooting hoops in his backyard, telling his father (Thom Barry) his plans to go big in basketball and then try playing baseball (just like his dad). Years later in 1993, Michael Jordan does just that (Note: This actually happened in real life), however his career is suffering and a publicist named Stanley Podolak (Wayne Knight) tries to help him out, much to Jordan’s annoyance. Meanwhile in space, there is an amusement park called Moron Mountain, and its owner, Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito), doesn’t like how things are going. When trying to come up with a new way to attract customers, his assistants, the Nerdlucks (Pound (Jocelyn Blue), Blanko (Charity James), Bang (June Melby), Bupkus (Catherine Reitman), and Nawt (Celleen Wainwright), who along with the term “Nerdluck” are not named in the movie proper) accidentally come across Looney Tunes cartoons on TV, which Swackhammer decides should be Moron Mountain’s newest attraction (see: Six Flags). The Nerdlucks then travel to Earth, diving towards the center, where it turns out the Looney Tunes live, and seek to enslave them to bring them to Moron Mountain. With a bit of quick thinking, Bugs Bunny (Billy West) and the other Tunes challenge the Nerdlucks to a basketball game for their freedom, which they believe they will win because their opponents are so short. In retaliation, the Nerdlucks steal the talents of other NBA stars (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues), increasing their size as a result, gaining the team name Monstars (now voiced by Darnell Suttles, Steve Kehela, Joey Camen, Dorian Harewood, and T. K. Carter respectively) and beating down the Tunes; this makes the Tunes realize they need extra help. On the surface, while playing golf with Stanley, Bull Murray, and Larry Bird, Michael Jordan is kidnapped by Bugs Bunny (this is an odd sentence) and taken to the Tunes’ world, where he gets an explanation as to the current stakes. While he initially finds himself in an odd predicament, Michael Jordan agrees to help.

The Nerdlucks touching a magic basketball to absorb talent that they stole from
professional NBA players. Don't ask me which Nerdluck is which.

At first, Space Jam’s plot feels like two completely different movies slapped together, but eventually they merge into something a bit nonsensical. Admittedly, while I am not a huge basketball fan, nor do I follow Michael Jordan that closely, I felt the parts involving him dealing with his baseball performance and potential family issues could have been salvaged as its own movie, if done right, but the bits with the Nerdlucks and the Looney Tunes came in and made the story somewhat of a mess. While the movie itself does feature some big-name actors like Bill Murray and June Foray (voicing her respective Granny and Witch Hazel characters from previous Looney Tunes shorts) alongside known NBA players like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, I felt that the actors’ talents were somewhat wasted (including those of the voice actors who took over the late Mel Blanc’s roles), especially given that Bill Murray at the time was (and still is) known for films like Caddyshack and both Ghostbusters movies, not to mention the oft-copied Groundhog Day.

Speaking of comedies, another problem with the movie is its humor. Granted, there is at least one legitimately funny moment, like Bugs Bunny taking a jab at the Mighty Ducks movies, the Looney Tunes in general didn’t really come across as being funny, as one would expect them to be. Their actions are more so based on cockiness and serious revenge than comedic revenge, with any semblance of the latter coming from various clips and maybe something between the Roadrunner and Coyote characters. Sure, the animated characters (that get enough screen time) are animated well, but these Tunes, Tiny or not, are not particularly Looney. And while the traditional animation in the movie is admittedly solid, the CG present is not by today’s standards (given this is a 90s movie, the CG was probably something when it first came out) and doesn’t hold up very well. Some CG was also put into making at least a couple live-action characters, including Michael Jordan himself, seem more slapsticky in the Looney Tunes’ world, however it rather quickly dives into the uncanny valley, making those particular scenes a little difficult to watch.

Bugs Bunny (left) and Michael Jordan (right): together at last.

As with plenty of other movies, the product placement in this movie is rather blatant; the fact that this movie is based on a commercial itself does not help. A particular scene that comes to mind is when Michael Jordan is watching TV while eating McDonald’s, only for the Stanley character to enter the room and awkwardly name off five products in rapid succession. While this was somewhat unavoidable given the nature of the film, this still kind of bothered me as I watched it. Also, on a different subject, I’m not much of a basketball expert, but I’m pretty sure at least 80% of the moves pulled off in the big game near the end of the movie would be considered illegal in real life.

While the movie itself might not be all that great, one thing I can’t fault it for is the soundtrack, which, much like The Transformers: The Movie’s soundtrack was with the 80s, is so 90s that it hurts. Aside from the well-known song “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly (which got referenced in Penny Arcade Adventures of all things), it features artists such as Seal, Coolio, Busta Rhymes, Spin Doctors, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, and many more, which makes the film somewhat of a 90s time capsule, which is probably why the CD managed to get a 6x Platinum in the years since the movie’s release. In short, this is probably the one thing about the movie that I can’t find any faults in. (Speaking of time capsules, did you know that you can still view the Space Jam promotional website to this very day? Check it out!)


One other thing this movie is probably better known for is that it’s the first appearance of a character named Lola Bunny (Kath Soucie), who serves as a female love interest for Bugs Bunny (and whom all the other male Tunes find attractive). Though she displays knowledge of how to play basketball that the other starring Tunes lack, she doesn’t really do much of anything else, much like the earlier version of IDW Publishing’s Drift character in their Transformers comics. However, she has since gained something of a legacy, having a super-powered equivalent on (now defunct) Kids WB’s (divisive) Loonatics Unleashed cartoon and becoming a major player on Cartoon Network’s current The Looney Tunes Show. Needless to say, Warner Brothers seems to have found more of a use for the Lola character in the years since her introduction in Space Jam.

Lola Bunny (right) doesn't really do much of anything in this film.

While it was good to me when I was a kid, Space Jam isn’t a movie that has really held with me since I viewed it again. While the animation (for the most part) and the soundtrack prove to be good, the Looney Tunes themselves feel sort of out of character and the plot is kind of a mess, feeling like several movies cobbled together into one. However, this movie is no doubt likely someone’s guilty pleasure and, while maybe a little outdated, I would recommend this movie as harmless entertainment for children, the movie’s target audience, provided the child in question at least knows who Michael Jordan is. Though it was probably good for me to revisit a movie like this from my childhood, this isn’t a movie I personally would want to see again out of my own volition (though this movie is canon, so make of that what you will).

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