What the Hell Was That? – Space Jam (1996)

space jam

So, let’s talk about bad movies for a moment.  The strange thing is that when we talk about bad, it can fall into several different categories.  There are movies that are so bad that they become entertaining as a goof (like The Room or Battlefield Earth), which I talked about before in another article.  Then we’ve got those movies that are bad and forgettable, barely leaving an impression on the viewer long after it’s seen.  And then there are those movies that are so unbelievably bad that they not only create a bad viewing experience, but they leave a bad taste in your mouth long after you’ve seen them.  These are the worst kinds of movies, the ones that you wish you could un-see, but can never seem to shake off, and they just linger there in the back of your mind making you hate them even more.  Everyone remembers those kinds of movies, and whenever someone points out what is the worst film they’ve ever seen, they’ll usually have an answer ready to go depending on how many movies they’ve seen.  I for one have seen my fair share of flicks and there are quite a few that stick out in my mind as being some of the worst cinematic experiences that I’ve ever had.  These movies have left such a distinct impression on me that I felt I should devote an entire series of articles to explain just exactly why I hate these movies so much.  In these articles, I plan to highlight each particular cinematic tumor that I’ve come across and pick apart exactly why these movies have drawn my ire.  Just remember that these are my own personal reactions to these films; sometimes I’ll be touching on a movie that some of you may actually like or love, and I don’t hold that against any of you.  I only want to use this series to explain the reasons why I believe these movies affected me in the wrong way, and hopefully some of you out there will understand my way of thinking, and may even agree with some of it.

So, what horrible movie should I take apart to kick off this series.  Well, I figure I should go with the movie that for the longest time I referred to as my least favorite and most hated film; 1996’s Space Jam.  This movie was a unexplainable disaster on all fronts for me, and the first movie that I can remember feeling genuine hatred for when I was growing up.  The movie dropped into theaters just at about the same time I was entering high school and was also starting to gain a strong interest in film and film-making.  Had I been a bit younger, I may have had a different reaction, seeing as Space Jam was marketed to a younger demographic, but even still, I think the younger version of me might have cried bullshit on this movie as well.  So, why do I hate this film so much?  There’s too many things to pinpoint; the horribly unfunny screenplay, the meandering and pointless story, the one note performances (especially from it’s headlining star), the crass commercialism, the shameless hero worship, the lackluster animation, and probably most egregiously it cinematicly ruined three things that I genuinely love in this world: Looney Tunes, Nike Shoes, and Bill Murray.  To put it into simpler terms, this did not feel like a movie to me.  Instead it was something designed from the very beginning to capitalize on name brands in the guise of a compelling story.  This was the first movie that I recognized as a kid as being purely a marketing scheme and nothing else.  It may not have been the first movie to be purely made for that purpose, nor the last (Transformers), but it’s the first one that really opened my eyes to the whole idea that some movies had no interest in telling a story at all but rather were more interested in selling us on a brand, or in this case, multiple brands.  But, then again, what else would you expect from a movie based on a commercial.

Space Jam holds that dubious distinction of being the only movie in history spawned off of a television commercial.  The Nike corporation in the early 90’s wanted to highlight the launch of their of their Air Jordan sneakers with an ambitious ad campaign starring their namesake, NBA Icon Michael Jordan.  Jordan proved to be the right spokesperson for the time,  undoubtedly being the most popular athlete in the world during the 90’s.  Jordan’s clout as a basketball superstar needed to have an out-sized ad campaign that could live up to it, so Nike called upon the Warner Brothers Animation Studio to help out.  Utilizing the massive stable of characters from Warner’s Looney Tunes series, both Nike and the Animation giant created one of the most ambitious TV ads ever made up until that point.  Starring Michael Jordan and WB mascot Bugs Bunny, the 90 second ad premiered in 1993 and was highly praised by both sports and animation fans alike.  I liked the ad quite a lot myself, and still do this day.  It does everything that it needs to do, and with a clever sense of humor befitting the legacy of the Looney Tunes cartoons.  The ad features Bugs and Jordan fighting Marvin the Martian and his team of giant alien birds on a space set basketball court in order to retrieve a large collection of stolen Air Jordans.  It’s a simple, charming premise that’s executed perfectly.  Not only does it make Jordan and his shoes look good, but it also shows a surprisingly funny side to the NBA star that we hadn’t seen before.  Amazingly, he holds his own opposite his animated counterparts too.  Naturally, the campaign was a huge hit, making Michael Jordan a strong pitchman for his brand as well as turning Nike into a marketing juggernaut.  But, there were some at Warner’s that felt that more could be explored with this premise and thus, a full length feature was put into prodution.

