Space Jam occupies both a special place in my heart, and a strange place in the already twisted cultural lore of the 1990s. Even though it seems to be the offspring of the craven, unrestrained Michael Jordan marketing machine and a cast of classic cartoon characters, I have nothing but fond memories for the movie. When it came out in 1996 I was just seven years old, and America was at the height of Michael Jordan mania. Everything on the playground was Michael this and Jordan that. I didn't even like basketball and I LOVED His Airness.
The film starred Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, and costarred the Looney Tunes along with some big bad animated aliens invented just for the movie. It featured a host of cameos from NBA players like Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Muggsy Bogues. Space Jam was directed by Joe Pytka, a virtual nobody whose biggest claim to fame was directing a couple of Michael Jackson music videos ("Heal the World" and "The Way You Make Me Feel"). He doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page. That's how strange an occurrence Space Jam was: it made $330 million at the box office, and the director hasn't made a movie since.
Perhaps even stranger than all that, Space Jam is actually... sort of good. Seriously, that sentence looks weird on the page to me, and I'm the one who just wrote it. As a Looney Tunes cartoon, the movie works. The animation is very, very good and the voice-acting is pitch perfect. There are a few dicey moments when the real actors have to interact with the animated ones, but it's nothing that ruins the experience. It's pure animated goodness, through and through, and at times it's about as perfect as a Looney Tunes bit can get.
The basketball action is goofy, and there are sight gags and puns aplenty. While Michael Jordan doesn't burn a lot of calories as the token lead he's pretty much game for all the jokes, and the other athletes all do pretty good jobs as caricatures of themselves.
One of the odder aspects of Space Jam was the runaway success of it's soundtrack; a occurrence well-deserving of it's own article. Stacked with mid-90s R&B and hip-pop, Space Jam: The Soundtrack pumped out five Top 50 singles. Seal's cover of "Fly Like An Eagle" hit #10, and two original compositions (Monica's "For You I Will" and R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly) hit #4 and #2, respectively. Plus, for years you couldn't go to a sporting event without hearing the "Space Jam Theme" blasting out of the arena speakers. The soundtrack wound up going double platinum in just two months, and by 2001 it was certified as sextuple platinum.
Furthermore, I venture to say that Space Jam might just be an indispensable piece of proto-hipster movie lore. The movie is just packed with pop culture references. There are potshots by the Looney Tunes at their Disney rivals, with Bugs Bunny asking "What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would call a team 'The Ducks'?" There's even a bit where Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam do their best Pulp Fiction imitation, "Misirlou" blaring.
Most of all, hipster patron saint Bill Murray has a major role in the film, playing who else but himself. Long the king of wry, self-deprecating humor, one of the aliens mistakes him for his Ghostbusters cohort Dan Akroyd, and in a sublime meta moment Murray tells Daffy Duck that he was able to reach Toon World because he's a friend of the producer. He is, in fact, friends with the producer, the legendary Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Animal House). Who would have believed that Space Jam has a smarter side?
Until I watched it for review purposes, I hadn't seen Space Jam since I was, oh, 11 years old. I expected to see a poorly-conceived movie ravaged by the passing of a decade and a half, but I was pleasantly surprised. Space Jam is still a kids movie, and still an unmistakable part of MJ's multimedia propaganda campaign, but it's a wildly enjoyable one. It's fun as a comedy, and fascinating as a cultural artifact of the 1990s. For all the bits that were diminished by growing up, there were a few more that got even better. Michael Jordan the actor may not have been as great as Michael Jordan the basketball player, but he was able to get Space Jam made. It's smarter than you think and probably funnier than you remember, so it almost makes up for Jordan's pathetic comeback with the Wizards. Almost.