Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Space Jam

SPACE JAM (Joe Pytka, 1996)

There’s nothing wrong with possessing warm remembrances about the stuff of our youth, but those memories shouldn’t cloud judgments of what’s good and what’s beloved because it reminds of yesteryear. My generation seems convinced that THE GOONIES is an all-time classic, although I can’t say I was on board with that declaration whenever I last saw the fantasy adventure. ‘90s kids assert that SPACE JAM is also one of the greats. Students at the university where I work expressed surprise that a cinephile like me hadn’t seen it. Without prejudging SPACE JAM I could probably list a thousand films that are bigger gaps in my cinematic education, but I’m willing to humor the request to review it if just to discover what captured a younger audience’s imagination.

SPACE JAM builds on basketball superstar Michael Jordan’s real life decision to retire from the NBA the first time so he can pursue a dream of playing professional baseball. While Jordan struggles in Birmingham with the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, aliens invade the land of Looney Tunes characters. The Nerdlucks plan to take Bugs Bunny and pals as prisoners meant to slave away as the new attractions at outer space amusement park Moron Mountain. Before being whisked to another part of the galaxy Bugs convinces the small creatures that rules dictate that they must compete in a basketball game for their freedom.

Beating the short, inexperienced Nerdlucks looks like an easy task until the aliens steal the talent of NBA stars Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Shawn Bradley and transform into the hulking, hooping Monstars. The Looney Tunes literally rope Jordan into being their ringer and best hope from forced servitude, or at least that which isn’t under the control of Warner Bros.

Jordan’s skills on the court could often seem like a cartoon character defying the laws of gravity, so it makes some sense to put him into a setting where there are no physical limitations. SPACE JAM’s first stretch functions as Jordan legend-polishing via self-deprecation as he takes the needling about his futility as a pro baseball player while the basketball sequences aim to put him on his rightful pedestal as basketball’s greatest. Jordan shoots and dunks over animated behemoths, but frankly it’s less impressive than just rolling one of his highlight reels. Except for one instance, director Joe Pytka doesn’t utilize the cartoon world to exaggerate Jordan’s feats, which works at cross purposes for putting him there in the first place.

SPACE JAM might have worked as a novelty short, but as a feature-length film it leaves a lot to be desired. Although Bugs Bunny is listed as a co-headliner, he, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang are really just there to prop up the NBA All-Star. Jordan performs acceptably as himself, or the version that was a highly-sought commercial pitchman, but he’s not predisposed to the kind of zany comedy for which his co-stars are beloved. With an ill-fitting combination of 2D and 3D animation styles, at least to my eyes now, SPACE JAM trudges through a creaky plot without much in the way of visual ingenuity or zippy wordplay. Funny visual gags with Barons publicist Stan (Wayne Knight) in an enormous hole and later getting flattened like a pancake are about the extent of SPACE JAM’s playfulness with the collision of real and cartoon universes. Of the one-liners that connect, the best is a potshot at Walt Disney Pictures and what they chose to name their then-new NHL franchise.

SPACE JAM fills the bill as inoffensive children’s entertainment, but’s it’s unfortunate that it, not LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, is the live-action/animated hybrid that is fondly remembered. The latter is truer to the spirit of the classic cartoons and characters, not to mention much funnier.


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