Space Jam is kind of visionary

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Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny on the poster for Space Jam.

Space Jam was truly a product of its time — and maybe a harbinger of ours. | Warner Bros.

If The Last Dance spins out the legend of Michael Jordan, Space Jam pretends to fill in gaps in the myth.

I didn’t grow up in a moviegoing family. So the July 21, 1996, release of Space Jam, when I was 13 years old, passed me largely unheeded. Then for a while, in the morass of pop culture backlog, I somehow crossed Space Jam and Spaceballs in my head. Eventually I untangled them, and eventually I saw Spaceballs. But until recently I’d never seen Michael Jordan play basketball with … the Looney Tunes?

Still, even in the pop culture (and sports) desert I mostly inhabited in the 1990s, I knew who Michael Jordan was. Everyone knew who Michael Jordan was. He was omnipotent and omnipresent, hawking sneakers, McDonald’s, cars, breakfast cereal, soda — all on top of ruling the basketball court. His domination of the sport made it seem natural that he was everywhere. I didn’t watch much NBA basketball, but I had watched the 1992 Dream Team. I knew that guy.

I recently got curious about Space Jam again because, like seemingly everyone else, I’ve been watching The Last Dance. The 10-part ESPN documentary series (the final two episodes air this Sunday night) is more entertaining than I was expecting. I hadn’t fully realized the pure pleasure it would be to watch hours of Jordan dunking, interspersed with various figures I only hazily remember telling different versions of what went on behind the scenes of the ’90s pro basketball scene. Plus, there’s Jordan himself, talking about his career, his memories, his thought process, and his drive to succeed.


ESPN
Michael Jordan in The Last Dance, laughing at interview footage the directors have shown him on a tablet.

Jordan owned the sole rights to a great deal of the footage of the Chicago Bulls during their 1997-’98 season, which is one of two main narrative threads running through The Last Dance (the other centers on Jordan’s career). One of Jordan’s stipulations for participating in the project (directed by Jason Hehir) was that he’d always have the last word, so the series naturally reflects his point of view.

There’s little focus on the topics that a documentary might otherwise explore — Jordan’s personal life, his family, his love life, what he likes to eat for lunch, and other stuff fans often want to know about. The Last Dance (much, it seems, like Jordan himself) is only interested in Jordan’s personal, off-court life insofar as it relates to the game. There’s plenty about his father’s death (James Jordan was murdered in 1993), about Jordan’s gambling and the media circus around it, and about inter-player quarrels and spats, but nothing too dishy, nothing that really feels like it pulls back the curtain.

Which is why the Space Jam stuff (or really, the lack thereof) stands out. The Last Dance reaches the filming of Space Jam in its eighth episode; production on the film started the summer after Jordan returned to the NBA late in the 1994-’95 basketball season (following, in rapid succession, his father’s sudden death, his surprise retirement a couple of months later, and an ensuing stint in minor league baseball).

The Last Dance details how part of Jordan’s contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that the studio would provide him with a gym to practice in so he could seamlessly re-enter basketball in the fall. After filming every day, Jordan would play pickup games with an endless stream of players who “stopped by,” from 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 mostly glossed over, a footnote to the topic at hand: basketball. In The Last Dance, the entire Space Jam period of Jordan’s life mainly functions to demonstrate, once again, how dedicated he was to the sport. There’s relatively less chatter about Space Jam itself.

So I decided to finally watch it.

Space Jam is a possibly unparalleled franchise mashup

I hadn’t registered just how big of a hit Space Jam was (it grossed more than $230 million worldwide), or that its six-time-platinum soundtrack was what launched R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” or that it has generated as much as an estimated $6 billion — that is six billion American dollars — by spinning off merch 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-teen favorites. Space Jam, if you haven’t seen 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 flailing intergalactic amusement park called “Moron Mountain” (not the only apparent dig at Disney in this movie). Swackhammer decides that the only way he can boost enthusiasm for his godawful attraction is to kidnap the Looney Tunes from Earth and sentence them to a lifetime of “swavery” (as Elmer Fudd later puts it) as entertainers in his park. So he sends his minions, doofy little beings called Nerdlucks, to do his bidding.

Swackhammer, Bugs Bunny, and Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
Warner Bros.
Some of the stars of Space Jam get into a heated debate.

When the Nerdlucks arrive on Earth to kidnap the Looney Tunes, the Looney Tunes are having none of it. But they decide to settle the matter of … I guess whether or not the Tunes will become “swaves” … by playing basketball. This is Bugs Bunny’s idea, because the Looney Tunes tower over Nerdlucks (Bugs gets second billing to Michael Jordan in this movie); if Bugs and his fellow Tunes win, they’ll get to stay on Earth.

Unfortunately for the Looney Tunes, the Nerdlucks have the ability to suck up skills of real basketball players, which they do by visiting an NBA game and sapping the talent of five players — Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. Thus they transform themselves from Nerdlucks into “Monstars”: big hulking players who could squish the Looney Tunes under their feet.

Sensing trouble, Bugs decides to call in help in the form of Michael Jordan. Jordan has been playing minor league baseball (as, indeed, he had been not too long before the movie’s release), but he agrees to help out the Tunes. And he does. In the end, everyone lives happily ever after, except maybe Mr. Swackhammer who, let’s face it, was a miserable cretin to begin with.

