Thursday, September 4, 2014

Time To Slam

Year: 1996
Director: Joe Pytka
Cast: Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Theresa Randle
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

My friend Brenna is back in town now that summer break is over. And considering that we're trapped in the same apartment together for the next year of our lives, we've deemed it advisable to remain friends. She has since tested my resolve by making me sit through Bee Movie and Space Jam on two consecutive weekends. And how I curse the day I vowed to review every movie I watch.

You see, Space Jam is a peculiar case study. My generation places it on a pedestal of high honor due to its position in the pantheon of children's pop culture at the time we were growing up. But myself, ever the contrarian - even as a toddler - never watched it and thus formed no opinion of it when I was young and impressionable.

So I've watched it for the first time as an adult, immediately putting myself in a position of contrast with literally everyone I've ever met. And, as we know, when we dare to use hindsight in terms of entertainment we loved as children, we take a walk on the wild side. And if you love Space Jam, you have my permission to quit reading now because man, is it just no good at all.

An artist's rendering of the backlash I'll receive for saying that.

Maybe I exaggerated slightly, because there are some valuable pieces of Space Jam, just not as many as seem to be lauded by the pro-Jam camp. I'm a big proponent of any movie that manages to get funding for a ludicrously illogical premise, and the "famous basketballer fights to save the Looney Tunes and also Danny DeVito plays a space goblin" premise is a classic of the form.

So what, exactly, is a Space Jam, you ask? It's a crass, commercial vehicle gone awry thanks to the creativity and lunacy of its creators - the Lego Movie of its day, if you will. Well, if the Lego Movie featured Michael Jordan, a truly psychotic number of classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, and about one kernel of plot to go around.

Space Jam is a fictionalized retelling of Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan)'s retirement from basketball and subsequent return. Except, instead of the reason being sucking at baseball (or whatever - I'm not a sports guy), his return is fueled by an intergalactic cartoon slave cartel. I'm not even kidding. I'm so far from kidding that I'm growing a mustache and filling out a 401k.

Swackhammer (Danny DeVito) is the plump goblin executive of Moron Mountain, a theme park in outer space. He demands that his tiny monster minions (they have names according to online resources, but the movie doesn't grace them with such and neither shall we) travel to Earth and capture the Looney Tunes so he can enslave them and use them in a sideshow.

Because it's a cartoon and it's the 90's, the Looney Tunes' freedom depends on the outcome of a climactic basketball game. When the monsters steal the talent from NBA players and become grotesque gargantuan menaces called the Monstars, Bugs Bunny (Billy West) and Co. recruit ex-star Michael Jordan to save their skins.

The face(s) of pure evil.

This harebrained plot bolts by like a sugar rush, eschewing things like coherent editing or character development in favor of frenzied cartoon violence (and please remember that I come at you after years of slasher movie marathons when I tell you that Space Jam is shockingly violent) and Looney antics. Assuming the core audience is already familiar with the Warner Bros. properties and personalities (a risky judgement call in 1996), the film races toward the finish line with scarcely a backward glance at its estimable canon. So - in spit of its innumerable flaws - at least it's over quickly enough.

There will always be the argument that children's entertainment is allowed to be more low brow than what you can expect from a more mature picture. And that's true - to a point. The zaniness and broad comedy is perfectly acceptable in the context, but just because your hyperactive little goblins don't quite understand metaphors, symbolism, and critical analysis yet doesn't take away the fact that good comedy comes from solid characters, something which Space Jam should have in spades - indeed, assumes it does have - but is sorely lacking.

Sure Daffy, Bugs, Porky, and friends have a storied history. And any self-respecting parent has hopefully sat their drooling little tykes in front of some old Tunes. But the egregious Cliff's Notes characterizations of these classic figures is a downright insult. The perfect example I can come up with is the character of Lola Bunny (Kath Soucie) - an original Tune created as a romantic interest for Bugs. She enters the scene, nails down her singular trait (at least it's a quasi-feminist one), and resides in the background for the rest of the film - the exact same fate that befalls just about every other beloved Tune, save Daffy (Dee Bradley Baker) and Bugs (Billy West).

But Lola doesn't have decades of back catalogue to inform her motivations and comedy stylings. She's an utter non-entity, a sterling example of what the entire cast of the film would seem to be to anyone who isn't a member of the Loony faithful.

She's about as important to the plot as that basketball. Nay, less important.

Just as painful as the whirlwind characterization is the voice talent, though not through any fault of their own (the only cast members to return are June Foray as Granny and Stan Freberg as Chester the Terrier, neither of whom appear in more than about 15 frames each). It's a tough job when your contract reads "be Mel Blanc," but the vocal impressions are just two steps to the left of the classic characters, creating an endlessly jarring environment for an already decidedly un-Loony film.

And the cherry on top of that unfortunate cherry on top (we are now entering the third level of Cherryception) is the funky animation style used to integrate the Tunes with live action footage, never quite managing to give the characters the weight and heft of real creatures who interact with their environment, but 3D-ifying them just enough that tourist trap road signs start appearing for the Uncanny Valley.

Also, I can be fairly certain through copious experience that this film was edited on Windows Movie Maker.

But hey. Let's be nice to a poor old friend. Bill Murray has one of the best extended cameos of the entire decade, the booming thrum of the 90's keeps any hardcore nostalgic on the hook, and the cartoonish human element provided by Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, and a Greek chorus of NBA stars keeps the energy up. 

There's not a ton of Space, but just enough Jam to keep the kids going. I find absolutely nothing to recommend it to the discerning, or even non-discerning adult. That is, unless you are one of the lucky ones who have the nostalgia factor working for you, in which case disregard this review, it's Citizen Kane.

TL;DR: Space Jam is a classic children's film that does not hold up under scrutiny.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1166


  1. I remember when I was just a Trochophore and this film was released to my delight. Michael Jordan was the biggest celebrity at the time. Even I, a mollusk, was wearing a Bulls jersey. Nineties clam for the win!

  2. It's so weird that you misspelled 10/10