Although it bounces off the rim a number of times, “Space Jam” finally goes through the hoop for the score. Cute, rambunctious, generally amusing rather than outright funny, this clever mix of live action, highlighted by the unequaled skills of basketball superstar Michael Jordan, and animated Looney Tunes antics will be a must-see for kids, with repeat business a lock for many. Adult interest will be less urgent, but pic still looms as a commercial slam-dunk for Warner Bros., which is putting on a full-court press to run up the score as much as possible before “101 Dalmatians” arrives less than two weeks later.
Bright, colorful and, if anything, a bit too speedy and overloaded with characters, pic offers up a full serving of Jordan, who very competently plays himself, and not enough of putative co-star Bugs Bunny, who becomes all but lost in the shuffle once the other Looneys are let loose. Having all the old favorites onscreen at the same time Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester , Tweety, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote and the others gives them all less to do, but the lightly irreverent tone their combined presence creates is still enjoyable.
Producer Ivan Reitman, director Joe Pytka, the four screenwriters and assembled other talents have come up with a way to mix Jordan and the other humans into the animated fantasy world that seems as reasonable as any other. As if he needed it, Jordan’s credentials are established at the outset with a spectacular credit sequence montage of some of his most spectacular shots, followed by his retirement and decision to play baseball.
Meanwhile, somewhere on another planet, the villainous blowhard promoter Swackhammer decides he needs a new attraction at his Moron Mountain theme park. Kidnapped to the planet, the Looney Tuners, led by Bugs Bunny, challenge the pathetic local talent to a basketball tourney. But, in some of the film’s funniest scenes, the outer-spacers are able to sap the hoop talent of five NBA stars Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Shawn Bradley and upload it to themselves, thus turning the home team into a fearsome unit called the Monstars.
Enter MJ, who has become good at swinging at bad pitches in the minors. In another visual highlight, Jordan, while on the links with Larry Bird, Bill Murray and obsequious publicist Stan (Wayne Knight), is literally sucked into a hole and transported to Moron Mountain, where he must whip the Tunesters into shape in preparation for the final battle with the Monstars. Even when the good guys fall way behind in the first half, the outcome is never in doubt, although the game winner requires Jordan essentially to join the ranks of animated characters.
Unlike many athletes who have appeared as themselves onscreen, Jordan comes off as relaxed, amiable, charismatic and utterly like the man he has always seemed to be in his familiar sports context. Granted, he’s not asked to do anything but project himself honestly and shoot lots of baskets (unless something escaped notice, he doesn’t miss a shot in the entire picture), but his timing and ease in banter with such skilled comic thesps as Murray and Knight is adept, and he never remotely embarrasses himself.
Other star of the show is the joint effort of the animation and technical staff, who have mixed in both two- and three-dimensional animation, placing the diverse creatures on the photographed landscape of Earth as well as humans in a completely designed universe. Some may quibble with an effect here or there, but overall visual impact is very impressive. Action is pushed to the breaking point on occasion, with any plot point that might have proved boring or inconvenient merely rolled right over as if it didn’t exist.
Bugs’ limited role is a bit of a disappointment, although his femme counterpart, Lola Bunny, is a saucy new arrival on the Looney Tune scene. Many, of course, will miss the voicings of the late Mel Blanc, but the approximations are close enough, and the great majority of the film’s patrons won’t know the difference.
Pic is loaded with product placements and a few too many plugs for Warner Bros. itself, but the home studio gets off a nice dig at its rival franchise when Bugs quips, “What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would name their team the Ducks?”
For those who sit through the eight minutes of end credits, there is the sight of Michael Jordan facing the camera and inquiring, “Can I go home now?” which may or may not have been what he was asking after 60 days of shooting opposite nonexistent cartoon characters.