Like any self-respecting 90’s kid, I loved Space Jam. I had a Space Jam duffel bag, I’m sure I had Happy Meal toys, I still think “Get Ready for This” is a great song…the basic package. And yet, while I certainly didn’t forget it (how could I?), I didn’t really remember a whole lot about it. It never captured my imagination the way Who Framed Roger Rabbit did–while I’ve seen that film a good 20 times at least, this afternoon’s watching of Space Jam might be only the second time I’ve watched it all the way through. Let’s see how it holds up.
I think we all know the premise. Dinky monsters from Moron Mountain try to capture the Looney Tunes to become hot new attractions in their amusement park. Bugs challenges them to a basketball game, thinking they’ll be easily beaten. Instead, the monsters steal the talent of several NBA players (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, etc.) and become the fearsome Monstars. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan is making an unsuccessful foray into baseball, and when the Looney Tunes suck him into their world and recruit him to play for them, it doesn’t take much persuading to get him on their team. And, as you know, Bill Murray saves the day.
Like I said in my intro, Space Jam didn’t stick in my memory the way Roger Rabbit did. And there’s a reason for that: it’s not nearly as good of a film. The writing isn’t as sharp, the animation isn’t as crisp (and its marriage with the live-action footage isn’t as impressive), and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t have a strong villain–Swackhammer isn’t even remotely in the same league as Judge Doom, and the Monstars aren’t really up to the standard of the Weasels.
But Space Jam doesn’t make any claims to be another Roger Rabbit or, indeed, to be anything more than it is. And, to focus on the positives, it is quite fun. At a lean 87 minutes (and that’s including credits), it never overstays its welcome–we’re not far past the halfway point once the climactic game begins, and that moves by quite quickly. The are no musical longueurs or extended bits of schtick to wear out one’s welcome; hell, compared to the brisk pace of the film itself, the opening credits (which are lot more like the opening credits to Enter the Void than I find comfortable) feel positively interminable.
There’s a drawback to the briskness, though, and it plays into what I’d say my own really legitimate issue with the film is: the Looney Tunes themselves are kind of underutilized. Not that they have nothing to do, but I could have foregone the scene of Charles Barkley attempting to play basketball with a group of teenagers (and failing miserably) in favor of an extra couple of minutes of Looney action–especially since Barkley’s loss of talent has been thoroughly established. Bugs and Daffy easily get the most to do (including an amusing scene where they sneak into Jordan’s house and encounter his children), but even they feel like supporting players compared to Jordan.
It’s good, then, that Jordan actually does a pretty solid job. Yes, he’s playing himself, but his delivery is natural and he never tries to play up the dramatic beats–he keeps things relatively low-key, which works. The film doesn’t have Jordan attempt to deny the reality of the situation; he accepts that he is Looney Tunes world instantaneously, and it makes his performance all the more effective. He wisely didn’t push his luck in future film roles, but his fans should be very happy with his work.
Only two other members of the human cast are really worth mention: Wayne Knight plays Stan, the publicist for Jordan’s baseball team, who becomes Jordan’s fawning gofer. Knight’s shtick wears thin at times, and here he feels more distracting than funny. In an already cartoony film, further comic relief feels superfluous. Bill Murray, on the other hand, has a fun supporting role as a rendition of himself who dreams of basketball glory–but doesn’t quite know what to do with it when he gets it. My feelings about Murray run hot and cold, but he was quite enjoyable here.
The other NBA players (Barkley, Ewing, Larry Bird, etc.) are fine. They don’t have much to do–though Ewing has a rather risqué moment (for a kids film) when a psychiatrist asks him if he has trouble “performing” in areas besides basketball. (His response is a quizzical smirk.)
The voice actors are another matter. Billy West’s Bugs is fine (though he doesn’t nail the voice as much as I’d like), as is Dee Bradley Baker’s Daffy; Bob Bergen’s Porky, however, is pretty bad (Porky’s writing here isn’t too good, either). West, Baker and Bergen all voice additional characters, none of them outstandingly well. Danny DeVito as Swackhammer (CEO of Moron Mountain) is fairly lackluster, though the bland nature of the role really doesn’t help.
Animated films are usually written by committee, but anytime a film has four credited writers, tread at least a little cautiously. There are actually two separate writing teams credited: Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick (who wrote The Santa Clause) and Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod (who wrote Trading Places, among other things). That the film at times seems to want to be aimed at adults–the E.D. joke, the Pulp Fiction reference, etc.–might well be the work of Harris and Weingrod, and the film could have used a little more of their wit. For every good line or clever moment, there’s a lot of unmemorable dialogue or jokes that don’t come off, and those are likely the work of Benvenuti and Rudnick. Really, the script suggests a case of too many cooks. It’s far from disastrous, but it doesn’t sparkle. Also, Lola Bunny–a character created for the film, seemingly a love interest for Bugs but also a skilled athlete who holds her own in the final game–is pretty much a dud, having little to do and less personality. I don’t know if she was meant to evoke memories of Jessica Rabbit, but she’s certainly not a memorable character in her own right.
Joe Pytka’s direction (Tony Cervone and Bruce W. Smith directed the animation) keeps the film clocking along and keeps the energy level high throughout. I’m not sure I’d call Pytka’s artistry outstanding, but it’s never lacking either. The animation is a bit rough at first (I believe it was the old Videohound DVD Guide that pointed out how over-airbrushed the characters are), but it resolves itself well enough, and the final game is quite well done. The rest of the technical contributions–Michael Chapman’s cinematography, James Newton Howard’s score, Sheldon Kahn’s editing, Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design–are all as they should be. Not exemplary, but quite serviceable.
The soundtrack, featuring R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (which, oddly enough, didn’t get nominated for an Oscar), “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstar’s Anthem)” featuring no less a lineup than B-Real, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J and Method Man, and Monica’s “For You I Will”, is roughly the most 90s thing ever, along with the film itself–since when else would an NBA star co-star with the Looney Tunes in a feature film? Oh, and let’s not forget the title song by the Quad City DJs and 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” (not on the soundtrack, but heard in the film), which was not written for the film, but which is awesome:
It’s 90s nostalgia that really makes Space Jam a classic, and that’s both a blessing and a curse; I can’t imagine anyone born after 1993 (excepting those with older siblings who were fans) will give a shit about this film. It’s incredibly 90s in that regard–I’m not sure how accurately I’m putting it into words, but there’s a strangely ephemeral quality to 90s pop culture that Space Jam embodies. It’s not timeless, it doesn’t transcend its nature, and only those born in a certain window (I’ll say about 1981-1993, give or take a couple years on either end) will get the full effect, but for those of use who do…get ready to jam.(I have to mention, in case you didn’t already know, that the original website is still standing, exactly as it was in 1996. Enjoy: http://www2.warnerbros.com/spacejam/movie/jam.htm)