The Michael Jordan PR Machine In Action: Thoughts On ‘Space Jam’ From A ‘Space Jam’ Virgin

Despite Uproxx’s own Brian Grubb referencing it in some form about every day for the last decade, I had managed to make it until this week without ever having seen 1996’s Space Jam, the predecessor to the abomination hitting theaters and HBO Max this weekend. I knew it was a movie about Michael Jordan playing basketball against Bugs Bunny and some cartoons, but… well, that’s just it, there was no “but.” I knew it was a movie about Michael Jordan playing basketball against some cartoons. What else was left to discover? This partly explains my lack of urgency.

In finally watching it, I discovered that it’s so much more! Okay, not really, but it is interesting on a few levels.

Basically from the opening credits onwards, it’s striking the degree to which Space Jam exists as a Michael Jordan PR project. Right around the time that The Last Dance came out, a handful of sportswriters pointed out that while The Last Dance did give us more of the psychotically competitive and professionally petty Jordan, he had still approved all of the footage and we wouldn’t be seeing it if he hadn’t. It basically existed as yet another image management exercise from one of the most meticulous image managers of all time. Space Jam is simply an earlier, more naked version of that. In fact, it may only be because Space Jam was such obvious Jordan propaganda that The Last Dance could maintain any pretense of objectivity by comparison.

Space Jam opens with a montage of childhood photos of Michael Jordan intercut with his basketball highlights, a sequence that goes on for so long that you almost forget that there’s going to be a movie after it. I remember how ubiquitous Michael Jordan was during the 90s because I lived through it, but even so, it’s hard to imagine an athlete today getting this kind of demigod treatment. We worship them still, we obsess and we lionize, but the opening credits of Space Jam are like something you’d see on North Korean state TV, or in a Central Asian dictatorship.

Mostly it works, because Michael Jordan highlights are never hard to watch. The whole thing is set to that R. Kelly song written specifically for the movie (which is to say, written about Michael Jordan), “I Believe I Can Fly.” It’s somehow the perfect song despite sounding on every level like it took about 10 minutes to write. I believe I can fly… I believe I can touch the sky… think about it every night and day… spread my wings and fly away… Few songs have ever so perfectly illustrated “it writes itself.”

The titles fade away, and again, it’s all about MJ. He’s at a press conference, announcing that he’s quitting basketball to go play baseball. He’s striking out, getting made fun of on the Jim Rome show, and getting helpful words of encouragement from his wife and kids. Wayne Knight, aka Newman from Seinfeld, plays the annoying PR man from his minor league baseball team. Oddly, for a film that’s all about Michael Jordan’s real life, using his real basketball highlights and his real childhood photos, his wife is played by Theresa Randle (then of Girl 6 and Bad Boys fame). Even assuming the real-life Juanita Jordan had no interest in playing herself, that has to be a weird conversation, doesn’t it? “Here are all the real photos of Michael Jordan’s childhood we’re going to include in this film, and here’s the model/actress our focus group has chosen to play his wife.”

The plot, such as it is, is that somewhere in the universe, there’s an amusement park planet called “Moron Mountain.” Moron Mountain seems to be failing, and its tyrannical owner, a greedy, Gargamel type voiced by Danny DeVito, is leaning on his oppressed workforce of tiny cartoons, The Nerdlucks, for ways to save it. It was at this that point I wondered whether Moron Mountain, a tacky carnival designed for space rubes presided over by micro-managing, psychotic union buster, was supposed to be a stand-in for Disneyland, with the cigar-chomping Mr. Swackhammer as their Walt. The parallels are looser than we’ve come to expect post-Shrek (shoulda called it Schmizneyworld to drive the point home), but it’s hard not to wonder.

To save the failing amusement park, Swackhammer eventually settles on the idea of capturing the apparently-universe-famous Looney Tunes and forcing them to perform at his park. He sends the Nerdlucks to Earth, where the Looney Tunes apparently live — in the center of the Earth! — in order to capture them. Bugs somehow convinces the aliens that it’s not a fair kidnapping unless the aliens win them fair and square in a basketball game. The aliens are small, but they have one big trick at their disposal: the ability to steal other peoples’ talent.

