A review requested by David Lewellyng, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I was born near the end of 1981, which means I was about a month shy of my 15th birthday on 15 November, 1996, which was the day that Space Jam opened. This means that I am just a little bit too old to have specifically childhood memories of a movie that internet culture in the 2010s, driven by self-described "Nineties Kids", has anointed a fundamental nostalgic classic. But I do respect those people for whom Space Jam is a key part of their youth, a movie that brings a twinge of joy to their hearts, a movie far too special and good to be sullied with the sequel/remake that has been hinted at for ages now. And because of that respect, it is with a little bit of regret and guilt that I find myself saying-

-Space Jam is a fucking abomination. It is a foulness on par with the indescribable eldritch monstrosities in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and equally as impossible to watch without being driven into a psychotic frenzy. It's sacrilege, of a deeply infuriating sort. It is drawing a cum-spurting phallus on the face of the Madonna of Michelangelo's Pietร ; it is noisily letting out a damp Taco Bell shart in the middle of the Verdi Requiem; it is copying Guernica in day-glo poster paints on black velvet. It is a mindless, feature-length insult to the dignity and perfection of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series, one of the greatest and most characteristically American artistic triumphs of the 20th Century. I undoubtedly hate it more than it deserves, just as much as all those people born between 1985 and 1995 like it more than can be reasonably justified.

But oh, how I hate it.

The film was the brainchild of marketing specialists, which does not necessarily explain why it is bad, though it explains why we should not be surprised that it is bad. The story begins with a 1992 ad for Nike's Air Jordan line of athletic shoes which aired during the Super Bowl that year, depicting Michael Jordan (at the time, all but uncontested as the greatest active basketball player, and this was before five of the six championships to which he led the Chicago Bulls) playing a two-on-four game with legendary cartoon character Bugs Bunny against a team of live-action bullies. The ad, which is rather harried and over-cut, but has a certain sparkle, was fucking huge, leading to sequels, and eventually to the unholy conceit that what worked at 60 seconds would surely work at 90 minutes. Thus was born, in the chilly halls of Warner Bros. and whatever various parties owned pieces of Jordan's public image, the idea for Space Jam, which has largely the same plot as the ad: Bugs is being pestered by jackasses, he hauls in Jordan to help beat them in a basketball game, cartoon physics ensue. The jackasses this time are a quartet of space aliens, whence the title. Warners hired Joe Pytka, the director of the ads, to helm the movie (his second feature, and his last), cementing the relationship.

Does this make it fair to call Space Jam, itself, an advertisement? Sort of, though an ad for what, I couldn't state with confidence. Michael Jordan as a brand-name, I guess, and the film even puts in a self-satirising joke to that effect, when the unctuous PR man Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) exhorts Michael* to "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," a litany of products that Jordan had endorsed in reality. I think this is meant to be sarcastic, but it's right on the knife-edge between stupidly self-aware and just plain venal. At any rate, Space Jam is entirely about watching Jordan's halo as the great sports icon of the 1990s get burnished (this was long before we'd discovered what an enormous asshole he was), giving him the only character arc - but then, who in their right mind would want a Bugs Bunny character arc? - and bookending the film with what amount to biopic sequences. Here, we see young Michael (Brandon Hammond) tirelessly practicing basketball in his driveway in 1973, under the warm, fatherly encouragement of his dad James (Thom Barry). 20 years later, at the height of his profession and reeling from the senseless murder of his father in July 1993 (a fact the film quietly elides to "my dad saw me play my final game"), he retired from the NBA to pursue baseball, where he completely failed to make any real impression with the Birmingham Barons, the minor-league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

All of this is satisfactory, so far as it goes: cheesy as hell, full of clumsy dialogue that allows Michael's movie family, played by proper actors (Theresa Randle as his wife, Manner Washington, Eric Gordon, and Penny Bae Bridges as their kids) to do the work of laying out exposition while Jordan just stands around the sets, looking concerned. It's never better than standard-issue '90s kids' film boilerplate, and Pytka's lack of familiarity with dramatic situation shows in in the listless, geographically fragmented domestic scenes, and I haven't a clue why the producers shelled out for a talent on the level of Michael Chapman to do the cinematography if all he was going to do was make sunny rooms and sunny golf courses for a TV commercial director. But the worst we can say about the human frame of Space Jam is that's a potentially effective biopic smothered by one-note comedy and acting. At least Bill Murray comes along as, to all appearances, himself, to inject a dose of kiddie-friendly sardonic nihilism into his early scenes, and save the film from being completely featherweight (his mock-sad "I'm gonna give us both twos back there, We weren't in any emotional state to putt", as a response to seeing a man sucked into the ground by cartoon characters, is the only moment in the film that gets a genuine laugh out of me). And then two years later he was in Rushmore, and everything was good again in the world.