Space Jam is, in its own way, visionary

One purpose of Space Jam, perhaps ironically given Swackhammer’s aim, was to raise the flagging Looney Tunes’ profile for a new generation. And it worked, to an extent: Merch and ad campaigns featuring the Looney Tunes, often in tandem with Jordan, were prevalent throughout the late 1990s and made a lot of money.

But the much bigger and far more obvious purpose of Space Jam was to fill out the Michael Jordan mythology. Though his status as the greatest basketball player to ever grace the court was never really in question, his image was a bit bruised by the mid-1990s. He’d had a brush with scandal in suggestions that he had a gambling addiction. His shocking 1993 retirement from pro basketball after his father’s death, followed by a decent but not extraordinary performance playing minor league baseball, followed by a much-heralded but not stellar return to the Chicago Bulls late in the 1994-’95 season, had spurred whispers that he might be past his prime.

A still from Space Jam showing Michael Jordan surrounded by the “Monstars.”
Warner Bros.
Michael Jordan vs. the Monstars.

But with Space Jam, Jordan managed to create an alternate history of what happened. As both the story told in The Last Dance and the series’ very existence shows, Jordan is a master image-crafter. His baseball career is repeatedly proclaimed to be his fulfillment of his father’s wishes for him; his return to basketball is more or less an act of charity, helping his friends out. And The Last Dance helps illuminate the role that Space Jam played in Jordan’s real-life arc — helping smooth over a rough few years. “You’re wondering what your hero was up to from 1993 to 1995?” the movie asked. “Oh, Just being an actual hero.”

Space Jam is humanizing, especially because Jordan is charming, extremely handsome, and a perfectly adequate actor. (Oddly, you don’t get to see him play a lot of actual basketball, though the fact that he’s playing against cartoon characters probably has something to do with that.) Shot 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 league record for the most wins in a regular season. By the time the movie hit theaters, Jordan was back, baby.

Watching Space Jam from the distance of nearly 24 years, I was struck by how much it depends on its audience (or at least the adults in its audience) to come into the theater with some idea of what’s been happening in the offscreen Michael Jordan storyline — for at least the last three years, and probably much longer. Space Jam can elide whole chunks of backstory precisely because its star was such a phenomenon. You don’t have to tell us what happened to Michael Jordan’s dad, because we know. You don’t have to include explanatory text at the end saying that Jordan returned to basketball, having fulfilled his father’s wishes, because we know. We’ve just recently been watching it on TV.

It seems, in some ways, as if Space Jam set the template for what was to come: Massive cinematic expanded universes that span TV and film, leaning on franchise fans’ loyalty to generate revenue. (Hello, MCU.) It feels exactly like a movie that you put out in the summer to span the gap between two seasons of TV, intending to continue the story and set you up for the next season premiere (like the 1998 film The X-Files: Fight the Future). You didn’t have to see Space Jam to be ready for the 1996-’97 NBA season, but let’s face it — you probably did.

That Space Jam is a bald commercial grab (and I don’t really mean that pejoratively) based on existing entertainment properties — the Looney Tunes, the NBA, Michael Jordan himself — also feels almost visionary. The movie is self-aware about this. Its characters crack jokes constantly about endorsements; at one point, Daffy Duck literally kisses a Warner Bros. logo on his own butt.

Jordan’s publicist (played by Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight) tells him it’s time to leave a hotel by citing a litany of Jordan’s famous endorsements: “C’mon, Michael! It’s game time! Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark.” The amount of self-referential humor and brand promotion in the film is in keeping with all of its stars, animated and not, and was only extended by its massive merchandising success. Having tie-in merch for every big movie was already a regular facet of life for kids in the 1990s. Space Jam didn’t invent that art, of course. But it might have perfected it — and it tied it to franchises people already knew and loved.

Today, the summer movie season — when it isn’t upended by a pandemic — is basically one long list of franchise sequels, spin-offs, and movies based on properties owned by the conglomerates that own the big movie studios: Trolls dolls, Legos, Smurfs, Transformers, Playmobil, enormous back catalogs of pop music. Sometimes those properties were themselves spawned by or featured in older TV shows. It can be very hard to figure out which medium is the OG. (The existence of an upcoming Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James makes this even more explicit.)


Warner Bros.
Michael Jordan, Marvin the Martian, and Bugs Bunny in Space Jam.

So Space Jam feels familiar (as well as surprisingly technologically advanced for 1996), and super fun and entertaining, and also just a tiny bit sad as a peek into both our past and our present. (And that doesn’t even factor in my worries about a world where animated actors may become the norm — one that may be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Hollywood’s struggles to cope.) I understand why everything, from the toys we play with as kids to the real-life people who play sports for our entertainment, is endlessly commodified. That’s where the money is. I understand the game.

But one thing The Last Dance demonstrates is the toll that the constant need to present everything as a brand — including yourself — can take a toll on someone’s well-being, and make fans feel like the brand owes them something. Space Jam tells the same story. If it has a lesson to teach, it might be that we should all beware of Swackhammers, wherever they lurk.

Space Jam is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu.) The final two episodes of The Last Dance air on ESPN on Sunday, May 17; the entire series is available to watch on ESPN’s website.


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Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.