Thursday, September 1, 2016

Space Jam (1996, Movie Review)

       Time passes, people grow up and it’s once again time to re-evaluate something I loved from my child hood, that being the 1996 animated sports comedy “Space Jam” to see if anything really holds up after all these years. The short answer is ... it’s by no means a great movie, it isn’t even good, but dang it all, I still “LOVE” this film. This goes to show the power of nostalgia because as I’ve grown up, I can see just how stupid and silly the film is, but it’s also a special time capsule of a film that takes me back to a treasured time from my youth. So I just can’t bring myself to hate it, or say that its completely awful. The movie is based on Nikes marketing ads for their “Air Jordan” shoes. Their advertisements were big hits, with the main attractions for their campaign being Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. With these two iconic titans at high points in their popularity, it’s no wonder that Warner Brothers came up with “Space Jam” to bank on their success, and boy did they make “bank”. You could call it a corporate sellout, but so was “The Lego Movie”, and that film was outstanding. As far as sports movies are concerned, “Space Jam” still remains the highest grossing Basketball themed movie of all time. Now ever sense 1975, there have been several theatrical animated movies themed around the classic Looney Tunes cast, most of them compilations of their episodes with additional scenes added in. “Space Jam” however was the first real feature length movie to star them, and the first of their films to utilize a similar style to “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, combining live action with traditional hand drawn animation.

       Well, if you’re going to have a movie starring the Looney Tunes, then you’re going to have a pretty loony plot to go along with it. Here’s the set up, a group of small aliens are looking for fresh new forms of entertainment for their theme park, and their evil leader decides to have the Looney Tunes abducted and brought to their Moon to live as slave entertainers. Naturally the most iconic of the Looney Tunes being the clever Bugs Bunny is able to trick the aliens into a wager. The challenge is a Basketball Game, if the tunes win, their free, but if they lose, then they’ll be comedic slaves. The aliens don’t pose much of a competition at first, but then they steal the talents of five NBA champions, transforming them into formidable creatures colorfully called “Monstars”. This is where Michael Jordan inters the picture to give the tunes the winning edge they need. Thus the game is on, and the fate of the Loony Tunes is in the hands of one of Basketballs most iconic champions. It’s a ridiculous plot to say the least, but the concept of Michal Jordon teaming up with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes to battle aliens is just too cool to pass on. 

       Lets first look at the Looney Tunes, and how their portrayed in this film. Personally, all my real child hood love and nostalgia for these characters actually begins and ends with “Space Jam”. Having said that, I’m very aware that the films portrayal of these characters is very distant from their cartoon show counterparts. Long time Loony Tune director Chuck Jones hated the movie, and found the films portrayal of these characters downright offensive. He stated that Porky Pig for example would never stoop so low as to “wet himself”, and Bugs Bunny would never need help getting out of any situation, be it invading aliens or Michal Jordon’s family dog. I can definitely respect this criticism toured the film, and I’ll definitely talk about the juvenile hummer later in this review, but like I said, I’ve never been a real fan of these characters. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them mind you, and I even respect their impact on the overall legacy of cartoon animation, as well as influence on modern comedy. However, I didn’t always enjoy their shorts, and I never even liked Bugs Bunny that much, as he just lacked the traits I loved in other iconic childhood mascots. He lacked the warm heart of say Kermit the Frog, or the mischievous innocents of Mickey Mouse, or the adventure prone heroism of Super Mario. Now I’m not saying that Bugs Bunny needed to be any of those things, he is who he is, and others can find him perfectly appealing and humorous by his own unique merits. I’m just saying that the changes to him and the Loony Tunes in general really didn’t bother me in this film. In fact, minus the comedy, I was actually very open to some of the movie’s character changes.

