Space Jam was released in the United States exactly 20 years ago. That’s a lifetime. That could be many lifetimes. That’s five presidential terms – in fact, it coincided with the 1996 election that saw Bill Clinton triumph over Bob Dole. Yes, the final term of the 20th century was heralded by Space Jam. Four years later, the country would be thrown into electoral disarray by way of Florida. 20 years later, a similar thing has happened again. Everybody get up; it’s time to slam now. We’re gonna take it into overtime. Welcome – to the Space Jam. God help us all.
Space Jam was directed by Joe Pytka, adapting from his own Nike Air Jordans commercial. As a commercial director Pytka was hot stuff, and remains one of the most celebrated and decorated figures in the industry. As a feature film director, he was a one-hit wonder; this is still his only film. He emerged from the ether, gave us 88 utterly insane minutes (out of the 37 million minutes in an average lifetime), and disappeared again without so much as a straight-to-video sequel. I have seen Joe Pytka’s entire filmography upwards of 40 times over these two decades. Make no mistake, this is neither a love letter or quite a takedown – what Pytka unleashed on the world cannot be evaluated in established terms.
For a start, there is too much joy in this transparent capitalist enterprise to really bug you (don’t excuse the pun, please, it’s a symptom); yet of course it’s so transparently merch-driven, and formally slapdash besides, that it doesn’t really entertain to any real extent. Adapted from an advertisement, you say? Even this won’t tell you all you need to know – because it certainly didn’t stop there. First came the ad, then the film, then ads about the film, and ads about the merchandise for the film as well as the companies participating in the merchandise for the film, not to mention that merchandise itself. You could buy a Space Jam videogame for PlayStation and Sega Saturn, and get Happy Meal toys from McDonald’s. And the crazy thing is, none of that seemed remarkable until I started writing it out just now. Think about it: Space Jam even had a 6x platinum, multi-Grammy-winning soundtrack album. There was even a Pinball machine with a vaguely Space Jam theme. And there’s even more, catalogued by this wonderful article. Michael Jordan’s trip down the rabbit hole wasn’t just a straightforward plot device; it was a fucking metaphor.
Let’s backtrack though. This isn’t a takedown, or a series of complaints. This is just an attempt to understand. To finally figure out what Space Jam is. Because it’s certainly not just a film. It is altogether a film, a discrete pop soundtrack (so many people loved that album even without the same affection for its film-context), multiple toys, a reappraisal of a beloved set of characters, a revolution in marketing (this itself being a text), a time-spanning depository of at least five different nostalgias and subcultures, and many other things besides. What is Space Jam, and why has it haunted everything for 20 years? What is Space Jam, and why is it increasingly possible that its legacy was no less than us?
To recap the plot: we begin in the late 1960s, when young Michael Jordan plays basketball in the yard with his father – who would prefer it if Michael followed him into the, er, family sport of baseball (none of this really happened; James Jordan, Sr., was an equipment supervisor, and the Brooklyn-based family certainly didn’t live in this place:
But this is the first of Space Jam’s innocent rewritings of history and, more to the point, its occasional and rather saccharine recreation of a Spielbergian suburb-fantasy). Anyway, 25 years later, Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan!, and he’s rather shockingly retiring from professional b-ball (this of course did happen). He decides to become a baseball player, but is terrible – partly because he’s so pure and naïve that he believes the catcher’s more seasoned deceits. Meanwhile, on another planet, the owner of intergalactic theme park Moron Mountain (is it for morons, by morons, or about morons?), Mr Swackhammer, needs something to spice up his business and hits on the Looney Tunes. Swackhammer sends his unnamed quintet of pint-sized henchmen to, erm, like, Earth, but sub-Earth?, sort of underground?, where the ‘toons reside, and they threaten the beloved characters with powerful space laser guns.
Bugs Bunny, ever-ready to extricate himself from a jam in the wittiest of manners, challenges these inch-high invaders to a basketball game, one that’ll determine the freedom of toons everywhere. The Nerdlucks – for that’s what the alien group are called in the novelisation and marketing but, tellingly, not within the film itself, because again, it’s not just a fucking film – therefore go and steal the “essence” of five top basketball players and suddenly become a very legit threat (as Sylvester splutters, in a line so fundamentally unrealistic and blatantly rubberstamping its own theoretical “Monstars Playset” that it should simply have no place in fucking anything: “Sufferin’ succotash… they’re Mon-STARS!”). This is when Bugs decides to kidnap Michael Jordan, the one remaining all-star who can help play for the toons’ collective souls.
I guess ultimately it’s easier to stick to the logline: “The Looney Tunes play basketball with Michael Jordan.”
