Space Jam’s visual effects supervisor Ed Jones once revealed a telling moment from late in the film’s grueling production. Producer Ivan Reitman was reviewing some footage and asked, “Are you going to make it any better than that? Or is that the best and we should go with it?” A bleary Jones replied he couldn’t go any further. “It was as if we were running a marathon and I couldn’t get the next foot across the finish line, as if I had to die just then and say, ‘We’re done, let’s wrap this movie up.’”
Yes, exhaustion prevented Space Jam (1996) from reaching its full illustrative potential (there was deadline crunch as the film’s release date was apparently carved in stone). No amount of technical wizardry could save this movie from the identity crisis of its animated stars, however. During their Roosevelt era heyday, the Looney Tunes were authentic screwballs who set bold standards in comedy and art. 60 years later, Space Jam calcifies these legends into “hip” self-awareness. Our cartoon heroes now know they’re intellectual property. They crack jokes about their agents and merchandise instead of cracking each other’s skulls with mallets. Is this supposed to make Daffy Duck and Porky Pig relatable? It really just makes them corny.
Michael Jordan plays himself in Space Jam, the most famous basketball player in the world and the obvious guy you’d kidnap if you needed a ringer in a high stakes game against angry space slugs. Jordan is affable and likable onscreen, fulfilling his end of this unprecedented exercise in brand synergy, but a few of the NBA legends haunting the margins of Space Jam feel better suited to carry out such an outlandish adventure. Charles Barkley and Muggsy Bogues are inherently funny guys; cornbread behemoth Shawn Bradley pulls off the movie’s most riotous sight gag. Of course, you can’t make Space Jam starring Shawn Bradley because Shawn Bradley’s silhouette isn’t on five billion Nike products.
Space Jam feels like any other latter day Ivan Reitman film — high concept partially derailed by pedestrian instincts. It’s good but not great, though you will never ever convince a child who lived through Space Jam’s initial release that it isn’t sacred. In that sense, the film’s just as much a success as Roger Rabbit. If you can capture the hearts of an entire generation, well, in many ways that currency is far more valuable than cash.