      There’s one stand out moment for me that really highlights why I liked this films portrayal of Bugs Bunny. Said moment being when Bugs Bunny risks his life by pushing Lola Bunny out of harm’s way before getting body slammed by one of the Monstars. This scene while short and admittedly out of character was just plain awesome, and made Bugs Bunny look good. It was my impression that Bugs Bunny was a smart but very “Care Free” individual, who had no real feelings for anyone or even himself, he just needed to outsmart whoever he came across. However, this one little scene told me that the rabbit dose in fact have a heart, and would put his own life at risk for someone he cared for. Congratulations “Space Jam”, you actually got me to respect Bugs Bunny in a way that none of his other incarnations did before. I suppose I should quickly comment on Lola Bunny as this was a character created specifically for the film. Just to further emphasize how little I knew about the Looney Tunes, I was always under the impression that Lola was a classic cartoon character from the Looney Tune roaster, and that this film was just her first crossover she had with the other characters. Well, that’s not the case, and something I never noticed as a child was just how pointless the character is. Seriously, Lola actually comes very late into the film, and aside from being the only cartoon character who can really play Basketball, she just sort of posses there in the corner. In her defense, she had team spirit, and she did at least contribute to my favorite scene in the film.

      Now let’s talk about Michael Jordan, who’s respectfully an icon in his own right. Some have complained that his acting is nothing special, but in his defense, he’s not playing a character, he’s just being himself. To be honest, there’s something charming about his laid back, everyman performance. Most celebrities are written as over the top versions of themselves, so I admire the restraint in Michael Jordan’s portrayal. He does in fact have a captivating screen presence, and he feels like a living Superman whenever he’s in front of the camera. It should be noted that while the plot is themed entirely around the Looney Tune characters, the focus of the movie is all on Michael Jordan. The movie even begins with a flashback scene when Michael as a child is shooting hoops one night with his dad, and it’s a great little scene that kind of gets me in the feels. In fact, this scene actually gives the false impression that we’re about to watch an honest biopic movie revolving around the life of this legendary Basketball player. Then when the cartoon characters come into play, it really feels out of place. Seriously, this film does not set itself up as a Looney Tunes movie at all, they just sort of pop up, and it clashes with the real world. At least “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit” setup its cartoon, live action hybrid world from the beginning.         

The main villain called Mr. Swackhammer is nothing special, but he is still kind of memorable in his own simplistic way. He’s voiced by Danny Devito, which is great, and he never fails to give villains a menacing charm. The Monstars were also some of my favorite animated villains from the 90’s, and I even had a small collection of their action figures. Admittedly, the smaller versions of the aliens are extremely annoying, and even in their monster forms, there still subject to some really stupid jokes. Never the less, they still look cool, and the animation on them is terrific. Actually one of my favorite animation highlights is the scene when the aliens make their first transformation into the Monstars. It’s a short animated spectacle with some terrific creepy imagery, and it definitely harkens back to my nostalgia for “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia”.

    On that note, the animation in this film is outstanding, and a perfect combination of CGI laced with traditional hand drawn animation. Looking back, I forgot just how colorful the film looks, every frame of animation just pops before my eyes. I love that there’s a lot of dimension to the animation, as it creates an environment that the characters can really move around in. I also love all the little details, like when the tunes are playing basketball, we can see ruff reflections of them on the floor. That must have cost some extra money to animate, but it looks terrific. One minor complaint is that the cartoon characters mostly stay in their own cartoon world. One of the many charms of “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit” was seeing these cartoon characters in the real live action world, and moving real props. There is at least one great scene where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck venture into Michal Jordon’s house to retrieve some of his Basketball equipment. This scene has all the good stuff, animated characters interacting with a live action environment, and on a side note, even though I’ve never been a fan, I still love seeing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck together, exchanging witty remarks and getting into comedic situations.   

