Space Jam

by Harvey Deneroff


Let's face it, there is no avoiding Space Jam. Warner Bros. really pulled out all the stops to make sure the film opened big, which it did. In so doing, they finally proved that Disney is not the only one that has the ability to make and successfully market an animated feature as a major event. Thus, the psychological hegomony that was Walt Disney Feature Animation is no more. In this context, it seems rather picky to cast any sort of critical eye on it. After all, aren't the special effects and the marriage of live-action and animation terrific? Well, yes, most of the time, but . . .

Daffy DuckDaffy Duck in Space Jam
© Warner Bros.

The film is a fable telling the real story behind superstar Michael Jordan's decision to return to basketball after trying his hand at baseball. It seems that Bugs Bunny and all the Looney Tunes are taken prisoner by a bunch of Nerdlocks, on behalf of their boss, Swackhammer, who wants to use them to liven up his outer space amusement park, Moron Mountain. Bugs tries to get out of it by challenging the diminuitive Nerdlocks to a game of basketball. The Nerdlocks not knowing anything about basketball siphon off the talent from a bunch of NBA stars to turn themselves into Monstars. Bugs thereupon brings in Michael Jordan to coach and play for the Looney Tunes. Jordan's team triumphs, leading him to decide to return to basketball.

Michael Jordan & Bang the MonstarMichael Jordan and Bang the Monstar in Space Jam
© Warner Bros.

Despite all the hoopla and megabucks budget, Space Jam is a rather modest comedy, which aims at a sort of B film sensibility and all the charm that it implies, blended with classic Warner Bros. cartoon characters and situations. The problem is that the film is too much by the numbers. Yes, all the Looney Tunes are there showing off their shtick. Thus, Sylvester gets off several "Sufferin' Succotashes" and lunges periodically at Tweety Bird. There really is no rhyme or reason for many of these bits, other than that the filmmakers felt obliged to put them in. There is also that same sort of hyperkinetic movement that is found in the animated portions of Who Framed Roger Rabbit--another combination film directed by a live-action director. (Despite the credits, the animation seems to have been done under the personal guidance of producer Ivan Reitman, rather than director Joe Pytka).

However, the filmmakers' biggest transgression is perhaps in the betrayal of Bugs Bunny's character by not allowing him to face up to the Nerdlocks and say, "You realize that this means war!" Instead, they turn him into something of a Milquetoast, as he decides not to fight and helps round up the rest of the Looney Tunes by calling them in for a fake union meeting, where the Nerdlocks have set a trap for them!

Tony Cervone & Bruce SmithSpace Jam directors, Tony Cervone and Bruce Smith, Co-Directors of Animation
© Warner Bros.

The only cartoon character that really comes off is Daffy Duck, here portrayed as a real loony in a melange of how he was seen in his earlier films. And it is Daffy rather than Bugs that is the real star of the film. (After playing second banana to Bugs Bunny all these years, I think Daffy really deserved star billing for his effort; but he obviously does not have the high powered representation that Bugs has.)

Michael Jordan is not really called upon to do much other than being Michael Jordan. There is some gentle mockery of his failed minor league baseball career, but he is otherwise there mostly as a foil for the cartoon action.

The blend of animation and live-action is generally rather seamless, though I must admit to being rather bothered by the set piece scene where Daffy and Bugs go to Jordan's house to retrieve his basketball outfit. As they walk through the house, the two at times seem more like some weightless, oversized balloons, rather than real, living cartoon characters. This is something that I've noticed before with some of the CGI animation in films such as The Mask and Casper. (I realize most people don't notice it, but I do and it annoys me and destroys a character's credibility.)

Ivan ReitmanSpace Jam producer, Ivan Reitman
© Warner Bros.

Despite my feelings about the film as a film, I am delighted that the film is doing so well. Besides showing that someone other than Disney can play at the animation game, it destroys the illusion that musicals are the only commercially viable genre for animated features. Like Toy Story, Space Jam is a straight comedy, and thus might induce some producers to realize that they have choices in the type of film they make when they venture into theatrical animation.

Finally, the film should also give a solid boost to the careers of its animation directors, Bruce Smith and Tony Cervone. Smith directed the delightful Bebe's Kids a few years back and was responsible for a number of shows in the first season of the HBO fine series, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child. Cervone recently worked as an animator on Warner Bros.' Carrotblanca short, as well as a number of Steven Spielberg-Warner Bros. TV series, from Tiny Toon Adventures to Animaniacs.

Lola Bunny
The gorgeous Lola Bunny of the Tune Squad in Space Jam
© Warner Bros.

P.S. If you really want to see a real feature-length tribute to Warner Bros. cartoons in the best sense of the word, try and see (if you can) Richard Williams' unfinished masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler (briefly released last year in the US in a bastardized version entitled Arabian Knight). While it does not use one single Looney Tune, it is perhaps the ultimate Roadrunner cartoon, with the Thief standing in for Wile E. Coyote. Of course, the film had the luxury of having Ken Harris, one of Chuck Jones' ace animators, on the job. But that's another story.

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