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While there shouldn’t be much critical distance between these two films in our memory, the film about Michael Jordan teaming up with the Looney Tunes to beat aliens at basketball is remembered by millennials as a cult favorite and a meaningful childhood cornerstone, while Air Bud, the tale of a dog who learns to play basketball, has gone down in history as a cinematic punchline for what can happen when hypothetical jokes get green lit in Hollywood.
Comparing these two basketball flight of fancy films is a starting point for understanding how nostalgia works. Our memories are often affected by the world around a film more than the film itself. Space Jam has the benefit of the cultural legacy of Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes, and Bill Murray. Space Jam has the benefit of a legendary soundtrack. Space Jam has the benefit of being tied up in our collective memory with Michael Jordan’s early retirement and subsequent triumphant return to the NBA. Most importantly, Space Jam has the benefit of a cultural legacy surrounded by merchandising blitz unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. Millennials are nostalgic about Space Jam because the entire summer of 1996 was Space Jam.
If you eliminate everything buzzing around it and just look back at Space Jam as a film, a 38% Rotten Tomatoes rating feels downright generous.
In light of the recent news that the long-awaited sequel produced by and presumably starring LeBron James is on the way, let’s consider what makes Space Jam so bad, and what forces have kept it alive in the cultural conversation despite the fact that, well, it sucks.
The script for Space Jam is awful. Even by the standard of cash-grab children’s fare, it is particularly poorly structured and executed. One of the surefire signs that a script was difficult to put together is the number of writers on the project. Four writers are credited on Space Jam: the team of Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, and the team of Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod. Director Joe Pytka also took a pass on it. That’s five writers before even accounting for the various brands — Jordan, Nike, Looney Tunes etc.— that must have weighed in at various points in the process.
Both writing teams were experienced and had some impressive credits, but it is clear that all was not well with this script, even after numerous drafts. Director Joe Pytka told EW that Spike Lee was going to be brought in for yet another rewrite, though Warner Bros. declined due to a grudge the studio had with him at the time. Bill Murray’s reappearance at the end of the film was also a late add, written during production, and though Pytka doesn’t come out and say it in any interviews, it sounds like other substantial rewrites took place throughout the process.
Neither writing team was up to the Herculean task of balancing the powerful brands of Air Jordan/Nike and Looney Tunes. While the pairing seems like a match made in commercial heaven (the film was, in fact, based on a commercial), the reality was that neither writing team nor Pytka could make both camps happy and come away with a good product.
The fraught process of writing the script is painfully evident onscreen. Even though the movie has a runtime of just under 90 minutes, the film feels long. While Space Jam is meant to be Michael Jordan’s story, His Airness isn’t brought into the world of the Looney Tunes until a half-hour into the film. Finally after 30 minutes of mostly real-world scenes, Bugs Bunny holds a magnet under a golf green, and the film begins in earnest. Until then, we are bored to tears by a plot involving Jordan’s short-lived baseball career and far too much exposition.
Part of the problem is that Space Jam is partially a children’s movie and partially a propaganda film meant to rehabilitate the myth of Michael Jordan. Jordan retired from basketball in his prime to play minor league baseball after the death of his father. Everyone in America found this strange, considering his legendary, competitive nature. Jordan’s reasoning was met with scrutiny, and speculation ran rampant that Jordan’s retirement was the result of a secret gambling suspension.
Even if then NBA commissioner David Stern and Jordan didn’t reach a backroom agreement, it’s hard to argue that the myth of Jordan couldn’t have used some smoothing over following the publication of a book about his gambling problem and the unceremonious end of his very mortal minor league baseball career. Though Jordan had launched his basketball comeback by the time filming of Space Jam began, he hadn’t yet reestablished himself as an all-time great. His legacy was in doubt.
The plotting of Space Jam makes a lot more sense if you consider the film as an attempt at polishing Jordan’s image. Why do we have the saccharine teaser with a young Michael Jordan and his father hooping in the backyard? Why do we spend time convincing the audience that Jordan really likes baseball? Why do we linger on Mike’s big comeback at the end of the film instead of focusing on the resolution of the film’s plot? It all makes more sense if you view Space Jam as a piece of branded content and political spin.
Even though Jordan is finally in the world of the Looney Tunes after thirty minutes, the film continues to struggle to fill the time until the climactic showdown between the Tunes and the aliens finally begins. One particularly unnecessary sequence involves Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck going back to the real world to get gym shorts that Michael forgot, even though he is going to be given a uniform by the team mere minutes later. It’s almost as though the film’s mere existence mattered more than its content.
