Retro Review: Space Jam

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March Madness Retro Review.

Did any of this movie actually take place in space?
Did any of this movie actually take place in space?

We’re at the end of March Madness, so I’ve saved up the best for last.  No, not Hoosiers.  Or Coach Carter.  Or any other respectable Basketball movie.  I’ve saved up a movie that simultaneously fills me with nostalgia and loathing.  Space Jam.

This movie has aspects so terrible, it nearly qualifies as a Movie That Ruined My Childhood…but it also has one of the best soundtracks of any sports movie and some fairly entertaining humor.  The competition between the crass commercialism of the project and the fun premise makes this movie a real head-scratcher for me.  Do I enjoy it for its jams and breezy concept or do I hate it for its non-stop shilling and puerile pandering?  Let’s find out.

Space Jam (1996)

jam evilDeep in outer space, on Moron Mountain, a vile business man running a failing amusement park decides he must capture the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes in order to return to profitability.  The aliens, called nerdlucks, attempt to intimidate the toons, but they’re having none of it.  As a lark, Bugs Bunny and the gang challenge their would-be captors to a basketball game, the result of which will decide their freedom.  The toons are sure of victory, but the nerdlucks manage to swipe the basketball talents of several NBA pros such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing.  This infusion of hoop-skills cause them to change into towering basketball behemoths called the Monstars.  Crap out of luck, Bugs and Daffy are forced to find a secret weapon in the person of Michael Jordan, who has retired from basketball in order to suck at playing baseball.

Sup, nerds.
Sup, nerds.

What’s Hot

The key to keeping Murray from being obnoxious at a basketball game is apparently to let him play.
The key to keeping Murray from being obnoxious at a basketball game is apparently to let him play.

For an animated/live action mash-up featuring the Looney Tunes, the strength of this film is actually the live action actors.  Jordan is charming and engaging, and he’s surrounded by comedic talent such as Bill Murray and Wayne Knight.  The swindled NBA stars have numerous funny short sequences as they deal with being powerless on the court, many of which are great.  Muggsy Bogues and Patrick Ewing have hysterical therapy sessions in a sports hospital, and Charles Barkley ends up in church, promising God he’ll stop being such a jerk on the court after having his ass handed to him in a pick-up game against a group of teenage girls.

Give it to me straight, doc, will I ever grow?
Give it to me straight, doc, will I ever grow?

The basketball sequences are only so-so, but are enhanced by the tremendous soundtrack.  A who’s who of R&B, and each song fits excellently into the action.  I think the CD from this movie went on to make more money than the film itself!

What’s Not

Seriously, why was this a thing?
Seriously, why was this a thing?

In the 90’s, the Looney Tunes were re-inventing themselves as hip and subversive.  While the long running Warner Bros. property was always more adult than Disney, and often just a wink and a nod away from becoming a burlesque, this new iteration was crass and crude.  Racey jokes, violent pratfalls, and social satire always had its place in the Warner Bros. cartoons, but now they were they only elements, and often lacked any charm or subtlety.  This was the era where Looney Tunes traded in T-shirt and backpack merchandising for foul-mouthed Yosemite Sam mud flaps and Tweety Bird giving you the finger from a truck decal.

All the majesty of 1990's green screen.
All the majesty of 1990’s green screen.

The final basketball game has a few nice nods to the classic sensibility, such as Elmer and Yosemite Sam dressing up as Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction, and many classic characters using their cartoon talents to score points (Wile E. Coyote blows up the Monstars, Pepe Le Pew gets an easy lay up when the other team smells him, and Bugs constantly dresses up in disguises to dupe the opponents.)  The action just doesn’t ever feel very exciting.  Jordan tries to look regal dunking over non-existent opponents, but never appears to be actually working against any resistance.  There just aren’t really any stakes when the toons can cheat to win and Jordan could probably actually win a game against ten foot tall aliens.

Merchandising Merchandising!

Pictured: hardcore cartoon tie-in cred.
Pictured: hardcore cartoon tie-in cred.

The “product placement as movie” trend seems ubiquitous now.  The Lego Movie, Battleship, Transformers, and more all seem like excuses to sell merch instead of tell any actually decent story.  Space Jam is the quintessential sell-out.  The movie was just a gimmick to sell Looney Tunes merch and make a billion dollars on a dope soundtrack.  I actually laughed when rapper Coolio got pissed at Weird Al for covering Gangster Paradise, saying his mocking cover hurt Coolio’s cred.  Cred?!  Dude, you just made a song for a Looney Tunes movie about cartoons playing basketball.  What the fuck you talking about, cred?!  Give me a break.

At the end of the day, this movie is pretty much only memorable for its music jams, not it’s basketball jams.  The Looney Tunes tried to get raw and “street” and ended up by making a mockery of their brand, as evidenced by how completely non-existent they are to this day.  If you want a doopey basketball farce, I’d rather watch Air Bud than Space Jam.  At least that dog actually had to be able to make a real shot.

You just got dogged.
You just got dogged.

 

 

 

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