I did not grow up in a cinema family. So the release of July 21, 1996 Space Jam, when I was 12 years old, I went largely unnoticed. Then, in the swamp of pop culture backlog, I somehow crossed over Space Jam and Spaceballs in my head. In the end I untangled them and eventually I saw it Spaceballs. But until recently, I had never seen Michael Jordan play basketball with … the Looney Tunes?
But even in the pop culture (and sports) desert that I mainly inhabited in the 1990s, I knew who Michael Jordan was. Everybody knew who Michael Jordan was. He was all-powerful and ubiquitous, hawking sneakers, McDonald’s, cars, cereal, soda – all on top of ruling the basketball court. Due to his dominance in the sport, it seemed natural that he was everywhere. I haven’t seen a lot of NBA basketball, but I had seen the 1992 Dream Team. I knew that man.
I have recently become curious about it Space Jam again because, as everyone seems, I watched The last dance. The 10-part ESPN documentary series (the last two episodes will be broadcast this Sunday evening) is more entertaining than I expected. I hadn’t fully realized how much fun it would be to watch Jordan for hours, interspersed with different figures. I only vaguely remember telling different versions of what went on behind the scenes of the 90s professional basketball scene. Moreover, there is Jordan himself who talks about his career, his memories, his thinking process and his urge to succeed.
Jordan owned the only rights to much of the Chicago Bulls footage during their 1997-1998 season, which is one of the two main storylines going through The last dance (the other is about Jordan’s career). One from Jordan provisions for participation in the project (directed by Jason Hehir) was that he would always have the last word, so of course the series reflects his point of view.
As a result, there is very little attention to the topics a documentary like this would otherwise explore – the personal life of Jordan, his family, his love life, what he likes to eat for lunch and other things fans often want to know. The last dance (much it seems, like Jordan himself) is only interested in Jordan’s personal, extrajudicial life as far as the game is concerned. There is enough about the horrific death of his father (James Jordan was murdered in 1993), about gambling in Jordan and the media circus around it, and about arguments and splashes between players, but nothing too vulgar, nothing that really feels like pulling the curtain back.
Therefore, the Space Jam things (or rather the lack thereof) stand out. The last dance achieved filming Space Jam in its eighth episode; production of the film began in the summer after Jordan returned to the NBA at the end of the 1994-95 basketball season (following a rapid succession of his father’s sudden death, his unexpected retirement a few months later, and a subsequent stint in minor league baseball).
The last dance describes how part of Jordan’s contract with Warner Bros. determined that the studio would give him a gym to exercise in so that he could seamlessly return to basketball in the fall. After filming every day, Jordan pick-up games with an endless stream of players ‘passing by’ his Space Jam co-stars (Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson) to guys who just wanted to play, ranging from Dennis Rodman, Grant Hill and Juwan Howard to Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller – and a lot more.
But Space Jam itself is largely obscured, a footnote to the topic: basketball. In The last dance, the entire Space Jam Jordan’s period of life mainly serves to show again how committed he was to the sport. There is relatively less talk Space Jam self.
So I finally decided to check it out.
Space Jam is a potentially unparalleled franchise mash-up
I had not registered how big a hit was Space Jams (it was cheeky more than $ 230 million worldwide), or whether the sixfold platinum soundtrack was the launch of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”, or whether it generated a whopping estimated $ 6 billion – that is six billion US dollars – by playing merchandising and video games and comics.
And I really didn’t expect what I saw when I sat down to watch the movie with my husband, who was very excited to revisit one of his early teenage favorites. Space Jam, if you haven’t seen it, it has about as much plot as a Looney Tunes cartoon. The basic setup is that a villain named Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), owns a floating intergalactic amusement park called “Moron Mountain” (not the only Disney visible excavation in this movie). Swackhammer decides that the only way he can increase his enthusiasm for his wicked appeal is to kidnap the Looney Tunes from Earth and condemn them to a life of ‘swavery’ (as Elmer Fudd later calls it) as entertainers in his park. So he sends his followers, doofy little creatures called Nerdlucks, to do his commandments.
When the Nerdlucks arrive on Earth to kidnap the Looney Tunes, the Looney Tunes have none of it. But they decide the issue of … I think the Tunes may or may not become “swaves” … by playing basketball. This is the idea of Bugs Bunny, because the Looney Tunes tower over Nerdlucks (Bugs gets a second bill for Michael Jordan in this movie); if Bugs and his other Tunes win, they will remain on Earth.
Unfortunately for the Looney Tunes, the Nerdlucks can soak up real basketball player skills, which they do by attending an NBA game and undermining the talent of five players – Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues. They transform themselves from Nerdlucks to “Monstars”: big, colossal players who could squeeze the Looney Tunes under their feet.
Bugs feels trouble and decides to seek help in the form of Michael Jordan. Jordan plays minor league baseball (as he was indeed not too long before the film’s release), but he agrees to help the Tunes. And he does that. In the end everyone lives happily ever after, except maybe Mr. Swackhammer who, let’s face it, was a miserable cretin at first.
