Mar 20, 2015
What the f@#% is the big deal about Space Jam?
So everybody’s talking about Space Jam again. How did that happen?
It’s become obvious to me that Space Jam, for better or for worse, has ended up way more culturally significant than anyone could have predicted at the time. By all rights, it should’ve been a minor footnote in the lives of everyone involved. It was financially successful, but didn’t make any major waves or spawn a new franchise. It was critically panned, but not so much as to be particularly infamous. So back in 1996, there was no reason to believe it would be anything more than an occasionally remembered mistake. “Oh yeah, Michael Jordan was in a movie with Bugs Bunny that one time.”
But Space Jam didn’t disappear. Not only is the movie’s official website still online, totally unchanged since 1996, but it apparently so imprinted itself on our collective cultural psyche that 18 years later, the very mention of it lit Twitter ablaze, and opened up a generational schism that no one had noticed until now. How that happened, one can only guess.
…And my guess is that apparently my own personal experience with Space Jam was eerily identical to that of my fellow Millennials.
I was about 7 or 8 when my parents handed me a VHS copy of Space Jam to add to my cadre of electronic babysitters. And like every video I had at that age, I watched it again, and again, and again, until I could recite it from memory. Many years later, when I discovered the internet and these people called “critics” who wrote things called “reviews”, I was a little shocked and discouraged to learn that Space Jam, my childhood classic, the epic conflict between the Tune Squad and the MonStars, the Titanomachy of my generation… was popularly considered to be not a very good movie. Eager to fit in, and developing a budding love for movies and the critiquing thereof, I found myself accepting this as simple fact. “Yeah, Space Jam, what a dumb movie, huh?” I would say, while secretly singing that hopelessly addicting Quad City DJ’s song to myself.
But that was the early 2000s. Generation X still largely controlled the voice of the internet. They had been teenagers when Space Jam came out, old enough to recognize obvious commercial cash-ins when they saw them. To Gen-Xers, Space Jam was, at best, a cheesy time capsule of Michael Jordan’s brief dominance of the popular culture, and at worst, the Looney Tunes completely selling out. And I listened to them. After all, they were older and (I told myself) wiser. I wanted to be like them, and I wanted to be a funny and insightful critic that everyone would listen to.
But little did I know that I wasn’t alone. There were legions of Millennials, people my own age for whom Space Jam had also been a VHS classic that defined their childhoods as it did mine, waiting in the wings. They were growing older, and before long they stepped forward to inherit the internet.
In just a few short years, Space Jam went from the butt of ridicule, to semi-ironically appreciated guilty pleasure, to the face of ‘90s-stalgia. Somehow, due to nothing more than timing, Space Jam has become the cultural dividing point between Gen-Xers and Millennials, between whom the internet is now split. No need to quibble over dates any longer to determine which generation you belong to. If you hate Space Jam, you’re a Gen-Xer. If you like it, you’re a Millennial.
And with a recent hoax about the possibility of Space Jam 2 starring LeBron James, suddenly all of this generational contention that had been simmering under the surface boiled over all at once. Who would’ve thought a silly kid’s movie adapted from a Nike commercial could send the internet into a civil war almost two decades after it came out?
So I suppose the question must be asked: Is Space Jam maybe a good movie after all?…No, not terribly, though it’s also not nearly as vile as its reputation has sometimes suggested. The film never was exactly one of the great critical failures. Even the notorious stickler Gene Siskel sided with his cohort Roger Ebert (may they both rest in peace) in giving it a thumbs up. What the film is is just kind of average, made memorable only by a few odd moments of WTFery.
It’s only as an adult that it strikes me as rather bizarre that the film is essentially Michael Jordan fan fiction, in the way it centers itself around Jordan’s real, actual life and career. The film opens with a flashback to his childhood with his dad, whose death led into Jordan’s decision (both in the film and in reality) to quit basketball for baseball, all of which happened only three years prior.
There’s the welcome fact that, despite being based on a sneaker commercial, most of the product placement is rush-delivered in one jokey line of dialogue in an almost satirical fashion. There’s the fact that Bill Murray is in this, playing himself for some reason. There’s the fact that they put a Pulp Fiction reference into a children’s movie*. And there’s the fact that I’m starting to sound like a Buzzfeed article, and I should probably end this line of thought.