       Unfortunately, this leads me into my biggest issue with the film ... the comedy and hummer for the most part in this film is plain awful! It’s a shame too because this movie was produced by Ivan Reitman, the same talent who gave us films like “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes”. Well, something just went wrong with this film as the hummer is about as juvenile and childish as they get. It’s clearly hummer aimed at little kids, toddlers actually, and even though I never really watched any of the original Looney Tune shorts, I know there method of comedy was much smarter than this. In fact, from what I understand, their method of comedy was a main influence for modern day cartoons like “The Simpsons”. Again, compared to “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, that film had a charm and sense of hummer that could be appealing to kids and adults alike, this film doesn’t. But the bad comedy doesn’t stop with the Looney Tunes, it actually gets worse with the live action cast. Comedian Wayne Knight, who I’ve loved in other films and TV shows is reduced to an annoying side character. Bill Murray makes an appearance, which isn’t that funny, but it is amusing as he clearly doesn’t care about the movie he’s in, and I love how he refers to Lola as just “the girl bunny”. There’s also a sub plot revolving around the NBA Basketball players who lost their talent, and their scenes are the worst parts of the movie by far. There acting is terrible, their dialogue is atrocious, and we even have to sit through long, LONG montage of them just acting like losers.

     I will admit that the basketball elements of the film were done fairly well, but keep in mind this comment is coming from someone who doesn’t really like sports movies. I will say that whenever I watched this film as a kid, it made me want to go outside and play basketball or other sports games. I was not a sports kid at all, so I’ll always have a fondness for this film because it made me want to go out and play sports. Even at the climax of the film when Michal Jordon scores the final shot, it still gives me a little thrill inside, and a triumphant feel of satisfaction afterward. Although I did hate how abruptly the movie ends. After winning the game, the aliens return him back to the human world, no one questions where he’s been, or why he was on a space ship, then he rejoins the Chicago Bulls and the film just stops, like the plug was just pulled out. Even the Looney Tunes just seem to drop out of the film, as they don’t get a proper good-bye scene. Although there is an amusing little after credit scene with the characters parodying the famous “That’s All Folks” closing statement. On a side note, I do love the ending credits themselves as we see still photos of the film in the backdrop as opposed to the more traditional and boring black background. Someone in Hollywood needs to bring this cliché back into form because I love it. It’s kind of a nostalgic way to reflect on the experience we had, and I wish more movies would do it.

      Now let’s talk about the soundtrack, because for me, this was the best thing about the movie by far. In fact, much like “Batman Forever”, this is one of those cases where the soundtrack to the movie is better than the movie itself. I listened to this soundtrack all the time as a kid, and these songs were every bit as memorable as any of the popular Disney songs of the time. I think most of us still remember the “Jam” theme song that played during the flashy opening credit sequence. My personal favorite song is “Fly Like An Eagle” performed by Seal, which is one of those songs that really got me pumped to go outside and play. Of course the big song that we all still remember is “I Believe I Can Fly” performed by R. Kelly. This song still remains a classic product of the 90’s and still gets me in the nostalgic feels every time I hear it.

     As a kid, I always wanted to see a sequel to “Space Jam”, but it never happened. There was however another theatrical live action crossover with animation movie in 2003 titled “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”, which I found to be very forgettable in comparison to “Space Jam”. There are stories of a “Space Jam 2” in development, and that Lebron James would star in it. This idea has some potential, but I think the novelty of a “Space Jam” sequel has worn out its welcome. It was something special for us kids in the 90’s, and a nostalgic gem to look back on, but unlike “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, it wasn’t a film to last over the ages. It’s a perfectly harmless film to entertain kids, but there are obviously better movies out there to show them instead. I will say that the “Looney Tunes” have become less popular for the new generation of children, and maybe something like “Space Jam” could be a nice way to re-introduce Bugs Bunny and his classic ensemble of cartoon characters to future generations of kids. It’s undeniably a silly film, not for adults or anyone that didn’t grow up with it, but the movie still brings a smile to my face, and leaves me feeling warmly nostalgic.     

                                                    I give “Space Jam” 3 stars out of 5.    

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