So anyway, this chunk of Space Jam is just harmless crap. At which point, I really can't put off looking at the other chunk...

...Somewhere in our solar system is a planet-sized amusement park called Moron Mountain, ruled by a fat, green cat-troll named Swackhammer (Danny DeVito). The park has been showing its age, and to fend off falling attendance, Swackhammer needs a new attraction. For reasons that are awfully hard to parse, he and his four obnoxious minions, the Nerdlucks, have hit upon stealing the Looney Tunes characters from Earth; somewhere buried inside of this is a gentle ribbing of the use of the characters as mascots in the Six Flags theme parks (including Magic Mountain, just outside of Los Angeles, making the connection even easier to spot), but the film doesn't insist on it. And so off they go, burrowing deep into the Earth's crust, since that's apparently where the Looney Tunes world can be found - the world-building is a trainwreck in this movie, let's not try to parse out how the Looney Tunes society is supposed to function. Underground, they encounter Bugs, who breaks the news to the rest of the gang but also hits upon a clever scheme to trap the little Nerdlucks: surely, they'll give the other cartoon characters a chance to win their freedom? In, say, a basketball game? And this idea goes well right up to the moment that the Nerdlucks head to Earth's surface, steal the talents of five of the world's greatest basketball players (or anyway, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, and three other mostly recognisable NBA stars who thought it would be fun to be in a movie), becoming the hypertrophic Monstars in the process. Bugs is still cunning enough to realise that the aliens overlooked the retired Michael, and immediately abducts living legend to help lead the Toon Squad to victory.

I will first appeal to God Himself: when asked about the film in 1998, retired Warner animation maestro Chuck Jones flatly declared it was a violation of the basic tenets of Bugs Bunny's character to suggest that he couldn't outthink an invading alien force in just seven minutes, let alone an entire feature. That is not my first objection to Space Jam nor my angriest, but I've got to say, it does the job. There is absolutely no aspect of this film that actually benefits from tapping into the established ensemble cast of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and many, many aspects that make absolutely no sense if you walk into with a functional idea of what those established characters actually do. The truth is, of course, horrifying: in 1996 (much as in 2016), you couldn't count on the children of the United States - I can't speak to the rest of the world - to know the Looney Tunes. To them, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety Bird (to say nothing at all of the less-famous characters) were just personality-free marketing figures, much as Mickey Mouse had been since the 1950s, barely connected to a body of short animated films that represent one of the richest canons in the annals of American comedy. Shame on the children, on the parents, on Warners for not making it clear that some of their shorts were among the pinnacles of Hollywood cinema. Though at least Tiny Toon Adventures and the great Animaniacs had spent the first half of the decade making a small version of that argument on afternoon television.

Regardless, when all you know Bugs Bunny as is a sarcastic corporate pitchman, I guess it doesn't matter if he behaves fundamentally out of character. The true wickedness of Space Jam is that, presented with this blank slate, the four writers, host of producers, and director didn't try to reintroduce the characters to a new generation, as happened six years later with the deeply compromised but heartfelt Looney Tunes: Back in Action. No, the filmmakers seem to care about the characters no more than their anticipated audience, and treated them as an undifferentiated collection of zany slapstick figures for Michael to interact with during his trip down the rabbit hole.

I cannot over-emphasise that point: this is not a Looney Tunes movie: it is is a Michael Jordan brand-extension exercise in which the Looney Tunes have been cynically used as props. Some better than others: Daffy reverts to his early-'40s self, when he was an anarchist and not a helpless neurotic, but he's at least somewhat tethered to a canonical version of himself. Ditto Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil, once you account for their having been silently neutered from villains to sidekicks. Bugs is by far the worst-treated, loosing all of the manipulative cool that was his birthright as the 20th Century's finest incarnation of the Trickster Rabbit. Some of the voices work, some do not - Dee Bradley Baker's Daffy and Bill Farmer's Foghorn Leghorn are notable low points, but I'm terribly fond of Bob Bergen's Porky and Billy West's Elmer (West's Bugs is a bit whiffy); I think that none of this would matter if the characters were otherwise treated with respect, and I would again point to the example of Back in Action, where they feel right even when the voices are off.

