Summer Game Film: Breaking down Space Jam (1996)

Michael Jordan in 1996. (Beth A. Keiser/AP)

As the summer winds down and the NBA’s news cycle slows (…for now), we’ll be going back in time to review and break down some classic basketball flicks. From popular, star-studded blockbusters, to sports cinema’s hidden gems and everything in between, let’s re-visit some of basketball’s most iconic moments in film.

Today: With LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers and more and more rumours of an impending sequel in the works starring The King, we decided it would be fitting to tip things off with the 1996 “classic,” Space Jam.

Starring: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Wayne Knight, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley

Release date: November 15, 1996

Budget: $80,000,000

Box office total: $250,200,000 worldwide

Peak box office ranking: 1

Rotten Tomatoes average score: 63% (audience), 47% (top critic)

Why basketball fans should watch (or re-watch) it

What if I told you the greatest player in NBA history and one of the most dominant athletes of all-time starred in a movie with the world’s most iconic cartoon character? And what if I told you it didn’t completely suck?

Space Jam is absolutely a kids movie — a great one at that — and should be viewed in that prism, but is successful for infusing just enough one-liners and moments to keep adults mildly entertained as well.

As a historical document, it’s interesting to watch again today and is a good example of the level of popularity Jordan reached. In the age of remakes we’re currently living in, it’s hard to watch the film without thinking of what it would look like today (more on that later).

The Plot

Michael Jordan, then at the height of his fame and success, is transported from a harmless golf outing with Larry Bird and Bill Murray to Looney Tunes Land where he is asked to help save its citizens by winning a basketball game. Needless to say, he is the ultimate ringer and helps Bugs Bunny & Co. defeat the Monstars, a team of aliens who have stolen the basketball powers from some of the NBA’s biggest stars.

Space Jam MVP (Most Valuable Performer): Bill Murray

For a non-actor, Michael Jordan carries a ton of on-screen responsibility and crushes it. And you know you can rely on Bugs and the Looney Tunes to deliver, although Sylvester J. Pussycat Sr. (full name) stands out as the resident MJ superfan.

But personally, I’m a sucker for what Bill Murray brings to the table here.

The way Murray talks to himself before he tees off feels like a great, subtle tribute to one of his most famous scenes in Caddyshack — another movie he stood out in despite limited screen time. And the way he holds his follow-through is simple, classic comedy. Murray, a friend of producer Ivan Reitman (whom he cites in the film when asked: “Just how did you get here, anyways?”), is what will keep adults from leaving the room.

Oh, and don’t forget — he doesn’t do defense.

Most memorable scene

For starters, the intro and opening title sequence features one of the best montages of MJ’s rise that some of the best documentaries on the legend haven’t come close to touching:

From there, the best sequence is another montage, this one featuring the Monstars’ real-life equivalents as they try to process and cope with life after their basketball skills have been stolen, culminating in Muggsy Bogues’ great line, “…But I love my mama.”

Space Jam in context

Space Jam was the second basketball film that came out in 1996 that we’ll be reviewing. Earlier that year Celtic Pride — the first feature screenplay written by Judd Apatow — was also released, but to much less fanfare.

In general, ’96 was a big year for summer blockbusters, with Independence Day, Twister, and the first instalment of Mission: Impossible owning the box office. Yet Space Jam still managed to finish a respectable 10th in worldwide box office sales that year (I did not see it in theatres. At the time I was preoccupied with other ’96 releases Happy Gilmore, Scream, Spy Hard, Steve Martin’s Sgt Bilko, and another Apatow jam, The Cable Guy).

Jordan had returned from his brief retirement by the time the film came out. In his first year back — the ’95-96 season — he picked up where he left off, winning league MVP honours and securing his fourth NBA championship with the Bulls. And on the heels of Space Jam he would repeat the feat, although he’d lose out to Karl Malone in the ’97 MVP race, a decision that history doesn’t look back fondly on.

The Monstars in context:

Movies like Space Jam serve as a great time capsule because it shows us who mattered back then. It tells you where the league was at in ’95 when the film was being shot, a snapshot of the characters fans were either rooting for or against.

