The surface conflict in Space Jam is between two cartoon hoop teams, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who’s really facing off: the mighty Disney and Time-Warner.Disney is the Goliath of feature animation, and now here comes Warner with its $90 million slingshot, hoping to outdo Toy Story and distract kids from 101 Dalmatians. Of course you realize … this means war. Mostly on gullible kids.
Space Jam isn’t the first movie based on a commercial (remember Ernest P. Worrell?), but it’s arguably the most cynical and definitely the most expensive (which amounts to the same thing). In its aggressive slam-dunk tactics, it does outdo Toy Story, whose corporate subtext was there if you were a grouch (like me) and wanted to look for it. You don’t have to look for it in Space Jam. It’s a stroke of evil marketing genius.
As the world knows by now, Michael Jordan (playing himself in a monotonous good-sport performance) is recruited by the desperate Looney Tunes to help them win a basketball game against “the Monstars” — aliens from Moron Mountain. Wearing my grouchy subtext hat, I’d say Jordan is recruited by the desperate Warner Brothers to help them wipe the court with the Mouse. If it sells sneakers and burgers, so much the better.
Space Jam is not all bad, which makes it all the more painful. The Looney Tunes — Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Elmer Fudd, and so on — barge in and let fly with the self-mocking anarchy that introduced postmodernism to the masses fifty years ago. Some of the manic parody is funny; the Pulp Fiction goof is the movie’s biggest laugh. Yet the toons get so little screen time as individuals that Space Jam is like a bad Robert Altman movie — full of cameos by great actors who never get to do much.
One legitimate criticism of Toy Story was that it was very much a boy story. The otherwise testosterone-drunk Space Jam tries to balance the scales with a new character, Lola Bunny (whose name I had to look up — that’s how strong an impression she makes). Lola has a catch-phrase (“Don’t call me doll,” perhaps a tribute to that modern masterpiece Barb Wire) and a mean dribble, but she’s as colorless as the others here.
As for the guest humans, selected to please grown-ups, the unbilled Bill Murray has one or two witty moments playing himself: a sad sack with very little dignity left (which he’ll be if he keeps doing movies like this). Wayne Knight does his annoying Newman shtick, Theresa Randle (Girl 6) is wasted as Jordan’s wife, and Danny DeVito (as the voice of the Monstar leader) sounds as bored as he must have been. Various hoop stars walk through in an amiable daze of non-acting.
All of this adds up to one big, sad commercial for itself. Will kids like Space Jam? That isn’t the point: The marketing tells them they have to like it. The movie is less self-mocking than self-fulfilling. If the toons lose the game, the Monstars will enslave them and use them as cheesy entertainment in a Moron Mountain theme park. That’s meant as a dig at Disney. But in Space Jam, Warner reveals itself as Moron Mountain, pimping once-vital toons. What a revoltin’ development.