Now, what works in a 90 second ad doesn’t translate well into 90 minute movie, and Space Jam is proof positive that it should never be done.  The premise is stretched so thin here, that there is scarcely anything of substance left.  The story of Space Jam is painfully generic, and basically just comes down to praising it’s star and showing how amazing he can be without ever earning the right to do that.  We find Michael Jordan in the middle of his real life mid-career retirement from basketball being pulled into the world of the Looney Tunes.  The Tune,s it turns out, have been invaded by an alien race who have challenged them to a basketball game in order to force them into enslavement at their overlord’s amusement park.  Bugs calls upon Michael to help them train so that they have a chance against the mutated aliens.  And that’s pretty much the story right there, all within the first 20 minutes.  The movie is all one convoluted excuse to get us to a big game showdown where Michael Jordan will undoubtedly save the day.  Nothing else of interest happens.  There’s even a pointless 10 minute scene in the movie where Bugs and Daffy Duck must break into Jordan’s home and steal back his Air Jordans.  Why?  Couldn’t Michael have gone there himself?  Why does he have to stay in Toontown while Bugs and Daffy can cross between worlds effortlessly?  It’s just many scenes of pointless filler in this movie leading up to a game that no one cares about by the end.  And thus, we see one of the many problems with the movie; the horrible story.  Here we have a film that’s trying to fill the gaps of a stretched out premise by falling back on easy laughs and cliched setups.  The original ad had a premise that was quick and tight for what it needed to be.  When you add nothing to that for a full-length running time, all you’re going to do is highlight the gaps inbetween.

And the stretched out premise also highlights the other big flaw of the movie, and that ‘s Michael Jordan himself.  Jordan, I’m sad to say, doesn’t have it in him to carry a movie.  His performance in the film is wooden and devoid of charisma, which is extremely confusing given that he’s basically playing himself here.  Perhaps he didn’t get any acting lessons during the film’s production, because he just seems lost here.  From stilted and monotone line readings to almost seeming like he’s devoid of emotion throughout the entire movie, Jordan clearly proves that he cannot act.  Some of that is the fault of the lackluster screenplay, which gives his on screen character almost no development, but you should expect Jordan to show at least a little enthusiasm.  Jordan’s stilted performance feels especially out of place alongside his cartoon co-stars, who are almost too wacky for their own good here.  And it also feels out of sync with the basic underlying message of the movie, which is to show how amazing a person Michael Jordan is.  Jordan never earns the right in the movie to be called amazing, other than what he shows on the court.  We learn nothing about his character; what makes him an interesting human being, nor what appeals to his heart.  He’s just good at basketball; that’s all this movie tells us and somehow that’s supposed to mean that he’s the greatest person ever by the end.  At least the Nike ad campaign showed a lighter, playful side to Michael Jordan.  Why is that missing here?  I think the movie might have worked just a little better if someone else with a little personality stepped in and filled Michael Jordan’s shoes instead.  For one thing, I would have rather have seen someone like Charles Barkley in the lead role instead (he does appear in the film in a minor role).  Barkley is not much of an actor himself either, but his natural personality would have at least been a better fit for this film’s tone, considering that Barkley is a bit of a cartoon character himself both off and on the court.

