Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Space Jam Review....Why Is This Movie So Popular?

If You Wanna Slam...You Probably Grew Up In My Generation
What is Michael Jordan standing on in this thing??
That circle can't possibly hold him, can it?
Four months back, me and a bunch of friends sat down to rewatch a movie that we knew had shaped not only our own cinema sensibilities, but pretty much our entire generation. Was it the only movie to do this? Of course not. But a movie where Michael Jordan faces off against a Danny DeVito voiced alien is likely to remain one of the more memorable features to have that kind of impact. We popped in the VHS, and it started.

Now, for me, I was never a sports kid. Hated that stuff, so my knowledge of Michael Jordan was pretty much below zilch. That probably explains why Space Jam didn't latch onto me like pretty much everyone else in my age group (I was born about 11 months before the film came out for reference sake) The whole time I was watching it as a kid, I distinctly remember watching all the stuff about Jordan and wondering "When are Bugs Bunny and Porky gonna show up?" As a kid who had watched all the classic shorts on Boomerang, this film just didn't fly with me. Few of the Looney Tunes characters acted like they did in the shorts, and the humans we spent time with instead of my beloved cartoon characters weren't interesting in the slightest.

It had been at least a decade since I last watched the movie in full, but its reputation had only grown with kids in my age group, who treated as the ultimate piece of cinema from their childhood. That was the perception of the folks I watched it with, and I did ponder if perhaps their affection for the film would rub off on me in some fashion. I must say, I have cool friends, since they, despite having insane fondness for the film, were actually more than willing to poke fun at it, especially in the opening sequence. Oh Jesus, that opening, which shows Michael Jordan as a kid. It's such a corny opening that I cannot fathom how anyone believed this thing could be taken seriously on any level. But then, the opening credits started, which are played to the Quad City DJ's tune named after the film. And God help me, I found my toes tapping. The song really is good, pretty much the antithesis of that abysmal opening. Whereas that one attempted to turn cheese into convincing drama, this song just embraces the hokiness of its lyrics and in the process, makes the ultimate feel-good party song.

The rest of the movie should have taken a cue from that song and had that kind of energy and fun throughout. But hey, at least we got to slam and jam for a few minutes right?

Despite the fact that we have an entire movie centered around him, Michael Jordan doesn't show off much personality as the lead, which contrasts directly with the Looney Tunes characters who have an overabundance of personality. Perhaps if they had played this up for comedy or further Jordans character in the film, the blandness could have been tolerated. But they do nothing to enhance him or make him the slightest bit involving. Sure, sure, me not being a sports buff may hurt my connection with him, but first off, how stupid is that that I can;t involve a movie that heavily features the Looney Tunes without loving basketball? Shouldn't this film work for any audience member who walks in here? Secondly, I' m not even sure it's my lack of sports knowledge that prevents me from enjoying it. After all, I may not love or obsess over them but I do enjoy the presence of sports folks like Shaquille O'Neal, simply because they have stuff like personalities that make them stand out. Michael Jordan has none of that and it hurts the film severely.

Even worse than Jordan is what has happened to the creations of Chuck Jones and the folks of Termite Terrace.The Looney Tunes get diluted here in what I'm gonna wildly guess was an attempt to make Jordan seem compelling in comparison. Beloved characters like Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd and Marvin The Martian (love that guy!) are put on the sidelines in favor of scenarios involving the live-action characters that I couldn't care less about. Now, I freely admit that the Looney Tunes gang isn't perfectly suited for cinematic adventures; part of the charm of the original shorts was that anything and everything could happen in their world. One week, Bugs Bunny could be a cowboy, while the next short he'd be harassing an opera singer in modern times. That kind of unpredictability works wonders in a short format, but over a longer narrative, it can be problematic (something Joe Dante learned the hard way in the well intended Looney Tunes: Back In Action) Unfortunately, the film probably should have just bitten the bullet and gone whole hog in giving the toons crazy stuff to do, just to counter balance the dullness all the human character exude.