But within this there are all sorts of beautiful insanities: one of the greatest, yet most underrated, things Space Jam gives us is the sequence where Bugs and Daffy Duck have to pick up Michael’s old basketball gear (because it’s lucky, natch). They steal into his house, bicker along the way, run into a few difficulties, and ultimately have to rely on the Jordan kids – who, in a stellar twist, don’t bat an eyelid at this sudden incursion from two pop cultural icons. Wait, who cares about their fame? Rewrite: the Jordan kids – who, in a stellar twist, don’t bat an eyelid at this sudden incursion from two animated anthropomorphic talking animals who don’t even exist in the same plane of reality. If this sounds righteously indignant, then apologies. The madness of it is no bad thing; instead it contributes to one of the most magical moments a film like this could ever create (though not a patch on the climax; see below). These kids get to help out Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Just like that. And they don’t need any reason or exposition. They’re kids, they just lap it up… I mean, the eldest Jordan kid looks about 14, but you get the point. It’s so mad, and surprisingly great all these years later.
Of course, a large number of viewers probably don’t remember this specific part (“Here you go, Bugs,” delivered so matter-of-factly) with such wide-eyed happiness. That’s because when you were watching it in the ‘90s, and through the early 2000s, you didn’t care about the live action; the colourful bits were the draw. But in the cold light of having-a-fucking-brain-this-time-around, you start to realise Space Jam’s biggest and most significant failing: it really doesn’t get the Looney Tunes right. A good three-quarters of the cartoon bits are a little bit shit in most every way (digital airbrush shading, anyone? Even the textures are low-rent).
The fundamental problem is that Space Jam – perhaps necessarily – doesn’t really make use of the Looney Tunes’ deep supporting bench. It’s the same thing that made The Simpsons Movie such an empty experience, even as it was making you giggle a little every so often. There is more to this world than just having Bugs Bunny lead us around. Daffy gets the second-most exposure, and the filmmakers use him well. Porky Pig barely appears, and each time he does you realise more and more that in this particular film he has literally no personality, or any characteristics beyond slight cowardice. Pepé le Pew and Marvin the Martian each have brief cameos, while Tweety is curiously and disturbingly only trotted out to get splattered on the wall and cry a little. Oh wait, there’s that bit where he goes all like karate-master on the “Monstars”, which is… vaguely badass, but still not Tweety.
But then, perhaps it all comes down to the fact that there are two kinds of Looney toon: perpetually-winning wiseasses (Bugs, Tweety, Road Runner) and hapless buffoons (Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote), plus the wondrous Daffy, who is somewhere in between and should have his own solo movie. But within these broad strokes, the original shorts at least had shades – and it is the thickest versions of these shades that Space Jam trades in, reducing each and every toon to their most simplistic elements. A classic like What’s Opera, Doc? packed more complex characterisation into Elmer and Bugs in under seven minutes. Space Jam, at over 12 times longer, is interested only in lip service, because that’s where the audience cheers are (“OH LOOK! IT’S FOGHORN LEGHORN!”), and that’s where the ever-expanding list of Happy Meal toys are. And this is without even mentioning the new character, who got whacked up in some freakish horror machine and thrown into the mix to only supplant other, more established, figures: Lola fucking Bunny.
Lola Bunny is both a great character and a total outrage, much like her surrounding film. She is the one toon with any sports talent, but at the same time is boringly no-nonsense, un-Looney, the cartoon embodiment of that classic “strong professional woman with no personality” stereotype. She is by far the most competent throughout, her irritatingly specific and trite refrain “Don’t ever call me ‘doll’” nevertheless a strong example for children – yet in her final moments of screentime nearly gets taken out by a Monstar and is saved by Bugs. She falls for him instantly.
Then there’s her presence in the first place. Why were the producers and writers so intent on giving us a sexy female rabbit? Why were the designers, animators and directors so focused on pushing this sexiness to the limit? The original Jessica Rabbit – Lola’s clear model – was at least, despite the leporine name, fucking humanoid. Space Jam, on the other hand, is so Space Jam that it gives us instead the single most confusing animated character of the ‘90s: a walking, mincing litany of furry sauciness challenged only perhaps by the at least halfway wholesome whatsername in A Goofy Movie. Should we respect Lola Bunny? Is she simply making her own way through life? Taking control of what God Joe Pytka gave her? Or was it all a spanner in the works from these insidious sociopaths? Were they trying to raise a generation of deviants, as a subtle means of anarchic revolution?
