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Does “Space Jam” Hold Up 25 Years Later?

What’s old is new again—whether high-waisted jeans or stories in film. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” arrives July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max, so now is the perfect time to get (re)acquainted with the original “Space Jam” of 1996.

Rewatching “Space Jam” today, nearly 25 years after its original release, actually isn’t as much of a culture shock as one might expect.

Don’t be too surprised reading that. The live action/animated comedy premiered long before advances in technology allowed the animation to be more life-like than cartoonish. And yet, watching the great Michael Jordan help Bugs Bunny and his friends defeat a clan of monsters in a basketball game complete with cartoonish action doesn’t seem dated or weird. The movie still holds up.

But why?

You could chalk it up to nostalgia. Or the smart banter that the Looney Tunes are known for. Or Bill Murray’s very Bill Murray-ish role in the film (he plays himself!).

In his original review, the late American film critic Roger Ebert gives “Space Jam” a thumbs up, calling it a “happy marriage of good ideas” resting on “three films for the price of one.” These include “a comic treatment of the career adventures of Michael Jordan, crossed with a Looney Tunes cartoon and some showbiz warfare.”

This still rings true in 2021, although today’s movie buffs might feel compelled to bring up certain criticisms, given the times we currently live in.

Take Stan Podolak (played by Wayne Knight), for example. Stan is Jordan’s publicist and assistant, and yet the basketball star actually spends most of the movie trying to get away from him. Funnily, the film portrays Stan as what we now refer to as a “stan”: an obsessive fan of a particular celebrity. Jokes about his weight also permeate the film—an element that likely would be perceived negatively today.

There’s more: Swackhammer, the movie’s antagonist and owner of the failing intergalactic theme park, who’s trying to save his business, is perennially smoking on camera—a big no-no when it comes to filming in 2021. Oh, and the name of that space-y theme park? Moron Mountain. Could you imagine that name being used in a movie today?

The appeal of “Space Jam” in 2021 is particularly interesting in light of the much-anticipated stand-alone sequel.“Space Jam: A New Legacy” stars another basketball great—LeBron James.

An heir to Jordan in more ways than one, James signed on to the current project to play a version of himself. The plot’s centerpiece is a basketball game, just like in the ’96 original, but will this time pit the Looney Tunes and James against the Goon Squad, a team of pro basketball stars in virtual avatar form. The stakes? James’ fictional son, Dom (Cedric Joe), is trapped with his father in a virtual space, called Serververse, and they’ll only be able to escape if they win the game.

Although the themes of family and hard work are going to be present in the sequel, the sequel is bound to be more “politically correct” than the first “Space Jam.” There is, however, one interesting aspect of the original that will likely not be present in “A New Legacy,” and yet is incredibly relevant.

In the original version, the monsters of Moron Mountain find a way to steal the skills of five professional basketball players: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues. Given the immediate impact of the pros’ loss of skills, both the NBA and the world at large begin believing an odd virus has spread and infected the players, potentially contaminating others by the hour.

“After meeting with team owners, I have decided that until we can guarantee the health and safety of our NBA players, there will be no more basketball this season,” says the NBA commissioner in the middle of the movie, as pandemic responders lock down stadiums and start donning N95 masks.

Let’s hope that “A New Legacy” won’t foresee anything as life altering as the original did.

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