The Case of Space Jam

In the 1990’s, there was no bigger star than Michael Jordan. He was everywhere and on everything. He was a hero, a God amongst men, “the greatest basketball player of all time.” Mix that with the iconic image of Bugs Bunny, a killer soundtrack, and state-of-the-art special effects, and you have the highest grossing basketball movie of all time: Space Jam!

Almost 25 years later, Space Jam is still somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Young adults still wear jerseys from the movie, and parts of the soundtrack are still remixed by fans. Some think the movie was a defining moment of their childhood, while others see it as a mediocre cash grab. Today, we’ve got a real jam goin’ now as we look at the history of this Hollywood slam-dunk!

THE LOONEY TUNES IN MOVIES

  • Though still popular today, there was a time when Bugs Bunny was the biggest cartoon character in the world. He was the second animated character to earn a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and was voted to be America’s 2nd favorite character (real or imaginary) in 1976. He lost to Abraham Lincoln. 
    • Bugs started appearing in films in the late 1930’s, but it wasn’t until 1940 in a film called, “A Wild Hare” did the world meet Bugs Bunny in his full form. Although the idea of a rabbit character originally came from animator Ben “Bugs” Hardaway; Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Tex Avery are credited with giving Bugs his “wise-ass” personality. 
    • Avery was quoted saying, “His opening line was, ‘What’s up, Doc? …It floored ’em! …Here’s a guy with a gun in his face! …They expected the rabbit to scream, or anything but make a casual remark… It got such a laugh that we said, ‘Let’s use that every chance we get.’ It became a series of ‘What’s up, Docs?’ That set his entire character, He was always in command, in the face of all types of dangers.”
  • The final touch for Bugs was Mel Blanc’s voice which gave Bugs his trademark street-smart attitude. When animator Ben “Bugs” Hardaway showed Blanc the new drawing, Bugs reportedly said, “A tough little stinker, isn’t he?” Which suddenly gave Blanc the idea of a Brooklyn accent. 
  • After gaining a lot of popularity from his first starring film, producer Leon Schlesinger wanted to give the new rabbit character a name. The studio almost settled on “Happy Rabbit” while Tex Avery wants to name him “Jack E Rabbit.” 
    • A year earlier when Bugs Hardaway conceived the idea of a rabbit character, cartoonist Charlie Thorson drew up the original design and labeled it “Bugs’ Bunny.” While choosing a name, the drawing resurfaced and Schlesinger chose “Bugs Bunny.” Avery was angry because he thought bunny was too “sissy” for the character, but the name stuck.
  • Over the course of the next 50 years, the Looney Tunes went through many changes but maintained their place in American culture. Although compilations of their short films made it to the big screen, the characters never got the full-length Hollywood treatment. That was of course until 1996 with the premiere of Space Jam.
  • The only other full-length film made for the characters was “Looney Tunes Back in Action” seven years later.

MICHAEL JORDAN’S LEGACY AND POPULARITY

  • Over the course of his career with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan led the team to 6 championships! Three of them were before he took a season off to play minor league baseball in the 1993-1994 season.
  • In the early 90’s, Michael Jordan was possibly the biggest star in America. He was loved by basketball fans and non-basketball fans alike. He had brand deals, and merchandise; all that was missing was a major movie. 
    • In 1995, the movie Hercules even parodied Michael Jordan’s megastar status in “Zero to Hero.” Pain and Panic are comically sporting Hercules’ sandals and soft drink, much like Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan sneaker and Gatorade endorsement.
  • Throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michael Jordan and his manager David Falk were often approached for movie roles. Falk always turned them down simply because Michael Jordan wasn’t an actor, and he didn’t think it would be good for his career. He often would tell Jordan that there’s only one role for him: the role of Michael Jordan.
  • Michael Jordan would play himself in commercials, including a commercial that paired him with Mars Blackmon, played by Spike Lee.  One of these commercials can be watched in the video above.
    • The campaign was incredibly successful. It showed Spike Lee’s character from his debut film, “She’s Gotta Have it” as a foil to Michael Jordan. One of the minds behind the ad was Jim Riswold, who wanted to make a similar ad with one of this favorite characters of all time: Bugs Bunny.
  • Hare Jordan took about 6 months to shoot and was an incredibly popular Super Bowl ad. It featured Bugs and Jordan teaming up to face a group of baddies on the basketball court. It ends with Bugs quipping that “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” He was right! There was another Hare Jordan commercial soon after, and Jordan’s manager thought of a feature film that he just couldn’t turn down. 

SUMMARY

  • Space Jam introduces us to Swackhammer, owner of the amusement park planet, Moron Mountain. He is desperate to get new attractions and he decides that the Looney Tune characters would be perfect. He sends his underlings, the Nerdlucks, to bring them to him, whether they come willingly or not. Bugs Bunny and the gang tricks them into agreeing to a competition to determine toons’ freedom. Taking advantage of their puny and stubby legged foes, they select basketball for the surest chance of winning. However, using alien technology, the Nerdlucks turn the tables and steal the talent of leading professional basketball stars to become the massive basketball bruisers known as the Monstars. In desperation, Bugs Bunny calls on the aid of the recently retired Michael Jordan, to help give them a chance at winning their freedom.

THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • You may find this hard to believe, but not everyone thought this was a great idea in the beginning. When David Falk pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, they turned it down. He then called the consumer products division and told Dan Romanelli who said, “that’s impossible, how can you not do something with Michael Jordan?” 
    • The reasoning was fair. Bugs Bunny is a valuable part of their brand and they didn’t want to change him or use him unless there was a very good reason.
    • Romanelli brought the idea to Lucy Fisher, the executive vice president of production, and she believed in the idea enough to fight for it. Her argument for the film was based on the fact that she herself was not a basketball fan, but a Michael Jordan fan. She knew that a film like this could bring in viewers whether they liked basketball or not. Her enthusiasm was enough to get the film green-lit by the chief executive. 
  • Ivan Reitman signed on to produce the film, and his team developed the idea of Michael Jordan helping the Looney Tunes characters win a basketball game.
    • Reitman is known for producing big comedies like National Lampoon’s, Animal House, and Ghostbusters.
  • The studio brought in Joe Pytka, the man who directed the two Hare Jordan commercials. He was known for directing commercials and music videos, and initially he turned down the job of the commercials. He thought that Bugs Bunny was too out-dated, and his team fought with Warner Brothers for months about updating the character’s design. Although he admits now that he thought Space Jam was a silly idea, he agreed to work on the film. 
    • Pytka faced a lot of hurdles with the film, for example he wanted Spike Lee to refine the script for him but Warner Brothers said no. According to Pytka, He also wanted to cast Michael J Fox or Chevy Chase as Stanley, Jordan’s publicist, but the studio said no. Other sources say that Jason Alexander also turned down the role. 
    • Beyond that, he had a difficult time finding actors for the more minor roles because it seemed that no one wanted to be in a movie with an athlete and a cartoon character. 
  • Just as the movie was getting started, Jordan announced his retirement and plans to play baseball. Although this seemed to be a complication, the producers decided to write it into the script. It became a plot point, and the film seemed to explain Michael’s retirement: he had to stop what he was doing and save the Looney Tunes! 
    • The script had a scene where the umpire would call all the pitches balls when Jordan was at the plate. When Jordan read this, he told them that something similar actually happened to him–that a catcher gave him all the signs and he struck out anyway. 
      • They rewrote the scene to be lifted from his actual experience as a baseball player. 
    • While filming, Michael Jordan also needed to train for his comeback season to the Bulls. Warner Brothers built him a gym as part of his contract. He would practice in between shoots and brought in players from the area to come play games with him. He would even play one-on-one with the director. Actors from the studio gathered around to watch his games, and producers were blown away by his dedication. They called the gym, “The Jordan Dome.” 
  • The biggest challenge of the movie was the mixture of live-action and animation. It had been done before a few years earlier in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but even Robert Zemeckis told producers that it was the hardest thing he had ever done and that he would never do it again. 
  • Animation and computer graphics aside, Pytka had to take a non-actor leading man and get him to react to pieces of tape on a green wall for most of the film’s runtime. This would be a challenge for any actor, much less someone who has never acted before.
    • So, the studio brought in a group of comedic actors from The Groundlings acting troupe and dressed them in green suits, including some 7-foot-tall basketball players acting as the Monstars. 
jordan.jpg

VISUAL EFFECTS

  • According to its website, Space Jam combined more traditional animation, computer graphics, and live action than any other film.
  • Although combining live action and animation dates back to the very first animated films (like humorous phases of funny faces and Gertie the Dinosaur), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was the first full-length feature to do it.
  • The animation was produced through Warner Brothers Feature Animation and directed by Bruce Smith and Tony Cervone. The effects were produced by Cinesite, the company founded by Ed Jones. Jones won an Oscar for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 
    • Tony Cervone was quoted on the Space Jam website saying, “Roger Rabbit was the vinyl LP and [Space Jam] is the compact disc.” 
  • The film used traditional animation that was then colored using the computer, and the live action footage was also put in the computer, along with any 3D aspects of the film. Because all of it could be put together in the digital space, each individual piece was modified in brightness, color, and texture so it all fit together seamlessly. 
  • Warner Brothers recruited other studios of artists to help them with the traditional parts of the animation. For the crowd during the basketball game, it was impossible to create as many cartoon characters as they needed. At first, they started to duplicate characters and change their colors. When that wasn’t enough, they would have real people stand in with animated heads and brightly colored outfits. This way they could change the model of each one so they all appeared different for the scene. 
  • In order to track all of Michael Jordan’s sweet sweet moves on the court they filmed in a completely green walled and floored room except the hoop and backboard. The only other thing in there was a definite pattern of red balls and dots formed into a square grid. 
  • At times, the green actors would pass in front of Michael while he played. This wasn’t an issue at first as they wanted to capture the spontaneity of Jordan’s movements. After watching the film, they realized that Michael would disappear when that happened. So, they would add animated characters to those scenes to hide the problems.
  • Animators were also on set to watch the green screen action. When scenes were improvised with Bill Murray and Michael Jordan, they would print out a still of the scene and draw in where the animation would be placed for reference. 
  • The animators stored Michael Jordan’s digital image in the computer, making it possible to manipulate him just as much as the animated characters for certain scenes. They used this for the scene in which he gets sucked down the golf hole, and when he’s smashed into a basketball and thrown through a hoop. 