Because if so, it would certainly be the most anarchic thing about this half-baked film. This halfway third-gen feminist subplot of hers is fine, but conveniently hetero and wilfully ignorant of Bugs’ own penchant for unpredictable gender fluidity (to some, he was sexy enough). The Looney Tunes really were anarchic, right down to their total disregard for at least four constitutional Amendments. And this simply is not. The main threat in Space Jam may be the potential for total control of the toons, but what else? Space guns? Who cares? At one point the Nerdlucks even blast Yosemite Sam to ashes, and he comes back a few minutes later – because he’s a toon. That’s what they do. So who cares about space guns? Who Framed Roger Rabbit at least had a genuine toon-destroying weapon involved – it wouldn’t have been too egregious for Space Jam to have had a threat on the same level. And the Looney Tunes are so willing, via the whims of the writers, to give up their total anarchy that they actually agree to enter into something as organised as a sports match (one is reminded of the classic short where Daffy and a host of other ducks get revenge on Elmer Fudd in a boxing match by 100% playing against the rules – now that’s Looney Tunes). Oh no! The Nerdlucks have guns! Oh no! Now they’re big! Get real. A brief moment of intimidation aside (Porky: “I wet myself”), none of this has any resemblance to the given characters. This is ridiculous.
But then, Space Jam doesn’t need to do anything right, because it is nothing more than its own logline. It is an inherent meme. The entire idea seems to prefigure meme culture with its taste for adaptable absurdity, and its website – quite literally a hub for Space Jam’s particular and groundbreaking brand of totalising synergy – has become an internet urtext, one of those comforting known quantities become a sheer fact of online life. Encoded within the film (and around the film) are complex layers of nostalgia – nostalgia, at the time, for the Looney Tunes and their classic japes, but also the propensity for the film to itself become a point of nostalgic reminiscence. Put another way, it is so childlike and so of-the-moment that it seems almost designed to ingratiate itself into the minds of its young viewers and take hold for the rest of their lives, in a way that the more well-developed stories and characters of other famous kids’ movies simply haven’t been able to accomplish so straightforwardly. Why? Because it’s not just a film. It is an idea. It is the absolute extent of youth-targeted product. It does not care about its characters or world, it cares about its iconographies, which is very different. It wants at most to be sheen and surface.
Even when it throws the adults a bone, as with the bizarre and mishandled “reference” to Pulp Fiction – a pair of guns, a pair of generic black suits, ‘Misirlou’ playing in the background, nothing else – there has clearly been next to no care or development exerted, merely the concept of another cool moment; like an action setpiece in a thriller, but without any rhyme or reason. By the late 1990s, pop culture was already eating itself, but this is the point where it started digesting; a dense collapsed black hole of self-reference, extra-reference, barely-there reference and static, blank-staring recognition of vague ideas, a forgery of the codes and shorthands that make up human interaction. It is a forgery of a forgery. It bypasses all senses of logic and forces its hastily-assembled worldview upon you. And this inherent meme-ness is lightyears ahead of its time. Very few jokes are actually funny, seeming almost tailormade to be quoted semi-ironically 20 years hence. As if the four assembled screenwriters knew exactly what they were doing. But that would be ridiculous.
If this is too much thought and critical unpacking for something like Space Jam, then you’ve not been paying attention. That’s fucking Space Jam. That’s what the ‘90s (including Pulp Fiction, but that was for older kids) did to us. Space Jam might be the point around which this entire late-Capitalist Millennial smorgasbord of shit converges. It may very well represent everything about the society we’ve been growing into since the early 1980s, the society that noted fan, b-ball legend and now likely sequel star LeBron James (age at time of release: 11) has inherited along with, in all likelihood, damn near the entirety of this article’s audience. It is revelatory in its use of black protagonists, yet at the same time drearily unprogressive. Its adult-targeting humour is often satirical and subversive, that of a post-Simpsons world, yet the stuff aimed at kids goes in exactly the opposite direction, exhibiting no unpredictable subversion whatsoever – which in turn provides a sort of hypocritical gulf, right? Space Jam predicted everything. Think about it: it’s no longer uncool to love kitschy, shamelessly silly things like this. TV is considered a high artform. Cultural shorthands have evolved into emojis; personal styles into selfies; references into memes; the impassive past into an aestheticised nostalgia machine. We’ve come all the way around from loving, to hating, to kinda loving again, the singer of Space Jam‘s theme song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, the notoriously child-friendly romantic R. Kelly. All of this was directly prefigured by Space Jam, a wonderful and terrible pop-culture abyss. Its all-in approach to synergy has been seminal not just in marketing but, by virtue of the marketing’s wide range, our entire just-about post-ironic consciousness.