Well, almost all the humans. Wayne Knight at least is charming in his role as an eager to please assistant, even if he is the center of one of the more awful fart jokes ever seen in a family movie. And did I mention Bill Murray? Now, I love Bill Murray, don't get me wrong, he's really just an unpredictably charming man. But I do love how the internet builds up his filmography to be some kind of impeccable track record, when part of the Murray's lovableness is that he's popped in a ton of bad films. Here's the thing though; Murray in a supporting role in a mess of a film like this is still gonna be, not better necessarily, but more memorable than most performances you're likely to ever see. The best moment for him in this film, bar none, is his reaction upon seeing a golf ball move on its own. "ITS ALIVE!!!" he shouts, with more effort than everybody else (sans Wayne Knight) put on this movie combined.

One big thing I remember thinking upon rewatching the movie was how quickly the films climactic basketball game came.  Obviously, Space Jam (thank God) isn't a three hour experience, but it still felt like it came on pretty fast. That's probably a good thing though, as it's likely even the filmmakers realized the whole purpose of the films existence (besides selling unholy amounts of toys of course) was to show Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan play basketball. That game lacks any real humor or tension, rendering it an awkward sequence where cliches are put on (the Looney Tunes didn't need special water to play well!), pitiful attempts at suspense are put out and the film even manages to beat Shrek to the punch by shoehorning in pop culture references into a family movie (though the positive reaction to a Pulp Fiction reference by a buddy of mine was almost worth that gags entire existence) By the end of it all, despite Bill Murray returning for some reason, the only thing that stands out is Danny DeVito as the films main antagonist Swackhammer.

DeVito is one of the few celebrities who actually does well in the art of voice acting, a talent that can seen within the 7 months of cinema when Space Jam and Hercules (where he voiced Phil, the trainer of Hercules) were released. Here he lends the films only source of legitimate menace, even if he's undermined by his annoying minions who become the films muscular opponents, The MonStars. After he's defeated in the big game, where he mistakes Bill Murray for Dan Aykroyd,  Michael Jordan returns back to his realm of reality in which victory and and R. Kelly tune greet him. It's an ending that feels routine, slapdash but also shows how miscalculated this whole thing is; it refuses to acknowledge how ridiculous the whole enterprise is, and then have fun with that ridiculousness in a tongue-in-cheek manner (think 21 Jump Street) but instead seems intent on taking everything so seriously that it manages to suck the fun out of the proceedings.

After the film concluded, we didn't talk much about the film, because, what is there to talk about? The VHS for most in my age group had been played relentlessly when they were younger, just like fellow 90's family movies The Lion King or Beauty & The Beast. You know what's interesting though? I'd consider those two Disney films (along with many other in the Disney animated features canon) among the greatest films ever created, yet they had merchandising and marketing opportunities out the wazoo. Honestly, The Lion King is up there with Frozen (another family movie!) and Star Wars as a movie with endless amount of merchandising attached to it. But those two remain great cinema because there's beautiful animation, superb writing and phenomenal ideas within those pictures, qualities, along with all the laughs and lovable characters, that helped move more merchandise than one can ever imagine.

That trend has gone on even to modern day moviemaking, where excellent films like Frozen and The Lego Movie are able to simultaneously sell toys and be amazing movies in and of themselves. And Space Jam? It just doesn't know what to do beyond selling toys. It has moments where it could have been a beautifully absurd movie (Bill Murrays presence, that catchy as hell theme song), but its insistence on treating everything so seriously in the name of making Michael Jordan look as good as possible drains that potential, leaving us with a movie murky in its cinematic ambitions and blatant in its marketing hopes. But hey, as one of my friends at that viewing party said perfectly during those opening credits, at least this movie "Took the 90's to the next level!" Is that a good or a bad thing? Ya got me. But if anything featuring the Looney Tunes in any capacity, has its best quality described as taking the era of Grunge to the next level, something has gone seriously wrong.

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