Space Jam, a mediocre basketball movie and worse Looney Tunes movie, is a cultural touchstone for millennials because the real Michael’s Secret Stuff was nostalgia all along. It’s a commercial-length advertisement for Nike stretched into a 88-minute feature; it’s more Cavemen than Ted Lasso. But while I recognize Space Jam‘s many faults (legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones called it “terrible”), I don’t entirely dislike it. I was the right age — and a huge Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny fan — when it came out. I have fond memories of watching Space Jam at sleepovers and listening to the soundtrack, including all six minutes of “Basketball Jones,” on my Discman on the school bus. I even got a kick out of the behind-the-scenes footage in The Last Dance.
But am I excited for Space Jam: A New Legacy, the long-in-the-works sequel with LeBron James replacing Jordan as the human member of the Tune Squad? That’s complicated. Let’s say I’m “curious” more than “excited,” especially considering how good the new Looney Tunes Cartoons on HBO Max are. I’m also bewildered that A New Legacy has become the most controversial movie of the year. We should be talking about the wild premise instead of a cartoon rabbit’s breasts, but nope. We did this to ourselves. Let’s break down five of the biggest Space Jam: A New Legacy controversies.
1. It’s a controversy that’s caused “peak upset” in the entertainment industry.
Along with Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, and The Matrix 4, Space Jam: A New Legacy is one of 17 Warner Bros. movies that will be released into theaters and premiere on HBO Max on the same day (July 16). This is a previously unthinkable strategy that was made both thinkable and necessary due to the pandemic. It makes sense, but Christopher Nolan called the plan “very, very, very, very messy” and a “real bait-and-switch,” and according to the New York Times, “WarnerMedia kept the major agencies and talent management companies in the dark until roughly 90 minutes before issuing a news release. Even some Warner Bros. executives had little warning.”
A major studio’s biggest films being released straight to streaming (for 30 days) impacts not only those who made the movie, but also theater owners, as well as “publicists, managers, agents, lawyers, and financiers” (won’t somebody please think of the financiers?). Will things go back to normal, post-pandemic? It’s too early to say. All I know is, wearing a Tune Squad jersey while watching Space Jam: A New Legacy at home sounds way more depressing than dressing up for a sold-out theater screening.
2. The only new Looney Tune in Space Jam was Lola Bunny. Don’t call her “doll.” The original plan was for Bugs Bunny’s romantic interest to be Honey Bunny, who debuted in a comic book in 1966, but she was replaced by a new character who initially looked too much like Bugs (one artist asked, “Is it just Bugs in drag?”). Eventually, the animators settled on the vivacious design for Lola, who “made problems for Warner Bros. because of her visual appearance resembling that of a teenager,” according to the surprisingly informative Space Jam wiki.
Not only that, but Lola was, as Space Jam 2 director Malcolm D. Lee put it, “very sexualized” in the original movie. She wears a midriff-baring jersey, and after she schools Bugs on the court, he becomes stiff (as a board). For A New Legacy, Lee wanted to make Lola (who will be re-introduced living with the Amazons from Wonder Woman) more “politically correct…. This is a kids’ movie, why is she in a crop top? It just felt unnecessary, but at the same time there’s a long history of that in cartoons.”
“This is 2021. It’s important to reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters,” says Lee. “She probably has the most human characteristics of the Tunes; she doesn’t have a thing like a carrot or a lisp or a stutter. So we reworked a lot of things, not only her look, like making sure she had an appropriate length on her shorts and was feminine without being objectified, but gave her a real voice. For us, it was, let’s ground her athletic prowess, her leadership skills, and make her as full a character as the others.”
A cartoon rabbit not being defined by her sexuality has, ahem, triggered a lot of people, mainly conservatives and horny Redditors. This isn’t real, but it could be.
CNN: Pandemic relief bill
MSNBC: Pandemic relief bill
ABC: Pandemic relief bill
— Zack Bornstein (@ZackBornstein) March 4, 2021
The alt-right sharing “pornographic fan art” is real, however.
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) March 6, 2021
3. One classic Looney Tunes character who won’t be in Space Jam: A New Legacy is Pepé Le Pew. Black cats everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. A scene was filmed with the randy French skunk, who “normalized rape culture,” by the movie’s original director, Terence Nance. But when Lee took over, “Pepé Le Pew was eliminated [and] never animated for the live-action footage which was shot,” Deadline reports.
The filmed scene sounds wild:
Pepe was set to appear in a black-and-white Casablanca-like Rick’s Cafe sequence. Pepe, playing a bartender, starts hitting on a woman at the bar played by Santo. He begins kissing her arm, which she pulls back, then slamming Pepe into the chair next to hers. She then pours her drink on Pepe, and slaps him hard, sending him spinning in a stool, which is then stopped by LeBron James’ hand. James and Bugs Bunny are looking for Lola, and Pepe knows her whereabouts. Pepe then tells the guys that Penelope cat has filed a restraining order against him. James makes a remark in the script that Pepe can’t grab other Tunes without their consent.
I can’t believe we missed out on a scene in the sequel to Space Jam where LeBron James teaches an animated skunk about consent in the bar from Casablanca. I’m outraged about Pepé being “canceled,” but for different reasons than, say, Donald Trump Jr.
The lunatics are trying to cancel Looney Tunes when they have a real live Pepe le Pew in Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Maybe they should focus their energy there. My thoughts. https://t.co/1cR8l6Isf7
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 8, 2021
Fox News has come to Pepé’s defense, too. Please immediately block anyone who’s serious about the Looney Tunes being “canceled.” That fake-outrage is not good for your mental health. The use of the term “cancel culture” is also inaccurate.
Stop calling everything "cancel culture" because you're too dim to have a nuanced opinion. People can be offended by something, or think something sucks, and that's not "cancel culture" – it's free speech.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) March 7, 2021
4. “IS LEBRON JAMES BETTER MICHAEL JORDAN?”
This is one controversy even I, someone who recently wrote the words “randy French skunk,” won’t get into.
5. In response to a New York Times op-ed that claimed Speedy Gonzales “helped popularize the corrosive stereotype of the drunk and lethargic Mexicans,” comedian Gabriel Iglesias, who voices Speedy in Space Jam 2, tweeted, “I am the voice of Speedy Gonzales in the new Space Jam. Does this mean they are gonna try to cancel Fluffy too? U can’t catch me cancel culture. I’m the fastest mouse in all of Mexico.”
I am the voice of Speedy Gonzales in the new Space Jam. Does this mean they are gonna try to cancel Fluffy too? U can’t catch me cancel culture. I’m the fastest mouse in all of Mexico 💨 pic.twitter.com/Ov4wjO00kM
— G a b r i e l – I g l e s i a s (@fluffyguy) March 7, 2021
Space Jam: A New Legacy is being wrapped up into the same discourse (*shudder*) as Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, on top of the Warner Bros/HBO Max stuff and the millennial debate about whether Space Jam is a good movie. But you know the worst thing about all this controversy? The movie’s not out for another four months. I’m going to listen to “Space Jam” by Quad City DJ’s (but NOT “I Believe I Can Fly”) on a repeat until then.