Further plot padding is provided by a weak B-Plot involving other NBA players. The “MonStars,” the alien team that want to kidnap the Looney Tunes as slaves for their intergalactic theme park, have sucked the abilities from real-life basketball all-stars. The film makes the ill-advised choice to cut back to Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and other ballers dealing with their lost abilities. Scenes where one athlete is acting are hard enough, but when you have five NBA players and no actors beyond bit players in a scene, you are sunk before you even begin.
Once the matchup between the Tunes and the MonStars finally starts nearly an hour into the movie, Space Jam becomes enjoyable. This is likely the sequence your childhood memory looks back on most fondly, and admittedly, the thirty-minute long cartoon basketball game is filled with good bits and gags. The iconic climax where Jordan extends his arms ten feet to the basket as MonStars hang off of him isn’t just a good bit, it is compelling drama.
Unfortunately, through adult eyes, it is all too little too late.
There are two ways to make a sports movie: you can teach actors how to be athletes, or you can teach athletes to be actors. If you look at any list of the best sports movies of all time, you see that the former works better than the latter. There are no real-life athletes with leading roles in Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, or Hoosiers. When you opt to go with athletes as actors, script problems aren’t going to be fixed by performances.
If you are going to use real-life athletes, you need to balance them out with actors who can save a scene and create laughs when acting opposite a brick wall. Uncle Drew learned the lessons of Space Jam and made sure to add more comic relief characters to counterpoint their cast of basketball stars. Bill Murray and Wayne Knight work admirably opposite Jordan here, but the other basketball players aren’t given any name actors to save their tragically unfunny beats that comprise far more of the film than you remember.
There is even criticism to be leveled at the Looney Tunes. While you get the Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig you paid for, Lola Bunny is one of the worst female cartoon characters in film history. Lola was created as a “female merchandising counterpart” to Bugs specifically for the film, and it shows.
Veteran voice actor, Kath Soucie, can’t save Lola, who is written to do little more than stand their and look (uncomfortably) sexy. While we understand that almost every Hollywood film needs a love interest of some kind, perhaps Lola could have been interesting and funny like Bugs, instead of an unneeded infusion of sex appeal into a G-rated film.
In the ’90s, representation often meant simply including a female character, not necessarily going the extra distance of including a good female character. We still have a long way to go, but you get the sense that Lola Bunny would result in a rash of critical think pieces from Jezebel and Bustle today.
With a terrible script, a lackluster cast, and a director who would never direct another feature after Space Jam, how has this film endured in our collective memory at all? As previously mentioned, it is more useful to consider Space Jam as branded content than as a film. Our collective memory of Space Jam is more like our memory of “Nothing But Net” commercials or beloved Nike ad campaigns. Images and moments are seared in our heads more than scenes and characters.
In the mid-’90s, Looney Tunes and Michael Jordan had far more cultural cache than they do now. Kids loved wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Tasmanian Devil to school with a Chicago Bulls Starter Jacket over it to keep warm. Space Jam was first and foremost a cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of both brands and create profitable synergy. Along with the film’s premiere came an absurd number of merchandise tie-ins, from Happy Meals to phone cards. Much of the fondness those in their late 20s/early 30s feel towards the film today may actually be a result of blanket merchandising that filled every child’s environment with Space Jam products for an entire year.
One example of the power of the massive Space Jam merchandising machine was the soundtrack. In the ’90s, movies, like Armageddon and City of Angels, had music that is better remembered than the films themselves. The Space Jam soundtrack was everywhere during the summer of 1996, and would ultimately go platinum six times over. Many millennials’ childhood memories are still set to R.Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Space Jam” by the Quad City DJs as they replay in their mind’s eye.
Space Jam was not a good movie, but that didn’t matter. Space Jam was more than a movie. It was a cultural juggernaut, and now it has become a cultural artifact. Space Jam made $230 million on an $80 million budget, but that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. The film was a successful commercial assault on an entire generation of children, and we can’t begin to quantify how much money it made the various companies and figures involved. Beyond the Air Jordans and Bugs Bunny T-shirts sold because of the film, you would have to add up all of the Happy Meals consumed, the Mugsy Bogues jerseys purchased, and the Tweetie Bird night gowns stocked at Wal-Mart thanks to the film’s success. One attempted tally of the film’s “global economic impact” estimates $6 billion in revenue.
Nostalgia for Space Jam does seem kind of foolish in hindsight, but you really can’t blame the millennial generation for indulging the subpar cartoon. After all, for one summer, Space Jam was everywhere. The movie was just the way that it got to us. Space Jam is both the Trojan Horse and the mountains of profit contained within. There was nothing we could do. For better or worse, 1996 was Space Jam.