But, it’s not just Jordan that sunk this movie; it’s the quality of the production as well.  The movie just looks poorly made to begin with.  It’s devoid of style, particularly in the live action sequences, and both those and the animated sequences clash in some very jarring ways.  Another big problem is the fact that the animation used for the Looney Tunes here is just not very good; but not in the way you’d expect.  The reason it looks bad is because the animation looks too polished; too Disney-like.  What set the Looney Tunes apart was the fact that they weren’t like Disney, and that their cartoons had a slight edge to them, not putting too much emphasis on detail and fluidity but instead emphasizing the effectiveness of the gags.  It’s a formula that has worked for them since the days when Friz Feling and Chuck Jones were directing the shorts, and it worked brilliantly for them.  But, in the 90’s, when Disney saw a resurgence with the likes of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), animation standards seemed to be raised and Warner Brothers felt that they needed to follow Disney’s example.  The problem is, it doesn’t work with the Looney Tunes.  The gags and very exaggerated expressions that worked for them before fall flat in the fluid Disney style, and it makes the Looney Tunes feel out of character for the most part.  Bugs and Daffy aren’t nearly as zany as they’ve been before and they feel almost neutered by the new animation standards.  Not only that, but the new alien characters are also ugly and uninteresting in design.  The Alien Overlord (voiced by Danny DeVito) is about as generic as you can get as stock villains go, complete with an ever present cigar in his hands throughout the movie.  What was wrong with Marvin the Martian from the commercial?  We can at least laugh at him.  One only has to look at another Animation/ Live Action hybrid called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) to see how to to make this kind of movie in a stylish and inventive way, and that was almost a decade before this.  Why, even the Nike commercial had better animation, because it maintained the edginess of the past Looney Tunes shorts.  It’s a clear example that crisper animation doesn’t always make for a better movie.

But, there’s also the crime of wasting so many talented people in such a crash, commercial exploit that really angers me about this film.  It’s more than just the waste of good animators working out of their element.  Warner Brothers and Nike clearly dug deep to fill their movie with top tier names, all seemingly put here to reinforce the majesty of Michael Jordan.  Beyond the presence of the Looney Tunes, we get more NBA All-Stars in the movie like Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues, all of whom have to rely on Michael Jordan to get their talent back from the aliens who stole them.  If stealing talent was so important, then why didn’t Michael have his stolen as well?  Either way, it’s weird in the movie seeing these talented players reduced to victims while Michael is spared to save the day; although they do get the one gag in the movie that does work (when walking down a hallway at a hospital where they’re recuperating, all the 6’5″-plus players bang their heads on a low hanging door frame, except the 5′ 4″ Bouges who walks on without noticing).  But, most egregiously, the movie spoils the cinematic talent of Bill Murray; one of the funniest actors ever.  Murray clearly is in this movie purely because of his huge Chicago Bulls fandom, but there’s nothing for him to do.  Not only that, he shows up to participate in the movie’s climatic basketball game without any explanation and contributes absolutely nothing to the scene.  It’s a huge wasted opportunity and shame on you Space Jam for making Bill Murray not funny.  That’s a crime against humanity in my opinion.  The only person in the movie that seems like he’s actually trying to do something worthwhile is actor Wayne Knight, here cast as Jordan’s personal assistant.  He’s basically cast as the cliched, overweight comic relief (as if we needed it in a movie with cartoon characters), but damn it, Knight tries his hardest to give some semblance of character in this movie that’s devoid of it.  Again so much talent wasted to create a self-aggrandizing movie for it’s star who doesn’t feel comfortable being there in the first place.  It all makes the end result pointless in the end.

As you can see, I have a lot of issues with this movie.  And the sad thing is that there could have been a lot of potential here if the people who worked on it actually gave a damn in terms of story and character.  Instead, we get a movie that feels more like a blatant commercial than the actual commercial that it was based on.  I still resent this movie today, mainly because of how it wasted every bit of goodwill that it potentially could have had and ruined some of the cherished things of mine on the big screen.  Truth be told, it didn’t ruin them for long; both Bill Murray and the Looney Tunes have made comebacks over the years in some very good projects since, and of course I still will buy Nike shoes over all other competitors.  But, what still troubles me is that there’s still a strong following for this movie that continues to this day; so much so that plans for a sequel are underway with LeBron James taking over the lead role.  I don’t know why the movie still continues to have a legion of fans; they may geniunely like the movie or they fell hook, line and sinker for the film’s blantant commercialism.  I myself did not buy into it for a second.  It’s still one of the most crass and disingenuous movies I have ever seen, and I’ve also learned that I’m not the only one who has felt that way about the movie.  Chuck Jones himself was highly critical of the film, saying that he felt that the Looney Tunes characters strayed too much from their original versions and that some of their one-liners were too inappropriate and out of character as well.  Needless to say, it’s a movie that I needed to vent on about in this blog, and hence, that’s why I created this new series.  The only sensible reaction that I can sum up for a movie like Space Jam is to say “What the Hell Was That?” and that’s why I’m making that the title of the series.  I will be covering more movies like this in the future, including some controversial picks, and hopefully I lay out my list of grievances in an impactful and persuasive way.  In the meantime, go watch a good sports movie instead or even a live game, and stay far away from Space Jam.