Space Jam at 20 – A first-time look at a ’90s favourite

“A very intense fever dream” is how our brave test subject describes this ultra-wacky Michael Jordan vehicle.

Words

Elena Lazic

Space Jam, the 1996 film directed by Joe Pytka, is a truly unique specimen. While other films have mixed live action and animation – 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit being arguably the most famous example – none have also doubled as a kind of hype vehicle for a star made famous outside of the world of cinema or cartoons. This film exists because of the megastardom of basketball player Michael Jordan in America and abroad circa 1996. Even as a little girl growing up in France, I was aware of his status as the greatest basketball player of all time, and one would be hard pressed to find a sports personality capable of reaching so many people today.

Witnessing Jordan act opposite cartoon characters created for children is astonishing in and of itself. Watching the film for the first time, I felt like the key question was why on earth this world-renowned, extremely important adult person elected to dedicate so much of his time to hanging out with Bugs Bunny for the purposes of family entertainment? To have this joke – amusing in its utter absurdity – stretched out from a relatively short 1992 Nike commercial to a feature length film should sound to anyone like a deeply terrible idea. Even more mind-blowing is the conditions under which this occurred. While filming Space Jam, Jordan was on his way back from retirement and training intensively for a big return on a basketball court built especially for him on the Warner Bros lot.

Still, most incredible of all is the level to which Space Jam references Michael Jordan’s real life experience and events in his biography. Accepting to play himself onscreen, Jordan also allows the film to write an alternative version of an entire segment of his life. Solely for the purposes of entertainment. With added aliens and cartoon characters. The story picks up at the moment when Jordan really did retire from basketball in 1993 and decided to dedicate himself to baseball, inspired by the wishes of his late father. I find it hard to believe myself, but this really happened: reality is often far stranger than fiction.

Space Jam still gives reality a run for its money, rewriting Jordan’s story from retirement to his 1996 comeback as a brief lapse into two-dimensional sci-fi. In an intergalactic theme park called Moron Mountain (!) an evil frog-looking monster called Swackhammer voiced by Danny DeVito (!!) demands better attractions for his visitors. Smaller monsters at his service called the Nerdlucks want to enslave the Looney Tunes – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck et al – but the Tunes won’t go without a fight. Just as in a classic short, the entire film relies on one of Bugs’ lies as he convinces the Nerdlucks they can only enslave someone if they win a challenge against them first. In this case, Bugs elects on a game of basketball as the challenge, and asks Michael Jordan to help out.

There is little more surreal in modern cinema than witnessing the lovely, graceful presence of the gargantuan Jordan acting alongside characteristically looney characters. How could any human being be expected to keep up with this frenzy? That he manages to do so with dignity and a certain degree of movie star charisma is impressive. Guest star Bill Murray also helps articulate the film’s tone, bringing his trademark irreverent, carefree schtick to an intergalactic conflict where the laws of nature bend in every direction.

The film is held together by its virtually flawless technique, mixing video footage and 2D animation all but seamlessly. A featurette on the newly released blu-ray reveals the incredible amount of work and innovation that went behind this absurd film, but the highlight is a commentary track with director Joe Pytka, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Far more than its technique, it is indeed the film’s very existence that is utterly mind-blowing. Even when it nicely moves along its narrative arc, Space Jam never ceases to feel like a very intense fever dream.

Space Jam is now available for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray.

Published 18 Nov 2016

Tags: Bill Murray Bugs Bunny Michael Jordan

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