WARNING: SPOILERS FOR A 25-YEAR-OLD FILM
This review is paired with my review for the new Space Jam: A New Legacy which you can read HERE.
The year was 1996 and Michael Jordan was the biggest name on the planet. So it was obvious what to do next, right? Star in a film with Bugs Bunny. OBVIOUSLY.
I was actually quite nervous going back into this film. Space Jam was one of the seminal films from my childhood. I grew up quoting the film and listening to the soundtrack to the point of driving my parents insane. But does it still hold up all these years later? With the new film currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, I decided to revisit the original favorite. And I am pleased to report that this film has aged extremely well. It’s still no masterpiece, but the film retains its irreverent tone, zany characters, and charming warmth. Parents who grew up in the 90s, this is a perfect film to share with your children while also feeling comfortable resisting your own childhood.
We start the film with a slightly awkward, but none-the-less charming opening with a young Michael Jordan practicing basketball with his father. The acting isn’t great, but there’s a genuine sweetness to the scene. Everyone feels real; something the sequel never accomplishes. And if you know anything about Michael’s career as a baseball player, then the joke about him wanting to play baseball like his father is quite the belly laugh. Actually, the entire film takes pot shots at Michael’s baseball career. The first scene of Michael playing baseball is funny on its own, but becomes hysterical once you realize Michael is spoofing himself. It’s refreshing seeing Michael be okay with meta, self referential humor that straight up makes fun of him. The catcher helping him with the pitches, his team mates commenting on things like his swing and how good his strike outs look, all of these jokes land really well. This scene also introduces Wayne Kight’s character Stan Podolak. Wayne is a classic physical comedian. In fact, the studio was very smart to surround Michael with top comedic talent to help his performance. It works very well.
7 minutes into the film and we’re already meeting our Looney Tune characters. Take note A New Legacy!
We travel to Moron Mountain and meet our villain Swackhammer, played by Danny DeVito no less! He relishes his role and really brings a chaotic energy to every line. The classic 2D animation also has such a wonderful little charm to it which is sorely missed in most modern animation. Be sure to check out the character dynamics between DeVito’s Swackhammer and the rest of the "monstars". This is classic 3 Stooges material. And it helps to make sure your villains are menacing without being too scary. The little monstars are actually adorable and it’s super funny seeing them try to be evil and mean. It’s a great juxtaposition that will be flipped on its head later in the film.
Swackhammer runs Moron Mountain, which is an amusement park planet that has seen much better days. Business has been lackluster for quite a while, so in an effort to boost his profits, he decides to kidnap the Tunes and force them to perform for him. The plot is a perfect love letter to Looney Tunes. The constant barrage of irreverent humor, the mastery of the juxtaposition, and the ability to flip things on a dime, it's all there. At the 11 minute mark, the monstars enter Tune Land to take Bugs and the gang back to Moron Mountain. Immediately Bugs is hysterical. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30 years old, 100 years old or 6 years old, this opening Bugs Bunny scene is guaranteed to make you laugh. 15 minutes into the film and I’ve already laughed more during this watch than I did in the entire first hour of A New Legacy.
The joke where the Looney Tunes leave the television empty to attend their meeting is still very clever and funny.
This is where Bugs comes up with the idea for a basketball game. I’d like to take a moment to talk about how this basketball game comes to be. Here, the Tunes are in danger of being taken to Moron Mountain. So Bugs creates fake rules saying they need to be defeated in something in order to be taken. Seeing as how the monstars are very small, the Tunes choose basketball because they know they’ll be better than their diminutive enemies. That makes sense and is a very funny way of creating a basketball game as a plot. It also feels very Looney Tunes. Only once the monstars steal the talent from other players, do the Tunes realize they need Michael's help. These events flow very naturally. So even though they have not interacted with Michael yet, the Tunes are still very much a part of the opening act. The film constantly cuts back and forth making both Michael AND Bugs main characters.
Compare that to A New Legacy where the villain, G. Rhythm, tells Lebron he’s going to play basketball or else. But why? At that point in the film, G. has full control over Lebron. Why even bother challenging him? He's already won. And if he would challenge Lebron, wouldn’t he try to make it in something Lebron isn’t good at, like Bugs did here in the first film? The sequel's plot has a much harder time justifying its own existence than the original.
So the monstars have stolen the talent from top NBA players like Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. Sitting next to Debrah Barone (Patrica Heaton) and Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta), no less.
Which means they’re now huge and going to be much tougher to beat than the Tunes originally thought. This is why they call on Michael Jordan for help. Now, this structure does mean that the first act of the film is a tad long. Especially for a film that only clocks in at 1 hour 19 min before credits. So taking 28 minutes to get Michael down into Tune World does take its toll. But the film uses every minute well and makes sure that it enjoys itself along the way. And once we hit the 27 minute mark, Space Jam pulls out its secret weapon: comedy legend Bill Murray. Every single line out of his mouth is a killer; from the opening bit with him talking to his golf ball, to his surprise entrance at the game.
Look, I’ll be honest, Michael Jordan is not a good actor. He might even be slightly worse than Lebron.
But this film has been tailored made for Michael and he thrives in this semi-real meta version of himself. Letting him mug camera and break the 4th wall certainly helps his performance. The studio was very smart to surround him with other talent that can help him along the way. It also helps that he and all the other NBA stars are willing to poke fun at themselves. That helps smooth over any bad performances because we know they’re laughing at themselves. But more than anything, Michael is just charming. In fact, this whole damn film is warm and charming. There’s a lovable dopiness to it that comes from a single mandate the film sticks to: Michael is just an Average Joe. We all know in reality he’s a super star, but within the context of the film, Michael has a nice (but not extravagant) home, a lovable family, a dog that slobers too much, and neighbors he says “hello” to. He's just like us.
