An All-Too-Serious Breakdown of ‘Space Jam’

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on a podcast that I had never seen Space Jam. A subset of readers, probably younger, reacted as if missing Space Jam were an impossible thing — the equivalent of having skipped The Sandlot or Field of Dreams.

A couple weeks after that podcast, a package arrived in the mail. A team executive, who will remain anonymous so as to spare him/her/it of profound humiliation, had listened to the podcast, decided it was untenable that a Grantland NBA writer had never seen Space Jam, and sent me a DVD of the movie.

Here is what it is like to lose your Space Jam virginity at age 36. I went in cold, having done zero background research and knowing only the vague outlines of the plot.

I dimly recall a scene from The Simpsons, or perhaps some other show, in which characters meet with executives from a big movie studio and pitch a terrible mash-up idea — one of those “X meets Y” one-sentence scams that is more marketing ploy than film. The executives respond enthusiastically and hand over a fat sack with a dollar sign on it.

This has to be how Space Jam became a movie. This is not a movie. It is officially listed at 88 minutes, but the opening and concluding credits take up about 18 minutes combined. Space Jam is barely an hour, with a plot that doesn’t really make sense and dozens of story holes the writers could easily have filled with entertaining bits had anyone cared.

“Look, we’ve locked in Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes. That’s gold! Just crank out five pages of whatever story comes to mind first — maybe some intergalactic amusement-park troll steals the talent of NBA stars, I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud here — and shoot this damn thing. Every kid in America will force their parents into paying to watch this.”

For those in need of a quick refresher: There is a struggling amusement park called Moron Mountain on another planet. The park’s boss thinks he can salvage the business by going to Earth, snatching the Looney Tunes, and forcing them work as slave acts at the park.

His alien minions use laser technology to subdue the Tunes, but the Tunes convince the aliens they should have one chance to win back their freedom. Since the aliens are short, the Tunes decide to challenge them to a basketball game. But the aliens use space magic to steal the talents (and size) of several NBA players: Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Shawn Bradley. The tiny aliens become the giant Monstars.

The Tunes kidnap Michael Jordan for their cause, even though Jordan is whiffing as a baseball player in the minor leagues. Then there is a winner-take-all game.

The recurring problem in the movie is that nobody takes the stakes seriously. A UFO flies over the Birmingham Barons’ stadium toward the start of the movie, and the entire crowd glances at it for a couple seconds before gazing back down on the field to watch Michael Jordan strike out.

A young Patricia Heaton (credited as “Woman Fan”) attends a Knicks game the Monstars are scouting, turns to see this obviously nonhuman entity sitting next to her, and calmly tells her companion she thinks the mystery man might be up to something under his raincoat. That’s your takeaway? It’s a space alien!

HEATON

Warner Bros.

The Tunes suck Michael Jordan down a freaking golf hole during a round with Larry Bird and Bill Murray, who is a goddamned American hero, by the way, and Bird and Murray walk off the course expressing mild concern. “I’d hate to just leave him like that,” Bird says.

No kidding. You think it’s maybe a bit cavalier to walk away like nothing happened when the greatest basketball player ever just vanished down a golf hole? You don’t want to call the police?

Only Wayne Knight, a.k.a. Newman, reacts with appropriate urgency, spending hours digging a giant hole to find out what happened to Jordan. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck walk right by a digging Knight during their mission to retrieve Jordan’s sneakers and University of North Carolina shorts, and they don’t seem to care if Knight notices them. They don’t even lower their voices. You are cartoon characters having just emerged from the center of the Earth to walk amongst man. This is literally the most important scientific event that has happened on Earth in decades, perhaps centuries. Make some effort to conceal yourselves!

Bugs and Daffy are so sloppy going through Jordan’s house that they wake up his kids, who walk into the living room, note the presence of two cartoon characters, and express no astonishment. The kids are aware their father is missing, and the Tunes kindly inform the little Jordans that they have essentially kidnapped him to force him to play in a basketball game. Jordan’s kids seem unconcerned and go back to bed.

I had no idea Knight was in the movie, and I’m not sure any random character actor has appeared as the goofy-doomed sidekick in as many landmark films as he. He’s also the only person who seems to understand the seriousness of the proceedings. He follows Jordan down into the Looney Tunes wormhole, and when he encounters the gang practicing, he asks Jordan, “You know all your friends are cartoon characters, right?” FINALLY.

Knight’s zeal to play in the game is endearing, and his plea to Jordan gives us maybe the best non-Murray line in the movie: “I may not be tall, but I am slow.” That is a great general road map for a joke: Use the first clause of a sentence to set up viewer expectations for what the second clause will be, and flip those expectations on their head. That model probably reached its pop-culture apex on 30 Rock, which mined it in almost every episode.

