I have a confession to make: I am a 20-year-old adult, and Space Jam is my favorite movie.
If you’ve never seen it, Space Jam (1996) is a film about Michael Jordan putting his minor league baseball career on hold to help the Looney Tunes win a basketball game against a team of aliens, called the Monstars. The Looney Tunes have to win this game, or else they will be enslaved as entertainers in the Monstars’ interplanetary amusement park.
Numerous NBA stars make appearances in the movie, as do Bill Murray and Newman from “Seinfeld.” The product placement and career opportunism is obvious. Every shot looks ready to be rendered in plastic merchandise ad infinitum. Aesthetically, it’s a very weird movie, shot using cartoon characters that were spliced into live-action sequences, and vice versa. The climax hinges on an incredibly goofy primitive CGI effect .
In other words: Space Jam is absolutely terrible, and I love it.
I have loved Space Jam since I first saw it, which was so early in my life that I have no memory of it. My go-to coffee mug has MJ and the Tune Squad on it. I still own, and often wear, a replica Tune Squad jersey. I cheer people up by telling them that “you look good when you strike out, man” — a reference to an inconsequential line from an unnamed character in this movie. I have suggested watching this movie on multiple first dates. I once consoled a distressed friend by telling her the entire story of Space Jam over the phone. You don’t need to like Space Jam to be friends with me, but you sure have to like hearing about it.
Because I’m a millennial, people assume my love of Space Jam is ironic. I don’t blame them for this assumption. But I promise: I genuinely love this movie.
Space Jam itself is oddly genuine, too. When characters question the Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes-aliens Venn diagram of a plot, they do it more to catch themselves up than anything else. Space Jam is not meta- or postmodern or self-aware in any of the ways it would have to be in order to get made today. In a world of self-referential franchise reboots and instant nostalgia viral posts, Space Jam just sort of…exists.
If the movie’s plot sounds like a marketing executive’s fever dream, well, it just might have been. I like to imagine this executive woke up and ran through the streets shouting “Synergy!” at the top of his lungs. The movie is based on a series of ads for Nike Air Jordans, of course, featuring Jordan and Bugs balling against Marvin the Martian and his goons in order to retrieve a giant pile of stolen sneakers. Somehow, that simple plot came out of the other end of the Hollywood machine a complete mess. It’s like the producers added Michael Jordan, Looney Tunes, and aliens to a set of magnetic poetry, and then threw words together until they had the script to a feature film.
Here is the plot outline of Space Jam: When the portly alien mogul Swackhammer, voiced by Danny Devito, decides that the attractions at his interstellar theme park, called Moron Mountain, have become stale, he sends his lackeys to Earth to bring back the Looney Tunes as their latest entertainment. They track down the Tunes by flying their spaceship towards the center of Earth and through an inexplicable Warner Bros. branded portal, bursting out onto the pastoral landscape. Bugs Bunny staves off the five would-be kidnappers by challenging them to a basketball game, expecting a quick victory over two-feet tall aliens with stumpy limbs. Unbeknownst to the Tunes, these lackeys have the inexplicable power to steal talent from professional basketball players, so they do that. Then, they transform into towering hulks of skill, renamed the Monstars. With nowhere else to turn, Bugs Bunny convinces Michael Jordan to put his minor league baseball career on hold to help them win.
“Inexplicable” may be the best word possible to sum up the Space Jam experience. This movie, made for children, features both a Pulp Fiction reference and a joke whose punchline can best be summed up as “Oh, so the guy squirming in his trenchcoat wasn’t masturbating in public after all!” Much of it is inexplicable. It must be experienced.
Space Jam is barely feature-length. It’s an 88 minute movie with ten minutes of opening and closing credits. The actual story is barely longer than the season finale of an AMC series. It is, to this day, the highest grossing basketball movie of all time.
I never saw Space Jam in theaters. I was little more than a year old when it came out. At some point a VHS copy got added to my parents’ collection of video tapes, and I would watch that tape, over and over and over again. I loved cartoons and basketball, and Space Jam had both in a strange combination that was like alchemy to my tiny mind.
Once I started school, I went years without watching the movie. But as a teenager, I rewatched it on a whim, curious to see if it would stand up to my memory of Saturday morning marathon viewings. The movie was ridiculous, but it made me laugh and cheer more than any other. I mean, the climactic big game takes up nearly half the movie, and it ends with Jordan dunking from half-court by stretching his arm that entire length. That is the greatest thing in the world.
One day, my high school psychology teacher Ms. Guthrie played a clip from Space Jam in class. There’s a scene that neatly shows the placebo effect in action. It’s halftime, and the Tunes are despondent. Bugs, as always, has a plan. He labels a water bottle “Michael’s Secret Stuff” and makes a big show of chastising Jordan for keeping it from his teammates. Squirting some in his mouth, Bugs’ slim physique swells to Schwarzeneggerian proportions. The other Tunes are flabbergasted by Bugs’ muscles. They descend on the bottle. The team is newly energized by Bugs’ ruse, and everyone runs out of the locker room for the second half.
Here, Mrs. Guthrie turned off the projector and returned to teaching, but I couldn’t focus. Despite hours of slumping in a desk, my heart was pounding. I couldn’t figure out why it felt like my body was running entirely on adrenaline, and then I realized I had never not finished Space Jam before.
A few things in life are certainties, engraved in stone: the IRS will get your money, the sun rises in the east, death comes for us all, and the halftime scene in Space Jam is immediately followed by the entire rest of the movie. I was so conditioned to expect the familiar ending, in which the Looney Tunes defeat the Monstars, that my body unconsciously kicked itself into overdrive. There’s probably a psychological term for that phenomenon, but I don’t know it. I was too busy replaying the second half in my head to ask.