Compare that to Lebron in A New Legacy, who is introduced in his mansion with his gold watch, full sized basketball court in his backyard, and a voice activated ball throwing machine. That film CONSTANTLY reminds us of how great Lebron is. Michael doesn’t need that. To the contrary, Michael can make fun of himself! Michael also forms a genuine connection with his Tune team mates. Something Lebron can’t quite accomplish.
The scene where Charles Barkley watches the kids play basketball longingly and then gets destroyed by the girls playing in the court is fucking hilarious.
Actually, the whole sequence with the players conducting medical tests and visiting psychiatrists in an effort to discover why they lost their talent has some classic jokes in it - “But I love my momma.” “I’ll never go out with Madona again.” And overplaying the smooth tones of Barry White and Chris Rock’s (seriously? Chris Rock?) cover of Basketball Jones adds a soulful sadness to the mix that ups the comedic value. The sequence does however slow the pacing down greatly. We’re rushing to the game and then the movie essentially stops to show us this gag. It’s a good gag and I’m not sure where else it would work, so this is probably the best place for it. I’m glad it’s here, but it does slow things down.
For some reason I remember the scene where Bugs and Daffy go to Michael’s house being really slow, but it’s actually well paced and goes by quickly. However, the effects on the dog have NOT aged well. Not at all.
No one can escape the horrors of old school composting.
Jokes litter the film. The psychic bit is really funny. As is Wayne Knight digging as big a hole as he does in an effort to find Michael. The crack at the Mighty Ducks is great. And I bust out laughing every time the film cuts to the Tunes watching Richard Simmons' aerobics. Even the mice announcers is a classic gag. What I’m getting at here is every single character is able to shine. They each have multiple standout moments that show off their personalities and quirks. As a child, I quoted Daffy in this film over and over again (to the ire of my mother). And I am happy to report that 25 years later, he still KILLS.
Even Pepe Le Pew is used perfectly for a short, but memorable bit (that is in no way offensive).
But the film is 25 years old and there are times where it shows its age. The digital 3D effects don’t always mesh well with the 2D. Most of Michael’s interactions are fine, but when they animate the dog’s eyes, or turn Michael into a basketball, or when a human character holds a 2D object, it doesn’t look quite as good.
The first half of the actual game goes by far quicker than I remember. But it works because it’s the focus and we don’t cut away. We also get all the information we need: the Monstars Team is crushing the Tune Squad. Actually, the whole game is much shorter than I remember. The entire game sequence is only 20 minutes long. But there aren’t any stops aside from the short halftime sequence. This helps it feel like much more of a focus. It also helps that the wrap up is extremely short. Once the game ends, we have 3 more minutes in animation followed by 5 minutes to wrap up the live action story. In total this film is only 1 hour 19 minutes once the credits start rolling. But it uses every minute, every second, to tell the best jokes and streamline the story. There is hardly a wasted moment. Even when jokes slow down the pace, they’re still good jokes.
I don’t think Michael Jordan really has an arc in this film. The closest I can think of would be him realizing he needs to play basketball again. After the opening credits, Michael retires from basketball and plays baseball. But then after playing with the Tunes he comes out of retirement. I guess that's his arc. It's not much, if anything. But that's not what this film is about. This film is about watching Michael and the Looney Tunes play basketball. So I don't think its a spoiler to say that the Tune Squad wins the game and doesn’t have to live out their lives on Moron Mountain. In fact, the monstars get rid of Swackhammer and decide to join the Tunes before giving Michael a ride back to his baseball game.
Even at it’s weakest, when the basketball stars are trying their damndest to act and failing miserably, there is still a charm and a warmth to this film.
You can feel everyone trying their hardest and having fun; something you rarely see in the sequel. This isn’t an Oscar worthy film, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a short, fun, and very funny ride with your favorite Looney Tunes characters and an icon of basketball who is having a total blast making fun of himself. Oh, and don't forget Bill Murray.
Favorite Lines include:
Bill Murray - “Larry, I’m going to give us both 2's back there. We weren't in any emotional state to putt.”
Guy 1 - “He’s fixing a divet!”
Daffy Duck - “I found the shorts.”
Daffy Duck - “But mommy, I don’t want to go to school today. I want to stay home and bake cookies with you.”
Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd dressed as Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction.
Swackhammer when Bill Murray arrives - “I didn’t know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture.”
Daffy Duck when Bill Murray arrives - “How exactly did you get here?”
Bill Murray - “Well the producer's a friend of mine so he just had a teamster drop me off.”
Daffy Duck - "Uh-huh, well that’s how it goes.”
Bill Murray crying at the end - “Let’s go Bulls!”
Bottom line: this is no Oscar Winner. Michael’s performance alone makes sure of that. Act 1 is too long, and there are times when the film doesn't feel quite as short as its brisk runtime would suggest. But there is a warmth and a charm to this film that is undeniable. The animation has also aged very well (a few moments aside), the meta jokes are still potent, and it has a KILLER soundtrack. But most of all, the Tunes get to be Tunes! And when it comes down to it, that is all you need in a Looney Tunes production. This film is a joy, filled with jokes that are just as funny today as they were 25 years ago. To the average viewer, I can understand them thinking this film is only 'okay', and I can live with that. But to me and the millions of 90s babies that grew up with it, this film will remain a personal favorite.