And even then, it can’t get its themes straight. It’s actually a critique of stultifying capitalism: again, the Tunes are fighting against a future that’ll trot them out as mere objects of commercial entertainment, flatlining with the same jokes over and over again. The film rallies against corporate ownership of the body, and yet is itself the very embodiment of this. That’s why it’s you. That’s why it’s me. It’s lost in a push-pull feedback loop of straining against the worst dehumanising impulses of this world while at the same time cheerily capitulating to all of these simply because they’re so goshdarn entertaining. We know we’re being played and exploited, but we think: why not? What’s so wrong with that? Ain’t we all stinkers?
This is reflected in what we may interpret as the horrifying lot of the Looney Tunes themselves: particularly the truly Sisyphean plight of Wile E. Coyote. At one point, as the extraterrestrial threat makes itself known, Porky Pig has to run into a Road Runner cartoon to take the characters to town hall. Porky, Road Runner and the Coyote all leave. The Jordan kids, watching this on TV, are confused: “Where’d they go?” An empty desert background remains onscreen. Show’s over. So then but what? The characters perform live every time we watch a Merrie Melodies short? The existential implications are staggering. Wile E. Coyote must necessarily chase after the Road Runner constantly, coming up with these Acme contraptions that never go to plan. Knowing that in order for this status quo to remain he must, in full possession of his faculties, deliberately fail every single time. That’s what that brief scene means. He has no control. We have no control. The only character who possesses any control is the goddamn Road Runner, and he doesn’t even possess the capacity for speech.
And it’s not just the toons: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Shaun Bradley, Muggsy Bogues and Larry Johnson become absolutely useless when divested of their basketball talent. They wander around in a montage of despair, trying to parse out some clue as to what they can become in a post-basketball world. Barkley fails to block a single shot and is told by a high-schooler: “Begone! You shouldn’t even be here!” Muggsy, meanwhile, spends his days on the psychiatrist’s couch.
Which brings us full circle, because this is a truly funny sequence, full of laughs and quotable lines no matter who you are or when you’re watching. And indeed it’s not all Pytka’s live-action sequences; there’s much else to celebrate in a film that isn’t entirely false steps. The toons get some solid moments, not least a well-written bit where Daffy calls for a spit-shine on the rundown gym; cries of “Spit shine! Spit shine!” break out, the music swells a little, and… everyone starts spitting on the floor. Michael, needless to say, is bemused. It may be rushed, but it’s a fairly and respectably Simpson-esque joke structure. And then, yes, finally, there’s the climax: an incredible paean to the power of cartoon physics. You know it already: the Toon Squad are a single point down with eight seconds to go. Michael jumps up and, after 80 minutes of confusion, reluctance and relentless logic, simply gives himself over to his better self and stretches his arm the entire length of the court, staying in the air all that time and slam-goddamn-dunking the winning two points. It’s wonderful; he welcomes in impossibility, lunacy and sheer dreaming. It saves the toons, it saves the Nerdlucks from their soulless henchman jobs, and it saves Michael, by returning him to the real world, a little wiser, and able to resolve his issues with… wait, baseball? His father? Whatever. It seems tremendously successful in the moment, and moments are all that matter here.
So ultimately there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Space Jam is in so very many ways one of the worst-conceived commercial products of all time, almost already a parody of itself, an unapologetic love letter to brainwashing children. This is pure entertainment. It’s unfettered; it exists only for itself. There is no endgame.
Space Jam‘s much-heralded mighty meeting of minds concludes with Michael telling Bugs: “Stay out of trouble”, a phrase so generic and essentially unmoored to both what we know of Bugs’ character and the specific events of the film that we’re left with very little clue as to the veracity of this entire meeting. What, if anything, did Bugs and Michael learn from each other? What was the point? Will either of them remember this in years (or days) to come? Or was the whole thing there to exist only for itself, within itself, as a finite gossamer-like moment in time? A weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream? Have we but slumbered here while these visions did appear? And why was Bill Murray so important to the film yet doesn’t get a single mention in the novelisation?
This is everything. It’s Space Jam. It’s the reason not everything in your life is going the way you planned, but you kind of enjoy that. It’s the reason your well-honed sense of irony grew into a kind of strung-together pseudo-sincerity where you definitely mean everything you say, and truly want other people to feel better about themselves, but you just can’t help it: you always sound like you’re being sarcastic. Space Jam is the point where “That’s all, folks!” became less a curtain-closing catchphrase and more a mantra of nihilistic perpetuity; a symbol of the neverending circuit of banality we see every time we tell a coffee barista our first name and subconsciously spouted, almost certainly without realising it, by almost everyone on the planet, staring into their mirrors wondering if they can get away with just 30 seconds of tooth-brushing today. It’s probably the sort of phrase that haunted Francine Hughes (the famous murderer, not the co-author of the Space Jam novelisation, though it probably applies to both) right before she finally snapped. That’s all, folks. That is all. Space Jam is all.