February 22, 2012 by abbyo
As regular readers of this blog have surely realized by now, I grew up in the 90s, which I am convinced was one of the greatest decades to be a kid. What you may not know is that I spent most of my childhood in the greatest possible place to be during the 1990s: Chicago, Illinois. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of well-adjusted people out there who had lovely childhoods in other locales. But Chicago was the best, not because of our museums, skyscrapers, or the accomplishments of Richard J. Daley, but for one simple reason: basketball.
You see, I lived in Chicago during the three-peat repeat, those magical years where the Chicago Bulls managed to win three consecutive NBA national championships not once, but twice in one decade. Everyone on the team was practically a national hero due to their supernatural abilities. But one player stood above the rest: Michael Jordan. He was beloved the world over, but he achieved a godlike status at home. Every kid in my elementary school had a Bulls jersey, and either owned a pair of Air Jordans, or desperately wanted them. In our eyes, the man could do no wrong.
So when “Space Jam” came out in 1996, things kind of exploded. There wasn’t a Chicagoan child or parent out there who didn’t see this movie at least three times after its release. It opened at #1, and grossed $100 million when it came out on video. The soundtrack, which helped catapult R. Kelly to stardom, went platinum six times. I have no doubt that most of that revenue came from northeast Illinois. At one point, I had practically every line of this movie memorized, and knew almost all the words to “I Believe I Can Fly.” For a good two years between the ages of 8 and 10, “Space Jam” had its flag planted right at the top of my pop culture brain.
The movie, for those of you who may have forgotten it, combines Jordan’s star power with the undeniable lure of the Looney Tunes, who were also going through a surge in popularity at the time. The story is this: A bunch of puny aliens from a space theme park called Moron Mountain want to capture the Tunes to use them as a star attraction. The Tunes, led by Bugs Bunny, challenge the aliens to a game of basketball, saying they’ll go with them if they lose. However, the aliens cheat by stealing the talent of a bunch of NBA stars (90s greats Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley and Larry Johnson) and using it to morph themselves into the freakish, dominating Monstars. With the stakes high, Bugs “recruits” Jordan’s help by sucking him down a hole on a golf course into the cartoon universe.
As you may have gathered from the terribly silly premise, “Space Jam” doesn’t hold up very well 16 years after its original release. But believe it or not, Jordan isn’t what’s bad about the movie. He’s actually pretty good at playing himself. He’s affable, and has good chemistry with his cartoon co-stars. It’s the writing. The cartoon sections play at a pace that resembles a seven-year-old on a sugar high. The generally lame jokes come fast and furious. The introduction of Lola Bunny as a “strong female character” is itself kind of a joke, since she only has a handful of lines, and most of them are repeated at least twice throughout the movie. She’s mostly just there as an object of lust for Bugs.
But there are some high points, one of which is the bizarre—but welcome—appearance of Bill Murray in this movie. He plays himself as a golfing buddy of Jordan’s with dreams of being a pro NBA player. It’s a testament to Murray’s own amazing talent that the movie’s instantly funnier when he’s around. Not only that, but it almost seems like a movie that’s worth watching. Murray doesn’t seem to find it beneath him at all to be in a flick where he’s playing basketball with a bunch of cartoon characters. In fact, he seems to be enjoying it.
The other (unintentionally) entertaining aspect of “Space Jam” is that it’s an hour-and-a-half long ode to how great Jordan is. The whole affair starts off in biopic mode, with Jordan as a kid, shooting hoops in his backyard and telling his dad of his dreams to go to school at North Carolina, play in the NBA and then move on to pro baseball. This is followed by a montage of Jordan realizing his goals as the title track blasts in the background. Even though Jordan’s a terrible baseball player, his teammates are unfailingly positive about him because they’re just excited to have him around. He’s also frequently referred to by nicknames like “His Royal Airness,” and treated accordingly by everyone around him. It’s to the man’s credit that he never lets it go to his head. Or perhaps he just knows the excessive compliments are warranted, so he lets them slide.
90 minutes of praise for a man who didn’t need any more of it feels over-the-top, but it absolutely encapsulates the way people felt about Jordan at the time. That’s probably what’s kept “Space Jam” from being an enduring family-friendly classic. It’s a movie that doesn’t make sense in any other cultural context than mid-90s Michael Jordan mania. Kids today probably have no clue who Jordan was, or why he was so important. And other than MJ being MJ, “Space Jam” just doesn’t have anything else to stand on. Still, for nostalgic purposes, it’s kind of fun to watch the movie and remember how it felt to grow up during that time, to listen to R. Kelly singing about touching the sky, and recall the one man on earth who actually seemed capable of doing it.
I should note that while “Space Jam” got iffy reviews elsewhere, it got good reviews in the Windy City. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave it thumbs up. Perhaps it was Jordan’s star power clouding their judgment, but more likely it’s because they’d have been lynched if they said they didn’t like it.
For all of the hoopla about Jordan being the world’s greatest athlete, in terms of career record, he’s only third-highest, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, who was playing for the Utah Jazz at the same time Jordan played for the Bulls. Go figure.
A couple of announcements this week. The first is that I won’t be posting next Wednesday, as I’ll be attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. It’s going to be a great experience, but unfortunately it will keep me away from the computer for a while.
The second is that my most recent review for Kansas Public Radio aired last Friday! It’s over “The Secret World of Arietty,” and you can listen to it here.