At that point, Jordan’s status as top dog was well-established, but it’s interesting to see the other NBAers who were included — Barkley was a superstar only a couple of years removed from a Finals appearance against Jordan’s Bulls; Patrick Ewing was established as one of the most popular Knicks of all time; Larry Johnson seemed like the next big thing amid his peak in Charlotte, while Hornets teammate Muggsy Bogues was nearly a decade into his career and one of the league’s most recognizable figures. And then there’s Shawn Bradley, the second overall pick in the 1993 draft and a player the NBA was desperate to market, whose 7-foot-6 frame translated well to the Monstar motif.

Quality of Ball

It’s the most incredible dunk caught on film, so, yeah, I’d say the quality of ball in Space Jam is pretty fantastic.

Best story from the set

Warner Brothers famously built Jordan his own court so he could stay in game shape during filming, and a host of the NBA’s best were on hand for what I’ve been told were some of the most competitive scrimmages you could imagine.

When I interviewed Muggsy Bogues a few years back, however, the topic inevitably got around to stories from the set of the film and he shared this gem that lifts the veil on some on-set movie magic:

“You know, I almost wasn’t going to be in the film. I had just had surgery that summer and they had brought in Tim Hardaway to read my lines as well, as a replacement. But they wanted me to do it, and I’m thankful that I was able to finish it out even with the injury. The filmmakers had to put me on a dolly—there’s the scene where we’re all walking down the hospital halls and through a set of doors [at the 1:10 mark in the video below], when [Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson and Shawn Bradley] hit their heads on the door frame. Well, they were pulling me on a dolly during that scene. I was just supposed to move my shoulders like I was walking.”

Best lines

Daffy: How’s this for a new team name: The Ducks!

Bugs: Please! What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would name their team The Ducks?

Bill Murray, to Larry Bird after Jordan disappears into a golf hole: Larry, I’m gonna give us both twos back there. We weren’t in any emotional state to putt.

Bill Murray: It’s ’cause I’m white, isn’t it?

Michael Jordan: No. Larry’s white, so what?

Bill Murray: Larry’s not white. Larry’s clear.

If it was re-cast today

It’s one of the great debates: Who would play the Monstars today? There are many good answers (share yours in the comments below if you’d like), but here’s my starting five:

Kyrie Irving
Lance Stephenson
Jayson Tatum
Kevin Durant
Joel Embiid

As for the Jordan role? That’s practically already been cast.

The Soundtrack

Space Jam features an iconic ’90s movie soundtrack and in many ways the tunes are the star of the show. Track after track not only brings the memories flooding back, but remind you of a specific point in the film. R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” the Space Jam theme song that you’ll still hear played at games (if the game ops department knows what they’re doing), the jock jam staple “Are You Ready to Rumble” (perhaps better known as “Y’all Ready For This?”), the Barry White/Chris Rock (not a typo) collaboration, “Basketball Jones,” and more.

Arguably the best one of them all feels like it’s been lost in time. The Monstars theme featuring Cypress Hill’s B-Real, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, and Method Man — a bona fide ’90s rap all-star team. They should have just used those five in the movie.

(I miss when music videos mattered).

Free throws

• The disjointed, vignette-heavy feel of the film makes a little more sense when you learn that it was directed by Joe Pytka, a veteran music video director famous for a number of Michael Jackson videos, including “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Heal the World,” and “Dirty Diana,” as well as the Beatles’ “Free As A Bird” video. Pytka did not go on to a career in feature film, but fittingly did shoot a number of high-profile commercials.

• Count longtime Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones among the many who weren’t a fan of the film when it came out. Jones once said in an interview, “I can tell you, with the utmost confidence, Porky Pig would never say ‘I think I wet myself.'” Can we award Chuck the best line of the movie?

The Final Analysis

Give Space Jam points for innovation and successfully pulling off a cartoon/real-world crossover, but ultimately it doesn’t exactly hold up as a whole. Again, this is a kids movie, and most of what’s likeable about it at this point is more closely tied to nostalgia than what’s actually happening on the screen. It’s a fun watch — and should be required viewing for parents and their children — but (spoiler!) it won’t be crowned the winner when it comes to choosing the best hoops film of all-time.

Verdict: 6.5/10.

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