VOD film review: Space Jam (1996)
Mark Harrison | On 03, Jul 2020
Director: Joe Pytka
Cast: Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, Wayne Knight, Danny DeVito, Bill Murray
Where to watch Space Jam online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Sky Store / CHILI
If you’ve not yet got around to Netflix’s basketball documentary series The Last Dance, chronicling Michael Jordan’s career and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season, you might be wondering whether to watch Space Jam before or after bingeing. As it turns out, it fits neatly in between Episode 7 and 8 – an essential text about Jordan, but a ruinous one about the Looney Tunes.
The annals of feature films inspired by commercials include such gems as the Johnny English trilogy and 2018’s Uncle Drew (another sports comedy featuring real-life basketball stars) but Space Jam, suggested by Jordan’s agent after a series of popular Air Jordan shoe ads featuring Bugs Bunny, is the definitive one. It’s most often remarked upon for its surreal premise, but its nostalgia value and gigantic popularity in its time makes it nothing less than a monolithic fluke.
With no fewer than four credited screenwriters – and, we’ll wager, some uncredited interventions from both Warner executives and Jordan’s PR team – this family film sees His Airness, playing himself, recruited by Bugs Bunny for a high-stakes basketball game. Their opponents are hulking aliens from Moron Mountain, who have stolen the talents of Jordan’s fellow NBA players; if the Looney Tunes lose, they’ll be enslaved by failing theme park boss Mr Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito).
There are too many contemporary reviews of this film that credulously recap its many surreal set pieces and logical leaps as if they’re not meant to be funny. The problem with Space Jam has never been that it’s not funny. It’s just not Looney Tunes. Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the gang are present and (mostly) correct, but the story stakes of a major studio film never feel compatible with the characters.
Many of those same reviews criticise Jordan’s acting ability, which is utterly at odds with his perfectly fine straight-faced performance – only Jordan and the mighty Bob Hoskins, at this point, had been called upon to act opposite animated co-stars that wouldn’t be added in until much later. Given how easy it would have been to lose faith in performing some of his lines opposite either green-suited motion capture artists or nobody at all, Jordan carries himself remarkably well in his only major acting role to date.
At the very least, he holds the fort between appearances by “friend of the producer” Bill Murray. It’s only revisiting this in adulthood that makes you appreciate how funny Murray is in this. Similarly spinning off from a series of commercials in which he wants to join the NBA his supernaturally relaxed comic timing is an invaluable asset to a film that otherwise feels as contrived as possible in every other moment.
On the other hand, the introduction of Lola Bunny as a new character with no other characteristics than being a “sexy” girl-rabbit (and Bugs is known for playing that role himself when it suits him) shows the lack of imagination powering the animated end of things. Things do come to life during the second half of the pivotal basketball match, which feels more in line with the anarchy of the football match from Bedknobs & Broomsticks. Then again, if the story requires you to have an entire first half where aliens are beating the Looney Tunes fair and square, there’s a bug somewhere in your Looney Tunes movie.
And yet, between a $230m box-office haul, a six-times-Platinum soundtrack album and mountains of merch, Space Jam is worth more than $6 billion in revenue to Warner Bros. Tiger Woods, Tony Hawk, and NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon were all sounded out about appearing in potential sequels about different sports, but these dead-ends show how big a fluke the original was.
After several failed attempts to make new “Jams”, Joe Dante’s 2003 effort Looney Tunes: Back In Action took things back to basics, but that film tanked in a more competitive family movie market. At the time of writing, LeBron James is set to headline 2021’s Space Jam 2: A New Legacy, and goodness knows what that’s going to look like, especially with Ryan Coogler and Sev Ohanian providing the script.
As for the original, it’s never been more than a blatant cross-branding exercise, but one that’s elevated by Jordan’s commitment to the material and that one inspired gag where a clairvoyant accurately describes the entire plot of the film and her NBA clients rightly walk out in disbelief.