Space Jam (1996)

D: Joe Pytka
S: Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight

Surprisingly effective marketing concept-turned motion picture has trademark and endorsement-laden NBA great Michael Jordan join forces with Warner Bros.' trademarked and patented Looney Tunes in an intergalactic basketball game which takes place mostly in the 'toon' realm. Cheaper (and less clever) than Who Framed Roger Rabbit because of the setting, the film is not necessarily a showcase for cutting edge or experimental animation, perhaps to its benefit. Instead it plays as a broad, slap-happy farce which kids and adults can enjoy, consume, purchase tie-in merchandise for, and then forget fairly quickly. It is fast-paced, has a good quota of wild gags, one or two knowing winks to the audience, and lots of generally good feeling to go around. The result is very watchable, although the faint stench of commodification and marketing hangs over the whole affair.

The plot has an evil alien theme park owner voiced by Danny DeVito send a group of undersized underlings to earth to capture the Looney Tunes and make them work in his park (just because it makes gags about commercial exploitation doesn't mean it isn't an example of it). The Tunes challenge the tiny creatures to a basketball game, presuming their vertically challenged stature will result in an easy victory for the earth critters. Not so. When the aliens study up on the game, they decide the steal the talents of five real-life NBA stars (played by themselves) and transform into a seemingly unstoppable squad of massive monsters. Cue the crossover gimmick as Jordan, now trying unsuccessfully to launch a career as a baseball star, is dragged to the Toon realm to coach and to play.

The plot breezes along and the film gets where it is going without much fuss. There is some pithy thematic stuff about reaching for the sky and achieving one's goals: garden variety mass-market propaganda of no particular import, but on the whole the film is structured around a series of simple comic set pieces. These work, both with human and animated characters (and when they are mixed). Jordan doesn't have to act much, but comes across as a likable personality. The classic Looney Tunes are pretty much themselves (although one misses the delicious rhythms of Mel Blanc's inimitable vocal inflections), and despite the introduction of a politically correct female bunny to one-up bugs, they are let go about their business as befits the moment. Marvin Martian has a nice role as the referee for the big game, and, on the human side, Larry Bird and Bill Murray make entertaining cameo appearances. Eagle-eyed adult viewers will enjoy picking out familiar cartoon faces in the crowd scenes, but kids will probably simply enjoy the antics of Bugs, Daffy, Porky, the Tasmanian Devil, Sylvester and Tweety, and Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote: heck, adults will too.

There is something faintly disquieting about the whole thing though. It is difficult to ignore the board-room element of it, and hard to miss the numerous commercial endorsements both present and implied. Though never laboured, the film's funk-rap nineties style is likely to date it far more quickly than the classic cartoons themselves, and though Jordan is both likable and a major figure in the history of his sport, he will die long before the Tunes do, and the film will seem like a curious anachronism very quickly. These concerns will be less pressing for the majority of viewers than they were for me, and the film is entertaining enough to make them irritating niggles rather than fatal flaws. On the whole, it provides no more or less than it promises, which is recommendation enough in the high concept atmosphere in which it was conceived, created, and eventually released.

Space Jam is relatively harmless family fun for the postmodern consumer generation which will amuse and entertain while it sells products. There are worse things out there than subliminal advertising though, so if you have the free time, the proper audience, and sufficient inclination, why not let it do its job?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.