Sunday, December 8, 2013

Space Jam (Warner Bros., 1996)

I’d like to take a moment now to step back in time. While Warner had distributed and even produced several feature animated films before starting their own studio - and we’ll be covering a number of those later - this is the film that really convinced them to go ahead with Warner Bros. Feature Animation, so I‘m giving it honorary inclusion. Like how everyone counts Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing as a Vertigo book even though it predates the imprint. (That’s a reference people get, right?) With that in mind, I’d like to take a look at this one, before I go ahead with the review of WBFA’s final film, which is directly related to it.

As for this one, its genesis is pretty easy to explain. Warner Bros’ most famous characters by a looooong shot are the classic Looney Tunes gang, but by the mid-90s, they weren’t up to much but Saturday morning reruns and the occasional advertisement. One such ad campaign was a set of Nike ads featuring Bugs Bunny and basketball legend Michael Jordan playing some one-on-one. The ads proved so popular that Warner decided to adapt them for a full-length Looney Tunes/Michael Jordan basketball epic. Armed with the forces of brand synergy and the ubiquitous 90s slang term “jam”, they went to work.

ATHLETICISM!

COMMERCIALISM!

CONSUMERISM!

CAPITALISM!

NIKE!

IS IT IN YOU?

I’M LOVING IT!

BUY OUR PRODUCT!

BECAUSE OF SPACE JAM!




I guess I shouldn’t knock crass commercialism, since this movie made buckets of money for its producers. But “producers” is very key there, because it sure is a movie that was produced, and not, you know, written or directed. Almost literally. It was nominally directed by well-regarded commercial and music video director Joe Pytka, but it’s kind of an open secret that most of the actual directing work was done by producer Ivan Reitman. Still, I’d rather assume this was done by an advertising guy in over his head than the guy who made Ghostbusters. As for the writing, the screenplay is credited to a team of writers, most of whom have done some decent stuff. But the film is still a disjointed mess that seems to be constantly forgetting that it’s meant to be a Looney Tunes movie with basketball, not a basketball movie with Looney Tunes.

And a basketball movie it is. In fact, we’re nearly 15 minutes into the film before the Looney Tunes put in their first appearance. What are we spending our time with? NBA legend Michael Jordan, who discusses his childhood dream of becoming a baseball player in an inspirational scene with his dad set to an R. Kelly song, this being made at a time when R. Kelly was just an annoyingly ubiquitous R&B crooner, before he became a famous pervert and then a hilarious lunatic. The film then whisks us away to 1993, where we see Jordan’s retirement from the NBA to start a new career as a mediocre baseball player. The murder of his father, which killed his love of basketball and left him wanting to try a baseball career, is not mentioned, obviously. I can’t blame them for leaving it out, but it really does make it look like a stupid and random decision, which is soon to become a hallmark of this movie.

I hope you like that expression, because it's the only one Jordan's got.

Then there’s some stuff about his disappointing baseball game (he wasn’t great, but the film rather oddly depicts him as worse than he was in real life), and his wacky dog, and his new personal assistant, who is played by Wayne Knight trying way too hard. Though as one of only two actual actors in the film’s live-action cast, it’s nice to see him trying at all. The other, you see, is Bill Murray, playing himself as “guy who’s in the movie because he’s friends with Ivan Reitman”. Not kidding, they actually make that joke. That probably went over a few heads.

Anyway, after an interminable amount of Michael Jordan playing baseball and golf, we finally see some animated characters. Specifically a Danny DeVito-voiced, Danny DeVito-shaped monster called Swackhammer, whose name is not spoken until the last few minutes of the movie, and his tiny assistants, who don‘t get names at all. Swackhammer runs “Moron Mountain“, a space amusement park that is failing badly. Why is this? Is it because the design aesthetic is terrible, ugly, and blatantly evil? Is it because the rides are either lethal or boring? No. Is it because it’s called Moron Mountain? No, it’s because they haven’t enslaved the Looney Tunes characters to perform standup comedy or something. Let’s fix that.

MOVE, JACKASS. I WANT TO WATCH LOONEY TUNES.

But after tantalizing us with some Looney Tunes clips played on some TVs in the background, it’s back to Michael Jordan family drama, more baseball stuff, and after an intolerable amount of that, it’s FINALLY time for the freaking characters we came here to see. Swackhammer’s little assistants show up to forcibly recruit the Tunes to Moron Mountain, and in some truly stupid scenes, decide that if the Looney Tunes beat them at basketball, they won’t kidnap them. Oh, look, a plot has finally presented itself.

In order to gain an advantage over the Looney Tunes, the little guys travel to Earth (oh yeah, the Tunes live in another dimension or something. It’s not very clear,) in order to steal basketball talent from NBA players, thus setting up cameos by Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson, who show up in recurring cutaways for the rest of the film showing them undergoing various physical and psychological tests in order to determine why they are suddenly incompetent at basketball. These gags are the funniest part of the movie, which is why I bring them up here, despite them having nothing to do with the plot.

"I don't know why we're here either."

