Two and a half stars
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
(After all, the movie came out 24 years ago, people.)
THE SCENE: we’re deep in the bowels of the Earth, in the Looney Tunes World occupied by Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the rest of the Warner Bros. cartoon gang.
THE SITUATION: Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes are playing a heated, high-stakes basketball game against the Monstars — a team of outer-space aliens.
The Tunes are down to just four players. They’ll have to forfeit if they can’t find an emergency addition.
Enter Bill Murray as Bill Murray.
Daffy Duck is baffled as to how exactly Murray found his way to this hidden, animated world.
“Producer’s a friend of mine,” explains Murray. “A Teamster dropped me off.”
That’s one of things I’d forgotten about “Space Jam” until a recent revisit: As intermittently entertaining as it can be, it’s hardly a real movie. More like an extended commercial for the Michael Jordan and Looney Tunes brands, albeit with some pretty awesome visual effects, especially for the mid-1990s.
Even within the constraints of a silly, family-friendly romp, when you explain something as major as Murray’s late-game appearance with a throwaway joke that takes us out of the plot, you’re just not trying.
When “Space Jam” was released in November of 1996, Michael had already led the Bulls to the first of their three titles after his “I’M BACK” declaration, but the movie actually is set during Jordan’s hiatus from basketball and his ill-fated foray into baseball.
Other than some highlight clips, we never see Jordan in a Bulls uniform in “Space Jam.” We DO see him, multiple times, in a Birmingham Barons uniform, and of course in a Looney Tunes TuneSquad jersey.
The “Space Jam” story begins with a corny but sweet segment set in 1973, in which a young Michael is shooting hoops on a dirt-floor backyard court deep into the night. (And yes, the first song we hear in “Space Jam” is R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Unfortunately, it’s difficult if not impossible to separate this once soaring and inspirational tune from Kelly’s despicable legacy.)
“Michael, what are you doing out here?” says his father. “It’s after midnight.”
“I want to play at North Carolina,” says little Mike.
Cut to a montage of highlights from Jordan’s college and pro career—which goes on forever. I mean, FOREVER.
Folks, it’s “The Irishman” of opening credits.
The first time MJ the actor (playing MJ, of course) appears on screen, he’s telling the assembled media mob he’s retiring: “I think I’m gonna go and play professional baseball.”
At this point I’d like to quote, well, me, from a Feb. 8, 1994, column I wrote for the Sun-Times after watching Jordan take some 50 swings in a batting -practice cage at IIT.
“He’d be the best guy on your softball team,” I wrote. “And the worst guy on the White Sox.”
I wasn’t not right.
As Jordan struggles with the minor-league Birmingham Barons (sportscaster Jim Rome mocks Jordan’s lousy swing as better suited to golf), the live-action movie switches to animation.
On “Moron Mountain” in outer space, the oppressive boss, Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), needs a new attraction to goose up business. He commands his minions, the Nerdlucks, to travel to Earth and kidnap the Looney Tunes.
Bugs Bunny tricks the Nerdlucks into believing there’s a rule that says they’ll have to play a basketball game, with the outcome determining whether the Looney Tunes will be set free.
See what I mean about not much of an actual plot?
Cut to the scenes of the Nerdlucks literally sucking the talent out of NBA players and absorbing it into their own frames, which suddenly become enormous. The Nerdlucks become the Monstars.
The players in question: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues and one Shawn Bradley — a genial, 7-6 German-American hoopster who averaged just eight points and six rebounds in his career and apparently was included just because it would be funny.
(In 2011, Wired magazine actually compiled a boxscore of the game between the TuneSquad and the Monstars. Jordan was credited with 44 points. Pound, the Monstar who had ingested Barkley’s basketball talent, led his squad with 37. Blanko, the Monstar who had soaked up Bradley’s skills, had no points, rebounds or blocks. That’s mean, “Space Jam!”)
Before we get to the big game, “Space Jam” takes some bizarre side trips, e.g., a sequence where the suddenly talent-free players seek therapy (Ewing bristles when a therapist asks, “Are there any areas other than basketball where you find yourself unable to perform?”), and a scene where Daffy and Bugs complain about how they’ve never seen any royalties from Looney Tunes merch.
Oh, and then there’s the matter of one “Lola Bunny,” a sultry femme fatale who joins the team and dazzles Bugs.
Lola wears short-shorts and a halter top and has a bosom. Bugs is . . . a bunny. Fur, no clothes. That’s just . . . weird, on a “Cats” kinda level a quarter-century before “Cats.”
As for product name-drops, here’s one Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight), a Birmingham Barons employee assigned to become MJ’s personal assistant and all-around gofer:
“Come on 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.”
After MJ and Murray do their last-second heroics and the Tunes are saved, a cartoon spaceship drops Michael off at . . .
A Birmingham Barons game. In his Birmingham Barons uniform.
As for the performances by the jocks: MJ is actually pretty good here, especially when you consider he’s often interacting with animated characters. Barkley was already well on his way to becoming CHARLES BARKLEY. Larry Bird is also a natural as he gets off a couple of sharp one-liners.
As early as 1997, there was talk of a “Space Jam 2,” but Jordan never came close to committing. After proposed sequels starring athletes such as Tiger Woods and Tony Hawk fell by the wayside, Warner Bros. finally moved forward with a “Space Jam 2” starring LeBron James. Production wrapped last autumn, and the film is scheduled for a midsummer release in 2021.
In the meantime, if you’re feeling nostalgic for the original, you can rent “Space Jam” for a couple of bucks — or check out spacejam.com, home of the original movie’s website.
It’s the most 1990s thing ever.