STARRING

  • Voice actors
    • The voice actors were all recorded separately. This was partly because a lot of them played more than one character!
      • It took teams of voice actors to get the voices of all the characters that Mel Blanc had voiced in his career.
      • Kath Soucie/ Lola Bunny
      • Billy West/ Bugs Bunny/ Elmer Fudd
      • Bill Farmer/ Foghorn Leghorn/ Yosemite Sam/ Sylvester
      • Bob Bergen/ Tweety/ Marvin the Martian/ Porky Pig
      • Danny Devito/ Swackhammer
      • Dee Bradley Baker/ Daffy Duck/ Tazmanian Devil
      • Frank Welker/ Charlie Dog
        • The dog was just too sweet in real life that they needed a voice actor to make him sound meaner.
      • June Foray/ Granny/ Witch Hazel
        • A quick guest appearance but in the commentary on the DVD they praised her a lot. Calling her a legend and saying they were in love with her! She was at the time doing voices for the Rocky and Bullwinkle movie.
      • Maurice LeMarche/ Pepe Le Pew
      • Voices of the Nerdlucks and their Monstar counterparts
        • Colleen Wainwright, TK Carter, Jocelyn Blue,Darnell Suttles, Charity James, Steve Kehala, June Melby, Joey Camen, Catherine Reitman, and Dorian Harewood
    • Live action actors
      • Michael Jordan
      • Brandon Hammond as young Michael Jordan
      • The Basketball players that have their talent stolen;
        • Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. 
      • Larry Bird
      • Theresa Randle as Juanita Jordan
      • Penny Bae Bridges, Manner Washington, and Eric Gordon play Michael’s children
      • Bill Murray
        • Bill Murray had only been contracted to be in the golf scene but when he shot that scene he had such a good time and was able to be his spontaneous self with the new technology. He was always afraid to do too much with technology because it was harder to go off script. This new technology helped him agree to be in more of the film.
      • Special appearances
        • Dan Castellaneta/ male fan
          • He is the voice of Homer Simpson
        • Patricia Heaton/ female fan
      • Wayne McKnight as Stanley Podolak

MUSIC

  • James Newton Howard wrote the score. 
  • Alongside the film, an additional album was released called Space Jam: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture. 
    • The soundtrack was released by Warner Sunset and Atlantic Records. 
    • The worldwide hit “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly was first released on the soundtrack.
Space_Jam_Soundtrack_Album_Cover.jpg
  • Track list: 
    • Fly Like an Eagle
    • The Winner
    • Space Jam
    • Hit ‘Em High
    • I Found My Smile Again
    • For You I Will
    • Upside Down
    • Givin’ U All That I’ve Got
    • Basketball Jones
    • I Turn to You
    • All of My Days
    • That’s the Way
    • Buggin’

REVIEWS

  • The movie was panned by critics, except for one notable name: Roger Ebert. He said, “‘Space Jam’” is a happy marriage of good ideas–three films for the price of one, giving us a comic treatment of the career adventures of Michael Jordan, crossed with a Looney Tunes cartoon and some showbiz warfare. It entertains kids at one level while giving their parents a lot to smile at, too.
  • In recent years critics have blamed the lasting popularity of the movie on nostalgia.
  • The film made 230 million dollars worldwide and 90 million domestically. It created a billion dollars worth of retail sales, and a sequel is now in development. So, if you look at popular opinion, this movie was and is, the JAM.

SPACE JAM 2

  • What we know
    • Space Jam 2: A New Legacy
      • To be released in the Summer of 2021; it is set to star LeBron James with music by Hans Zimmer. Supposedly all the live action sequences have been shot which is why the release date has not been set back.
      • Malcolm D. Lee, known for the movie Girls Trip, is Directing. 
      • Alongside LeBron will be Sonequa Martin-Green (she has starred on things like Star Trek into Darkness and The Walking Dead) as his wife.
      • And Don Cheadle as the villain!
      • Not many basketball players have been revealed yet but the ones listed online are Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. There have been rumors that Kobe Bryant may be in it but nothing has been confirmed.
      • The voice actors listed are Kath Soucie and Eric Bauza.

SOURCES: 

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