Actually, I‘ve already spent far more space on plot than I normally do, and I‘m not sure why. Probably because this isn‘t the kind of bad movie that‘s fun to discuss. It’s basically artistically bankrupt. The plot is, as you can tell, complete nonsense. It’s only there to set up the basketball game which was the movie’s entire reason for being. And really, that’s the rest of the plot. Armed with the talent of some of the greatest basketball players ever (and Shawn Bradley. ZING.) the little guys turn into giant basketball players and, now dubbed “The Monstars”, trounce the Tunes in an exhibition game. So the Tunes kidnap Michael Jordan to be coach and captain for their team, the “Tune Squad”. There are many wacky gags. The Tune Squad wins. Michael returns to Earth in a spaceship and scores the winning home run, then goes back to basketball, his love for it having been rekindled by the Looney Tunes. Just like in real life.

The writing is really bad. I mean, let’s be honest, in a Looney Tunes movie, the plot can more or less be total garbage if the gags are funny. But like I said, this isn’t a Looney Tunes movie, it’s a Michael Jordan movie. And all the stuff about Jordan is dead air. We don’t care about it, and despite the best efforts of Wayne Knight, it’s not funny. They could have improved the movie immensely, and saved themselves a good 20 minutes if they had just started with Swackhammer on Moron Mountain, gave two minutes of exposition before his henchmen go after the Looney Tunes, and then have the Tunes bring Jordan into it. You know how much setup Jordan needs? NONE. He is, to quote the Broadway musical The Full Monty, “MICHAEL FRICKIN’ JORDAN”. We all know who he is. The advertisements that inspired this movie relied on the audience knowing exactly who he was as soon as we saw him.

But even if they had opened up with the Tunes, there’s a larger problem at play, and that’s that said Tunes are written terribly. Sure, going into the classic films, most of them are jerks. Bugs, Daffy, the Road Runner, etc, all made us laugh by being jerky to Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, the Coyote, etc, who were all bigger jerks. But there’s a pleasant, winking sort of subversive anarchy to their jerkiness in the classic cartoons that is lost here. A major part of that involves their opening scenes, when the Tunes heap abuse on the tiny, non-threatening aliens. The aliens pose no threat to them, even with their ray guns, and the Tunes mock them and injure them. The key to the Looney Tunes’ classic jerkiness is the power balance between the protagonists and antagonists. The antagonist should always be more powerful. A hunter, a gangster, a predator, and yes, an alien invader - but Marvin had powerful super-weapons and an army of Instant Martians, as well as a powerful brain. These little ones are small, weak, and stupid. The only equivalent in existing Looney Tunes antagonists is Henery Hawk, and even he managed to present a credible threat once in a while. This sets up a common theme of the movie. The Looney Tunes don’t seem looney, they seem like mean, petty, spiteful bullies. And I haven’t even mentioned Lola.

Yes, you aren't the worst original characters in the movie, ya jerks.

I have no problem with adding characters to the Warner Bros. roster. I certainly have no problem with adding female characters, as there is an insane lack of them in the Looney Tunes universe. (Granny is the only major recurring one, with Witch Hazel, Melissa Duck, and Petunia Pig infrequently recurring.) But Lola is terrible. What are her personality traits? She’s sexy. And good at basketball. And that’s it. She's there for Bugs to chase after. Her plot function is one based purely on sexism. Is it any wonder that she’s the only player who never gets an amusing cartoon injury? In fact, the moment that she decides she likes Bugs after all is when he saves her from getting clobbered by a Monstar. “Oh, the big strong man, saved me, I guess I love him after all.” That’s not a good female character, that’s a fakeout. And what good is a Looney Tune that can’t get clobbered? For a better description of why I hate her as a character, read this Tumblr post, which is both eloquent and concise, and I cannot improve on it. (It also mentions a later incarnation of the character which is good. More on that in "Additional Thoughts".)

The acting is mostly fine. Jordan isn’t an actor by a long stretch, but he is naturally charismatic, and his flat delivery sometimes lands a joke. He’s like a toddler acting on a sitcom, where you’re mostly just happy they remembered the whole line, and there’s something charming about their bad acting. I’m talking to you, Lilly from Modern Family. The Tunes, most of whom were originally voiced by the late Mel Blanc, are played by a variety of talented voice actors. Unlike Disney, Warner doesn’t have ‘official’ replacement voices who take over full-time, but casts on a movie-by-movie basis. Billy West isn’t my favorite Bugs, but he does all right, and his Elmer is fantastic. Dee Bradley Baker is one of the best Daffy guys they have, and also does a fine Tazmanian Devil, though not as good as Jim Cummings. The harsher voices of Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, and Sylvester are all excellently done by Bill Farmer (who, incidentally, is the official Goofy for Disney). Bob Bergen handles Porky, Tweety, and a number of minor characters. Granny and Witch Hazel are voiced by June Foray, the only original Looney Tunes actor in the film. (The only one still alive, in fact.) Maurice LaMarche plays Pepe Le Pew, and makes the most of his few lines. And Lola is Kath Soucie, who I’ve always found pretty generic, which just adds to the problem.