It would be galling and insulting to the characters even if it was a good Michael Jordan brand-extension exercise, which it fundamentally is not. A big part of that is because of Jordan himself, who is a helplessly bad actor. We do not and should not expect great screen performances of professional athletes, but there's still a certain level of attainable screen presence: right around the same time this came out, Shaquille O'Neal demonstrated, in Kazaam and Steel, that while he was nobody's idea of a talented actor, he was at least able to ham it up well enough. Hell, even in Space Jam itself, Charles Barkley shows off some razor-sharp comic timing. Jordan looks utterly befogged in every one of the scenes that requires him to interact with characters that aren't there: he wears a glassy, alarmed expression and recites his lines with an uncertain lilt, like he doesn't quite trust that the filmmakers aren't going to make him look like an idiot in the final cut. At the very end of the movie, after the credits and all, Bugs, Porky, Daffy, and the Nerdlucks all tag-team on the "That's all, folks!" gag, after which Jordan raises the screen from below to ask the camera, with desperate tone to his voice and a desperate expression, "Can I go home now?" and it is the solitary true moment in his performance.

As far as a piece of animation, it's about as successful as you'd assume based on how much of a shit the filmmakers didn't give about the characters. Though one assumes that the animators, at least, understood that they were playing with sacred texts, and there are certain exaggerated reactions - Bugs, Daffy and Porky all get some, the Coyote's brief appearance is made up of almost nothing else - where it's clear that the people involved were having a lot of fun in using the toolkit of old slapstick animation in an era where that wasn't much in demand. What cannot be denied, though, is that there's a mismatch between the characters, the animation, and what they're required to do that never gets resolved. These character designs were honed in the '40s and '50s to meet a certain very particular need of low-budget, quickly-achieved, semi-limited animation. They are not meant to exist in three-dimensional space, and Space Jam puts them there, both in the careful light shading that looks simply horrible on several of the characters, and in the CG-derived 3-D spaces where most of the action takes place. I will credit the film for the sequence of Bugs and Daffy skulking around Michael's house: it's an achievement on par with anything in the then-eight-year-old Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But that film had possibly the world's finest working animation director, Richard Williams, leading a world-class team to carefully design settings and characters to make the best use of three-dimensional logic. Space Jam lacked all of that, and it has powerfully quick sports-movie editing alongside of its indifferent insertion of 2-D character into 3-D space to make the frequent Z-axis swoops and whorls even more sickly and abrupt.

There's at least one brief flash of inspired animation: a vision of Michael as a prisoner on Moron Mountain, done in bold colors and thick, comic book-inspired lines. It lasts just long enough to fill us with regret that there is not more of it.

Alongside all of this, the film is suffocated by an appalling sense of humor, that mistakes exaggerated violence for the balletic slapstick of the original Looney Tunes (or, for that matter, the bulk of American animation in the '30s, '40s, and '50s), and retrenches into the idea that shouting things is the same as having those things be funny. The adult jokes are uniquely awful: no family film, whether it stars the Looney Tunes or not, should be proud to get us thinking about Patrick Ewing having erectile dysfunction, and I would like to set on fire whichever of the writers came up with the "Patricia Heaton (who cameos for some baffling reason) thinks that the aliens in a trenchcoat are a creep masturbating at a basketball game" gag.

I find even more repulsive the brief out-of-character asides made by the cartoons themselves - Porky stammering "I w-w-w-w-wet myself" is a profoundly hateful joke that more clearly indicates how much more interested the filmmakers were in creating a shitty '90s movie for kids than dealing with the Looney Tunes in any real capacity, but the one that fills me with blood rage is Daffy idly noting "We gotta get new agents, we're getting thcrewed". And then there's the hateful matter of Lola Bunny (voiced, I concede, with really engaging energy by Kath Soucie), a transparent attempt to head off any "where are the female characters?" criticism with a sporty bunny woman who has absolutely no personality that Soucie doesn't give her, and whose visual presentation sexualises her from the first frame to the last - that is all she is. "Sporty bunny who is a girl, and is also sexy". There's nothing else. She's more like the erotic fan-art of an established character than the actual official version of the character, and I think she is the thing I hate about Space Jam the most. Which, given all the rest of the movie, is a titanic quantity of hate.




I will, throughout, use "Michael" to refer to the onscreen character, "Jordan" to refer to the real-life athlete and ostensible "actor".