[*As a kid, obviously having yet to actually see Pulp Fiction, I thought it was a Men in Black joke.]
But seriously, watching it now, the film isn’t terrible—it’s just not particularly good. There’s some off-color humor that didn’t need to be there, most of the good jokes are recycled from the Looney Tunes’ old shorts, and the story doesn’t quite flow. Jordan’s character arc, if you can call it that, is nothing but him going back to basketball at the end, without any clear reason why saving the Looney Tunes from aliens motivated him to do it. If they could have somehow tied it into the loss of his dad, they might’ve had something. But despite opening the movie with his dad and talk of baseball as though it would matter later, none of it is ever brought up again.
And I suppose I have to address the elephant in the room: Lola Bunny, perhaps the most reviled character to have a lasting impact on the Looney Tunes franchise. Yes, in this, her first appearance, she was rather one-note and not very interesting. At the same time, she or a character very much like her was inevitable, and to be honest, badly needed. Tiny Toon Adventures had just recently proven there was room and demand for a worthy female counterpart to Bugs Bunny, and only a few of the Lady Tunes they already had ever got much attention (it still bugs me that you never see Petunia Pig anymore; she and Porky were a cute couple).
And yes, there’s the sex appeal factor when it comes to Lola, which I know weirds a lot of people out. It was pandering and a bit too risqué for the target audience. But hey, it was a post-Jessica Rabbit world. And well, I won’t lie, the ‘90s were kind of the birth of mainstream furry icons. Between Lola, Minerva Mink, Gadget Hackwrench, and Callie Briggs, I’m surprised any kid left the decade without a taste for it. But the intricacies and cultural history of the furry movement are a whole ‘nother article, and until certain sectors of the internet stop throwing around reactionary accusations of bestiality, that discussion’s never going anywhere anyway. For now, let’s just agree that Lola Bunny’s debut was a little underwritten but mostly harmless, and move on.
In defense of my beloved Space Jam, the film definitely has a charm to it, even without the aid of nostalgia goggles. For one thing, the premise is just so outrageous you can’t help but be drawn in. It’s one of those movies you almost can’t believe exists. It’s about Michael Jordan leading the Looney Tunes in a basketball game against aliens. You can’t even describe the plot without laughing.
And while I’ll never understand why the hell he’s in the movie, Bill Murray is definitely Space Jam’s comedy MVP, at least if you’re an adult with a remotely developed sense of humor. As a kid I barely noticed him, but as a grown-up, his deadpan reactions to the trippy animated madness going on around him provide some of the biggest laughs.
And while it would be disingenuous to describe Michael Jordan as a “good actor”, or even an “actor”, there’s something about his performance that works. By this point in his career, Jordan was basically a god, achieving a cross-cultural prominence that few athletes ever do. He was almost as much of a cartoon character as Bugs Bunny himself, and there’s something larger-than-life about his presence that fits the film’s tone.
But at this point, discussing just how good or bad the movie may or may not be is kinda besides the point. Through little more than luck, Space Jam has transcended that. If you don’t believe me, all you need to do is watch this:
That’s comedian Rachel Bloom singing a song she wrote about Space Jam. I love this video because it’s so genuine and universal. It’s that infectious “OMG I loved this when I was kid!” enthusiasm that anyone can relate to, even if Space Jam wasn’t your thing. If you’re on the outside of this fandom looking in, that really is all you need to know about why Space Jam means so much to so many people. Because it just does. Because it’s about Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny fighting aliens. Because it was our first exposure to Bill Murray. Because it made us happy once upon a time. It’s really that simple.
Every generation has its guilty pleasures, things that aren’t that great but nonetheless came along at just the time when we needed a good laugh. Generation X still manages to forget that almost every cartoon they watched in the ‘80s was cheap and awful*. And I’m sure in another ten years, there will be plenty of women in their twenties and thirties coming to terms with how much they used to be into Twilight**. And regardless of whether or not there ever is a Space Jam 2 or how silly and overblown the controversy, this whole thing gave me an excuse to revisit a movie I love and feel a part of as a cultural movement. And I like that.
[*Seriously, He-Man? Transformers? Unwatchable today. If nothing else, the ‘90s had way more cartoons that still hold up as an adult.]
[**I honestly can’t wait to see how Twilight nostalgia plays out.]