I think this makes him taller than the actual Danny DeVito.

There are two final things I’ll say about this: I loved it when I was a kid, and it made boatloads of money for Warner Bros. So it certainly succeeded on those levels. Even to this day, I’ve gotten more bewildered, shocked, angry reactions for saying I don’t like Space Jam than for any other critical viewpoint I hold. And I’m a noted fan of From Justin to Kelly, for cripes’ sake. (I don’t think it’s any good, mind. I’m just a fan of it.) People really love Space Jam, and I can’t get into it. A Looney Tunes movie where the Looney Tunes don’t show up for 15 minutes, play second fiddle to a non-actor, and have a terrible, somewhat offensive new character added. F minus. But it made heaping pots of money, and they did make a pseudo-sequel eventually, and that’s what we’ll look at next time.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

* Lola was eventually brought back in the excellent TV series “The Looney Tunes Show”, and, as the Tumblr post indicated, she finally fits. Many fans of Space Jam derided her character on the new show, as her personality was now flighty, indecisive, airheaded, and romantically obsessed with Bugs, but these people are wrong. For one thing, she actually HAS a personality. And while it’s true that she’s not the finest feminist role model, I’d say that a flaky character with a real personality and agency is better than a plot device character with no personality. They’ve also given her a friend and co-worker, Tina, so now she doesn’t have the burden of being the only female character in the entire group, and she’s played by Kristen Wiig, who ad-libs much of her dialogue, which means - and this is the most important bit of all - SHE’S ACTUALLY FUNNY. And she’s no longer above the abuses and injuries that Looney Tunes are prone to. She finally belongs!

Here she is having more facial expressions in three seconds than she had during the entirety of Space Jam.

* If you doubt my assertion that Lola was added purely for sex appeal, I invite you to - with no children around - browse the Lola Bunny tag on Tumblr. If a post is about her in her Space Jam form, it will usually be sex-based. If it’s in her Looney Tunes Show form, it will usually be comedy-based. Case rested.

* Also, the name "Lola", which has so many sexual connotations that it's mentioned in the second paragraph of the name's Wikipedia article.

* And yes, it’s Tunes, not Toons. That’s just one of the many reasons I don’t like Tiny Toons.

* The animation, incidentally, was fine. Maybe a little heavy on the light and shadows to make the Tunes look more 3-dimensional. Bruce Smith was the animation director, and you all know I like him. Actually, he worked on Roger Rabbit, too.

* Boy, I’d thought I’d seen Bill Murray phoning it in before, but this is impressive.

"Try? No, I don't think I'll be doing that. I have a quixotic quest for an Oscar to embark on. Now where's my terrible FDR makeup?"

* That said, when he turns up on the court and Swackhammer yells “I didn’t know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture!” it gave me my biggest laugh of the movie, so I guess that’s okay.

* They throw the word “slaves“ around pretty casually in this movie. It‘s hard to find the humor in Bugs Bunny loudly shouting “Dey‘re gonna make us SLAVES, doc!” It gets even worse when we briefly get a glimpse of Jordan chained up and forced to work at the amusement park. So all you future writers, take note. Maybe avoid comedy plots involving slavery?

* The referee for the big game is Marvin the Martian, which is a gag I quite like, as he is the only possible impartial judge in a match between Looney Tunes and aliens, being both himself. And his status as a villain explains why he won’t call any personal fouls. Either that or he trained under the Globetrotters.

* While “I Believe I Can Fly” and Seal’s cover of “Fly Like an Eagle” were the breakout hits on the soundtrack, there was one legitimately awesome song that has been criminally overlooked, and that’s “Hit ‘Em High”, a theme for the Monstars that only plays in the background of one scene. Since the Monstars stole the talent of basketball’s best players, this song is performed by five of the best rappers ever, namely Coolio, Busta Rhymes, Method Man, LL Cool J, and B-Real.

"You promise this movie will make me enough to pay off my massive gambling debts?"

* I was planning on recalling the (and Shawn Bradley) joke from before and making fun of one of the rappers, but really those are all solid choices. If I was to mock one of them, it would probably be Method Man, because he was in a movie about haunted weed, B-Real because he’s the least famous (on his own, that is; he’s the main guy from Cypress Hill), or LL Cool J because he’s pretty goofy.

* By the time this movie was released, Barkley, Johnson, and Bradley were all playing on different teams than they were when it was filmed leaving their uniforms as accidental advertisements for their former teams. Though I suppose it‘s accurate to the film‘s timeline, being an accurate story of Michael Jordan‘s retirement.

* One of the Monstars is voiced by character actor Dorian Harewood, who is notable for turning up in all sorts of weird places, and also for me thinking he’s classy British actor David Harewood every time I see his name in animation credits.

* I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the 1996 Space Jam website is still operational, and it is pretty glorious. Here’s the link.

* And here’s a Lola clip from The Looney Tunes show, giving us all hope for the future.


2 comments:

  1. I'm fairly certain most people who get angry at someone not liking this are those who have hazy memories of loving it as a kid and haven't seen it in two decades.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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