Twenty-some odd years ago, the powers that be at Warner Brothers decided that their Looney Tunes characters needed a reboot. Enter director Joe Pytka who won acclaim for his 1992 Super Bowl commercial “Hare Jordan,” starring Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan and breathing new life into the Looney franchise. Producer Ivan Reitman said, “Their [Looney Tunes] humor has always been wilder and hipper than anything else out there, so adults respond to them on a whole other level. I wanted to capture that tradition with a story made for today’s audience.” So to make the film wilder and hipper, they updated the look of some of the familiar cartoon characters and added a new member to the group: Lola Bunny, a curvaceous love interest for Bugs. They also cast Bill Murray (in an unbilled cameo). What could be hipper than that?

The story of Space Jam revolves around a basic tale of good versus evil mixed with the standard sports movie motif of the underdogs defeating their opponents in the final second of the big game. In this version, Bugs Bunny and his cartoon pals are kidnapped by the evil Nerdlucks, a group of aliens who land on earth in search of some new talent to save their failing theme park, Moron Mountain (perhaps a dig at rival Disney’s Magic Mountain). The black hat in this scenario is worn by their leader Swackhammer (voiced convincingly by Danny DeVito). Bugs suggests a contest to determine their fate. If the Looney Tunes win, then they are free of the alien threat. Noting the aliens’ short stature, Bugs suggests a basketball game, but the dastardly aliens steal the talent from major NBA stars such as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsey Bogues, Larry Bird Johnson and Shawn Bradley and thus the wee aliens become the hulking Monstars. In a desperate attempt to level the playing field, Bugs and company decide to kidnap the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. One problem: Jordan has retired from basketball and is now playing (gasp) baseball in the minor leagues. And playing badly to boot. Thus the Tunes decide to nab him on the golf course where he’s playing with his baseball publicist Stan (Wayne Knight), Larry Bird Johnson and Bill Murray. In fact, they pull Jordan into Looney Tunes world through a golf hole and into their plan to defeat the Monstars.

The battle that ensues is full of noise and great animation and some serious laughs (supplied mostly by Bill Murray’s must-see performance when called in to be the fifth man at the final moment of the big game). But it is Jordan who scores the winning point. True to all great sports movie endings, the hero wins the game—and also the freedom of his Looney pals.

Granted, the plot was a bit sketchy and the blending of live action and animation was nothing new. The concept goes back as far as 1944 when Gene Kelly danced with the little mouse Jerry (of “Tom and Jerry” fame) in the classic film Anchors Aweigh. And who can forget the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in which Bob Hoskins falls in love with the cartoon bombshell Jessica Rabbit. Later on, the melding of animation with live action reappeared in Casper the Friendly Ghost in 1995. Even the loveable Looney Tunes gang made another film in 2003 entitled Looney Tunes: Back in Action. None of which, however, achieved the financial success of Space Jam.

Critics were definitely underwhelmed. The film received mixed reviews at best. Some found the film to be riddled with plot holes. Others pointed out the schmaltzy opening in which a young Michael shoots baskets in the driveway with his father and discusses his future, a full moon in the night sky dissolving into R. Kelly’s anthemic “I Believe I Can Fly.” Well-known Chicago critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both gave it a thumbs up, but Ebert clearly was more a fan than his partner. He praised Jordan’s “natural ease and humor…and unforced charisma.” Still, fellow Chicagoan and critic Michael Wilmington writing for the Chicago Tribune answered the question of whether the film would become a classic in this way: “Nope. Though it could have been.”

Despite the critical failures, Space Jam opened at the box office at number one and went on to gross over 230 million dollars worldwide, becoming the highest grossing basketball movie of all time. The soundtrack went six times platinum and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” won two Grammy awards. The movie made over a billion dollars in merchandising. There were action figures, lunch boxes, Happy Meal toys, books, all featuring Space Jam figures. Full disclosure: I owned the plastic Michael Jordan Barbie-sized doll dressed in his Space Jam uniform, complete with a made to scale basketball. When I raised Michael’s arm, he said, “Let’s play some basketball.” Which I did—wearing my Space Jam boxer shorts and miniature #23 Bulls jersey.

And I’m not alone. Basketball superstar LeBron James recently said, “I’ve always loved Space Jam. It was one of my favorite movies growing up.” It has been rumored that there may be a sequel to Space Jam in the works with LeBron in the starring role. Although LeBron scored big in Trainwreck, it remains to be seen if he can fill Jordan’s Nikes. Space Jam proved they are mighty large shoes to fill.

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