They hear that the best basketball players are in the NBA, so they go there and steal talent from Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley, and Muggsy Bogues. Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley were clearly chosen solely for the sight gag of putting the shortest guy in the NBA next to the tallest, and fair play to them for that, but meanwhile, when the Nerdlucks imbibe the NBA stars’ talent, all it seems to do is turn them into giant monsters (The Monstars). Which is funny, both for the implication that talent means being big, and that this extends even to Muggsy Bogues, who was notably not big.

This all causes a big stir in the NBA world, obviously, and a few more player cameos ensue, notably by Cedric Ceballos. (I don’t know why it’s funny to simply recall the existence of Cedric Ceballos, it just is.)

However, there’s one big, obvious flaw in the aliens’ plan: there’s one basketball talent, the greatest basketball talent in the world, in fact, who is not in the NBA. That’s right, Michael Jordan, who has just retired. So the Looney Tunes go and find MJ on the golf course, where he’s playing with Larry Bird and Bill Murray, and kidnap/coerce him into playing on their basketball team against the Monstars.

This was all slightly more entertaining than I imagined it would be, with just enough Bill Murray quips to keep us from being bored, and far more jokes and sight gags about Wayne Knight being fat than you’d ever get away with today. Get it? Wayne Knight is fat! Hilarious!

The movie’s biggest flaw was something I started to remember was part of what had kept me from seeing this movie for so long. It’s the Looney Tunes’ voices. I realize this makes me an insufferable pedant but I watched an absurd amount of Looney Tunes as a child. I fucking loved Looney Tunes — and I still do. Aside from the casual, over-the-top violence of it, the greatest thing about Looney Tunes was always Mel Blanc doing the iconic voices. The Looney Tunes, sort of like the Three Stooges, are this kind of timeless anachronism, a throwback to a time that was far more casually violent and filled with a panoply of regional accents and caricatures of things that don’t even exist anymore. The types of people being parodied (not to mention the actors and animators doing the parodying) are all dead, and yet the jokes still translate. And they work on viewers of all ages. Deaf people even love Looney Tunes (my father, who was a sign language teacher, told me this at some point during childhood Looney Tunes viewings). Their very existence justifies comedy as an art form.

I don’t know that it’d be possible for a modern iteration to ever be as good as the Mel Blanc-voiced Looney Tunes, but I know Space Jam certainly isn’t. The characters all sound like Mickey Mouse, cereal-commercial versions of the original characters — which pains me to say, considering Bugs is voiced by Billy West (Futurama, Ren & Stimpy) the modern equivalent to Mel Blanc if ever there was one. Still, Bugs doesn’t sound like a street tough from a distant Brooklyn borough in the 1920s anymore and every time he talks it makes me kind of sad. I can’t help but feel this way. 30 years from now someone will be just as pissed that Zoidberg doesn’t sound right.

Anyway, Jordan and the Looney Tunes defeat the Monstars, Michael realizes how much he loves basketball, and returns to the NBA. The entire thing takes about 80 minutes, which is the perfect length for a film. I watched the whole thing with my 8-year-old stepson in the time between finishing dinner and him going to bed. Not only was it a relatively breezy watch (not good, necessarily, but easy), I finally understood what I hadn’t all these years: this whole goddamned movie exists as a fan-fictionalized explanation for why Michael Jordan returned to basketball. A whole feature-length movie!

I’d always assumed Space Jam was some lazy way to capitalize on the popularity of Looney Tunes, Nike, Wheaties, Michael Jordan, and the NBA simultaneously — an early attempt at the kind of IP mining now ubiquitous — which it certainly is, but conceptually it’s pretty wild. Inspired, really. All of that world-building to explain why a basketball player retired for a year. I don’t know that the new Space Jam could ever do justice to this Space Jam, but it probably should’ve come out a year after The Decision. That way it could create an elaborate backstory to explain why Lebron James made half of Ohio hate his guts for the next decade.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.