Sunday, May 8, 2016

SPACE JAM (1996) - **

Rated PG for some mild cartoon language.
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: November 15, 1996

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in history. At one point in his career, he retired while at the top of his game in order to pursue a dream of becoming a major league baseball player, a sport that his father played. Michael Jordan could not transfer his great basketball skills to the baseball diamond. He could, however, transfer his sense of humor about the whole thing to the big screen.

Space Jam mashes up live action scenes with the animated zaniness of the Looney Tunes gang. The movie opens with a young Michael shooting hoops quite experly in his backyard in 1973. It is there that he tells his father his dreams of going to North Carolina to play college hoops and then on to the NBA, and then when he's done there he wants to play baseball too. Cut to current day and Michael has announced his retirement from the NBA and plans on pursuing the baseball dream. Meanwhile, at Moron Mountain, which is located in outer space, the amusement park is failing and Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) finds the Looney Tunes on his rabbit ears and decides that he must have them for his new attraction. He sends his underlings, the Nerdlucks, to Earth to fetch them. When faced with the possibility of becoming slaves on another planet, Bugs tricks the aliens into allowing the Looney Tunes gang to defend themselves. The gang thinks a basketball game would be a good way to decide their fate because the aliens are so small. However, the Nerdlucks steal the skills of NBA stars such as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley, which when applied, turns them into Monstars, and suddenly the good guys are at a disadvantage. There were a few slightly funny scenes of the powerless basketball players getting tested and going to therapists and getting schooled at the playground by kids.

Meanwhile, Michael is so bad at the baseball thing that when the other team's catcher, who happens to be a big fan, tells him what pitch is coming, he still can't hit it. His teammates are very supportive, or perhaps are a little starstruck themselves, as one of them thinks he looks good in uniform ("and you can't teach that!"). Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) is tasked with making sure that "nobody bothers Michael" and to "make sure he's the happiest player in the world". As an adult, I found these lines to be some of the dumbest things I ever heard in a movie. Contrast that with a scene where Michael is playing golf with Larry Bird and Bill Murray. Murray's cameo in this movie should be appreciated by the adults watching with their children because he brings humor to an otherwise pedestrian screenplay (written by Leo Benvenuti/Steve Rudnick and Timothy Harris/Herschel Weingrod). While playing gold, Michael gets sucked down into Looney Tunes Land, where he is recruited by the gang to play for them in deciding their fate. Michael quips "But I'm a baseball player now!" to which Bugs retorts that "Yeah, and I'm Shakespeare.". Ultimately, Michael agrees to play for the Looney Tunes and we get scenes of him coaching the gang set to a bass-driven soundtrack.

There are more than a few scenes where the movie takes shots at the Disney beast, such as when Daffy Duck questions "What kind of Mickey Mouse team would call themselves the Ducks?". This film not only was a showcase for Jordan, but was also an attempt to bring the Warner name into the ring against the giant Disney animated features. The problem with this is that Disney has a much broader appeal with families, where Space Jam feels like a kids' movie that lacks the intelligence needed to retain the adult audience. Director Joe Pytka is mostly known for filming television commercials and music videos, so he is best-suited for short-form features. This film is really a 15-minute idea stretched into almost 90 minutes. The soundtrack, which went 6x platinum, featured "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly, which earned him two Grammy awards.

Michael Jordan fared admirably in his big feature debut, showing a natural chemistry with the Looney Tunes gang. He could have had a second (third?) career as a guy who makes timely and funny cameo appearances in other films. Seeing the Looney Tunes gang again was great for someone who enjoyed their antics on Saturday mornings, and their updated 3-D animation style was slick. Bill Murray almost walked away with the movie in his brief screen time, but it all just wasn't enough to make this movie work. The plot was appropriately cartoonish, but the screenplay was lacking in wit and the smarts required to appeal to a wider, namely adult, audience. It seemed like they were trying to pull us in with a conversation between Bugs and Daffy about getting a cut of the merchandising money from lunch boxes, but it was one throwaway line and there was really no other instance of this type of effort.

The kids should love it, however.

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