It also produced my favorite line from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, when Jim Carrey tells Courteney Cox to leave him alone so he can investigate the dolphin pool: “If I’m not back in five minutes — [pause for effect] — just wait longer.” Boom.

The lack of urgency manifests itself most disappointingly in the basketball scenes — both in the Tunes’ practices and during the climactic game. Jordan is the Tunes’ player-coach, but by the end, it’s clear he has done nothing to prepare the team. Lola Bunny, a thoughtless Jessica Rabbit rip-off for Bugs to ogle, is the only Tune who appears to understand what basketball is.

Her entire tryout consists of an ankle-breaking crossover of Bugs, a dunk, and a sexy saunter out of the gym. No matter — she’s already the best non-Jordan player, and by a mile. Porky Pig wears a bowtie during the game, faints when Jordan yells at him in the locker room, calls for the team to forfeit at halftime even though they are facing enslavement, and pees himself. Thanks for coming out, Porky.

Daffy, whom Jordan starts despite an obvious lack of any talent, dresses for the game like this:

DAFFY

Warner Bros.

Yosemite Sam apparently thinks the point of the sport is to fire gunshots at the basketball in midair. Foghorn Leghorn, whose size should have been essential against the Monstars, has absolutely no clue, and dribbles down the floor aimlessly while (literally) whistling “Dixie.”

Jordan barely uses the Roadrunner, but, given the Tunes’ size disadvantage, they really should have attacked the Monstars by spacing the floor with speed and 3-point shooting.

When the Tunes are down 77-76 with 10 seconds left, Jordan calls timeout and gives the following instructions: “Somebody steal the ball, give it to me, and I’ll score before time runs out.” GREAT JOB, COACH.

Jordan’s pregame speech might be even worse: “Let’s just go out and have fun.” Oh, hey, you’re facing a lifetime of slavery at an amusement park, no biggie, jack some half-court shots if you want.

Jordan does make a few good adjustments in the second half. He inserts Knight at the right time, and comes up with the ingenious gambit of outfitting his team with gas masks and unleashing Pepé Le Pew to spray the court and incapacitate the Monstars with his stink.

Le Pew also commits a blatant basket interference during the Tunes’ huge comeback:

JAMPEPE

Warner Bros.

Neither side appears to have discussed the rules or really prepared at all. The fat villain who runs Moron Mountain attends the game and has no idea who Michael Jordan even is. Seriously? You did no scouting?

The two sides somehow select Marvin the Martian to referee the game, even though he has a long history of hatching evil schemes. He is either incompetent or a willful enabler of violence and rule-breaking. The Monstars brutalize the Tunes, slamming them with forearms, tackling them, and tossing them around the court. One of them even uses Elmer Fudd as a golf club to swing at a teed-up Tweety Bird:

JAMGOLF

Warner Bros.

Bugs straight-up rides a scooter. Lola kicks one of the Monstars in the face on her way up for a dunk. Wile E. Coyote attaches dynamite to the Monstars’ offensive basket, and on one second half possession, detonates it as a Monstar is rising for a dunk. I mean, if that’s allowed, why is Coyote not playing the whole game? Where is Jordan on these rotation decisions?

The funniest moments of the movie are just throwaway bits in plot-advancement scenes when the cartoon characters express their personalities. That’s the sad part about the movie being so short and skimping on the plot: Any exposition scene would have been perfect territory for the Tunes to be all loony in the background.

Just dumb stuff like this, when Jordan tumbles through the vortex, lands with a thud in the Tunes’ universe, and draws Olympic-style judgment from the Tunes crew:

JUDGE

Warner Bros.

Porky’s so dumb, he gives it an 11. Le Pew, the French lover, goes with the heart, and Leghorn writes his score exactly as he’d say it.

In what should be the most important meeting of their lives, the Tunes take about 15 seconds to determine that a basketball game gives them the best chance against the Monstars — even though none of them has a clue how to play. Sylvester the Cat yells to get the attention of the room, presumably to suggest a better alternative, and instead proceeds to map out a plan for snatching and eating Tweety.

That stuff is the best — the single-mindedness of cartoon characters who cannot be distracted from the one goal that drives their every breath, even when their lives are at stake. Sylvester just wants to kill a bird, and Yosemite Sam just wants to shoot stuff.

The movie gives us almost nothing of the team practicing, preparing a strategy, or deciding its roster. Ten minutes of that would have produced at least three or four killer gags.