Space Jam is visionary in his own way
A goal of Space JamIronically, perhaps Swackhammer’s goal, was to raise the Looney Tunes flagship for a new generation. And it worked to a certain extent: merchandising and future ad campaigns with the Looney Tunes, often in combination with Jordan, were common in the late 1990s and made a lot of money.
But the much larger and much more obvious purpose of it Space Jam was to fill in the Michael Jordan mythology. While his status as the greatest basketball player ever on the field was never really questioned, his image was a little bruised in the mid-1990s. He had had a scandal brush in suggestions that he had a gambling addiction. His shocking retirement from professional basketball in 1993 after his father’s death followed by a decent but not extraordinary performance playing baseball in the minor league followed by one much praised but not stellar return to the Chicago Bulls late in the 1994-1995 season, had whispered that he might have peaked.
But with Space Jam, Jordan managed to create an alternative history of what happened. As both told the story The last dance and showing the series’ existence, Jordan is a master at image-making. His baseball career is repeatedly proclaimed as fulfilling his father’s wishes for him; his return to basketball is more or less a charitable act, helping his friends. And The last dance helps to alleviate the role that Space Jam played in the real arc of Jordan – helps smooth out for a few years. “Wondering what your hero did from 1993 to 1995?” asked the film. “Oh, just be a real hero. ‘
Space Jam humanized, especially because Jordan is charming, extremely handsome and a perfectly fitting actor. (Strangely, you don’t see him playing a lot of basketball, although the fact that he’s playing against cartoon characters probably has something to do with that.) The summer, after Jordan’s somewhat disappointing return in 1995, the movie came out in 1996, after the Bulls had won their fourth NBA title and set the land record for the most wins in a regular season. By the time the movie hit theaters, Jordan was back, honey.
Watching Space Jam from the distance of almost 24 years, I was struck by the extent to which it depends on his audience (or at least the adults in his audience) to come to the theater with an idea of what is happening in the off-screen storyline of Michael Jordan – for at least the last three years, and probably much longer. Space Jam can take away whole pieces of backstory precisely because the star was such a phenomenon. You don’t have to tell us what happened to Michael Jordan’s father because we know. You don’t need to include an explanatory text at the end stating that Jordan returned to basketball because he fulfilled his father’s wishes, because we know. We watched it on TV recently.
It seems like in some ways Space Jam Set the template for what’s to come: Huge, cinematic, expansive universes that span TV and film, drawing on the loyalty of franchise fans to generate revenue. (Hello, MCU.) It feels just like a summer movie you release to bridge the gap between two seasons of TV, with the intention of continuing the story and getting ready for the next season’s premiere (like the 1998 film The X-Files: Fight the Future). You didn’t have to see it Space Jam to be ready for the 1996-97 NBA season, but let’s face it – you probably did.
Which Space Jam is a bare-bones commercial grip (and I don’t really mean that pejorative) based on existing entertainment traits – the Looney Tunes, the NBA, Michael Jordan himself – feels almost visionary too. The film is aware of this. The characters constantly joke about notes; at one point, Daffy Duck literally kisses a Warner Bros. logo on his own butt.
Jordan’s publicist (played by SeinfeldWayne Knight) tells him it is time to leave a hotel by quoting a litany of Jordan’s famous recommendations: “Come on, Michael! It’s play time! Put on your Hanes, put on your Nikes, get your Wheaties and your Gatorade and we’ll get a Big Mac on the way to baseball. “The amount of self-referential humor and brand promotion in the film suits all of its stars, animated and not, and was only increased by the huge success of merchandising. Having tie-in merch for every major movie was a an integral part of children’s lives. Space Jam of course did not invent that art. But it may have perfected it – and tied it to franchises people already knew and loved.
Today, summer movie season – when not upset by a pandemic – is basically one long list of franchise sequels, spinoffs, and movies based on properties owned by the conglomerates that own the major movie studios: Trolls dolls, Legos , Smurfs, Transformers, Playmobil, huge back catalogs of pop music. Sometimes those properties were themselves produced by or included in older TV programs. It can be very difficult to figure out which medium is the OG. (That there is an upcoming one Space Jam continuation with LeBron James makes this even more explicit.)
So Space Jam feels familiar (and surprisingly technologically advanced for 1996), and super fun and entertaining, and a little bit sad as a peek into both our past and present. (And that’s not even why I’m concerned about a world where animated actors can become the norm – a world that can be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Hollywood’s struggle to deal with it.) I understand why everything from the toys we play with as children to the real people who play sports for our entertainment is endlessly commercialized. There is the money. I understand the game.
Only one thing The last dance shows that the toll that the constant need to present everything as a brand – including yourself – can negatively impact a person’s wellbeing and make fans feel that the brand owes them something. Space Jam tells the same story. If it is to learn a lesson, we may all have to be wary of Swackhammers wherever they lurk.
Space Jam is available to rent or purchase digitally at iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu.) The last two episodes of The last dance aired on ESPN on Sunday, May 17; the entire series is available for viewing on the ESPN website.
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