Film Torments: Space Jam (1996)

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ANIMATION Month at Film Torments continues with one of the most 90s films imaginable. Born from rampant commercialism and squandered institutions, it’s 1996’s Space Jam.

Okay… I think I might be in trouble for this one…

Space Jam is a very nostalgic film for children of the nineties. I was six years old when it came out and I thought it was awesome, but that’s because I was six years old and therefore a complete idiot. I liked ANY dumb cartoon at that age (I never missed an episode of Cow and Chicken, as shameful as it is to admit) and I couldn’t tell the difference between the classic Looney Tunes and this new, hipper version.

Now I’m an adult and this movie still has a bit of a nostalgic grip on me; I’ll watch it from beginning to end quite happily and have fun doing so. But I’m embarrassed that I like it, and there are elements in this movie which I absolutely despise. It’s a great shame to think that this hack-job is the defining Looney Tunes product of an entire generation, but to this day millennials get excited every time there’s a rumour of a sequel to this piece of garbage.

Space Jam has one of the most bizarre plots ever conceived, especially in the way it twists real events. In 1993, basketball legend Michael Jordan abruptly quit the Chicago Bulls to play baseball following the death of his baseball-loving father, who was murdered while taking a nap at a rest stop earlier that year. Two years later, he returned to basketball and continued to be the most important player of his generation. In real life, the Looney Tunes had nothing to do with this strange sequence of events, but Space Jam takes more historical liberties than Amadeus.

Shakespeare is weeping.

Shakespeare is weeping.

It’s weird to think that Jordan plays himself in a film which trivialises and misrepresents such a difficult time of his life, but I can’t help thinking he was in this for the money. Space Jam started as a series of commercials for Nike Air Jordans, which featured cameos from Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian.

The original series of Looney Tunes shorts had stopped back in the 60s when cinemas were no longer playing them and cartoons tended to be cheap Saturday morning fare. By the mid-90s, all of their original creators were dead or retired, and the voice actor behind ALL of them – Mel Blanc – also passed away in 1989, so they were just kind of floating around being used as profitable intellectual property without any of the creative geniuses using them for any better purpose.

Several Looney Tunes characters had made cameos in 1988’s masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which Space Jam owes a lot to. In Roger Rabbit, Toon Town was a segregated area in 1940s Los Angeles, and the politics between human beings and Toons (who are an oppressed and exploited minority, just like [insert literally any ethnic minority here] in the 40s) were clearly and cleverly established.

In Space Jam, the Looney Tunes somehow live in the centre of the universe, broadcast their cartoons from there (apparently performing them live every single day) and are just sort of known about. There’s no consistency to whether or not people know that the Looney Tunes live in the earth’s core, but even weirder there seems to be an entire cartoon universe with Toon aliens. Earth is, as far as we know, the only non-cartoon world, and even then it’s only on the surface.

Space Jam is fucking weird, okay?

Space Jam is fucking weird, okay?

One of Space Jam’s most notorious marketing moves was the addition of a new Looney Tune who apparently nobody knows prior to this. (She just drops in half an hour into the movie all like, “Hey y’all, I exist now.”) Her name was Lola Bunny, a distaff counterpart and love interest to Bugs. Of course, we never needed a female Bugs Bunny because Bugs did a damn fine job of playing a female all on his own, and Lola fails at her purpose in one big way: She’s not funny.

She’s not loony, she’s not witty… instead, she’s weirdly oversexualised. I’m sure the furries are into it, but Lola is downright creepy to watch when remembering that she’s supposed to be a Looney Tune. It’s not like Looney Tunes are meant to be totally asexual (Pepe Le Pew and Speedy Gonzales were total horndogs in particular), but they weren’t played up to be sexually appealing to the audience the way Lola is.

Lola’s sexiness may be another attempt to mimic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (hey, what if Jessica Rabbit was actually a rabbit?), but mostly she comes across as a failed attempt to make a strong female role model. Her most noteworthy personality traits are she plays basketball pretty well and she hates being called “doll” – but Hollywood wasn’t very good at that in the 90s and she just came across as a weird oddity.

Words are, I... I can't...

Words are, I… I can’t…

Lola is still in the Looney Tunes line-up, but as of their most recent show her character has been completely changed to an airheaded stalker obsessed with Bugs, and she’s now voiced by the brilliant Kristen Wiig. Lola hasn’t remained as big a disaster as she was at first, but at the time she was an embarrassing attempt at pandering.

Space Jam has its redeeming moments, like some decent slapstick in the lengthy basketball sequence, some nice cameos (including Bill Murray, who I’m guessing ad-libbed his funniest lines because he’s the best part of the movie) and great animation. Not to mention its hugely successful soundtrack. Unfortunately, it relies too much on non-actor Michael Jordan and obnoxious exaggerations of the Looney Tunes personalities which are far too in-your-face (often literally; this film does A LOT of extreme close-ups).

I suppose it could have been a worse movie and it could definitely have been less memorable, but it’s one piece of 90s nostalgia I’m glad we haven’t seen too many imitators of. Space Jam reiterates that the Looney Tunes work best in short pieces, and that, if there’s ever another Michael Jordan biopic, we should really get a proper actor to play him.

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