The filmmakers probably left some of that out in the interest of making a breezy movie for kids. This isn’t The Godfather. I get it. But some of it is just sloppiness. Knight makes a clutch jumper just before all the Monstars pile on him, flattening the poor sap into a giant pancake. The Tunes inflate him, and as Knight floats through the air farting out excess gas, we see a glimpse of the scoreboard — with the Tunes down by 10:

SCORE1

Warner Bros.

About 25 seconds of actual movie time goes by as Knight deflates. There is no game action during those 25 seconds; everyone just stands around, talking about Knight’s predicament. The movie then cuts back up to the scoreboard, to reveal a 9-0 run that never occurred:

SCORE2

Warner Bros.

I mean, come on! At least try to cover up the fact that you produced this movie as quickly as possible for marketing purposes!

The same thing happens in the first half, when the Monstars are scoring so often, their point total on the scoreboard spins like a slot machine before the scoreboard operator gives up:

HALFTIME

Warner Bros.

We clearly see the total spin into the 70s, and probably higher, but when the teams come out for the second half, the Monstars are up only 66-20. Really slipshod effort by the Monstars in failing to monitor this chicanery.

The cameos are obviously great. Bogues is the best among the non-Jordan NBA guys, even better than Barkley, with solid comic timing. Shawn Bradley is a bad version of the Saturday Night Live host who reads cue cards in a borderline monotone, though it is funny watching him lose control of his giant limbs as the Monstars swipe his talent.

There is a Lakers-centric subplot the movie abandons halfway through featuring Del Harris, Cedric Ceballos, and Vlade Divac deciding whether the team should play, given the mysterious ailments flying around the league. Divac is predictably great, warning Harris, “This could be Invasion of the Body Snatchers!”

But I can’t articulate the crushing disappointment I felt when the NBA commissioner appeared at the Lakers game:

COMMISH

Warner Bros.

That is not David Stern. That person does not look or sound like David Stern. He did not make any condescending remarks to reporters at this press conference.

This needed to be included in every Stern retirement retrospective last season: “Along with the Tim Donaghy scandal, black marks on Stern’s tenure included his refusal to participate in Space Jam.”

A warning to Adam Silver: If they make a Space Jam sequel with a role for the commissioner, clear your schedule. Your legacy is on the line.

Jordan was shockingly good — way better than the other NBA players. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering Jordan is a charismatic dude with years of experience acting in commercials and other things. But none of the dialogue feels forced, his timing is smooth, and the man can throw some shade at Knight:

SHADE

Warner Bros.

He’s also good at making classic Jordan game faces while playacting with nonexistent cartoons:

FACE

Warner Bros.

He cannot, however, make the golf-course high five look cool. Not even Jordan can pull that off without looking like an idiot.

The hero of the movie is Bill Murray, who could have just mailed in an “I’m slumming in this piece of crap so I can hang out with Michael Jordan and snag a huge paycheck” performance. No way. Murray is on fire, toeing his usual line between asshole arrogance and sad-sack lovability.

He holds his golf swing extension for several seconds, just to show off how good he is. He repeatedly suggests he could play in the NBA, and when Jordan dismisses the possibility, Murray aggressively plays the race card: “It’s because I’m white, isn’t it?” He cockily interrupts Jordan’s last-second timeout to diagram a play, dramatically announces his retirement from basketball right after assisting on Jordan’s game-winning dunk, and steals every scene in which he appears. Again: Bill Murray is an American hero.

The movie actually plays around with some real issues! Murray brings up race, and when Bugs passes around a mysterious drink that gives him giant muscles, I got my hopes up that Space Jam was going to make a bold defense of performance-enhancing drugs. (Nope. Turns out the Tunes were just drinking water, and needed only to believe in themselves).

And, most memorably, Bugs and Daffy complain about not seeing any money from all the merchandise plastered with their images. That could have been an exhibit in the O’Bannon case!

In the Knicks-Suns game the Monstars scout, Danny Ainge attempts what might be the worst shot by a real NBA player in any basketball-related movie, ever. Ainge gets the ball with eight seconds left on the shot clock and flings it at the rim as if the shot clock is running down. I wonder if Ainge even remembers this disgraceful cameo.

I legitimately had no idea “Basketball Jones” was remade into a Barry White–Chris Rock joint for this movie. I was so clueless about the influence of Space Jam.

Not anymore! Space Jam doesn’t really work for an adult, but there’s just enough NBA and cartoon goodness peppered in there to make it semi-watchable. I’m in for a sequel.

Filed Under: Movies, space jam, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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