Ink & Pixel: Space Jam

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

I’m no longer much of a sports guy. Growing up, I was moderately into wrestling, and enjoyed the antics of Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the Legion of Doom just like any other prepubescent kid trapped in the late 80s. However, as time went on – and the WWF became the WWE (bah!) – I moved on, and was consumed by my first and most treasured passion … music. That being said, I still followed the record breaking feats of Mr. Micheal “Air” Jordan, and yes, owned a pair of his expensive Reebok “Pump Action” Sneakers. Though it wasn’t until 1996, when Jordan teamed up with Warner Bros. and the timeless characters of Looney Tunes, that I’ll admit to having truly loved the man. For through the power of technology, popularity, and one hell of an endorsement check – we were given SPACE JAM!

Sing it with me now … “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it every night and day. Spread my …” okay, enough of that. SPACE JAM is, of course, the 1996 live-action/animated sports comedy starring the legendary basketball superstar Micheal Jordan and the even more beloved Looney Tunes characters. Directed by Joe Pytka (LET IT RIDE) and produced by Ivan Reitman (GHOSTBUSTERS, STRIPES, KINDERGARTEN COP), SPACE JAM was a smash hit upon its release, and in recent times has resurfaced in popularity due to a now debunked rumor of a sequel having gone into pre-production.

The story of SPACE JAM goes like this … Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), an evil and oafish amusement park owner located in the far reaches of an animated outer space, is in grave danger of losing his once lucrative business. Kids just aren’t impressed anymore by his rickety rides, lame carnival games, and overall suckfest of a theme park. So, with the help of his moronic minions, Swackhammer devises a plan to restore interest to his once glorious park by kidnapping the popular Looney Tunes cast. Once captured, Swackhammer will force the beloved Warner Bros. characters into slavery, where they – under the threat of death – will perform for the children who visit the corrupt alien’s failing park.

Finding Swackhammer’s plans most unfair, the Looney Tunes parlay for a chance to win their freedom by requesting a winner-take-all basketball competition. The minions agree, but then immediately reveal their complex alien nature through their ability to grow both in size and stature. With the Looney Tunes’ in a right state of despair, Bugs Bunny (Billy West) and Daffy Duck (Dee Bradley Baker) crossover into our human world to enlist the aid of one Micheal “Air” Jordan in winning a basketball game which – if not won – could end up costing the treasured cartoon characters their lives. It’s all very dire, you see. You could even go so far as to say that Bugs and his friends have gotten themselves into quite the SPACE JAM! Hey-o!

There are so many people that love SPACE JAM. In the years since it’s release, the film has acquired a sort of “cult” following among the late 20 to 30 something crowd. Mainly, those who were around for its theatrical release remember it as being a wondrous blend of live-action and animation that managed not only to tickle funny bones, but also rekindle the movie going public’s love for the Looney Tunes brand. Yes, we all love to get wasted and ride the Rolling Thunder coaster at Six Flags, but there’s nothing quite like seeing the famous faces that helped shape your childhood and penchant for cartoon violence up on the big screen. And it’s not like the live-action/animated format wasn’t being used in films like COOL WORLD (hey, don’t you worry, we’ll go underneath Holly Wood’s tight, white dress in another installment of Ink & Pixel), but it had been since 1988, when Warner Bros. released WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? since audiences had embraced the presentation of a film such as SPACE JAM so wholeheartedly.

In fact, SPACE JAM was written and created very much within the shadow of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?’s success. In addition to making a ton of cash by incorporating star players in the NBA such as Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mouring, Derek Harper, Jeff Malone, Anthony Miller, Sharone Wright, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing, and Muggsy Bougues, just to name a few, the purpose of SPACE JAM was to re-brand and re-introduce the Looney Tunes characters to a new generation. Rather than keep their 1930s attitudes and quirks intact (a la their portrayal in ROGER RABBIT), writers Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timothy Harris, and Herschel Weingrod sought to update the cartoon cast in the hopes of having them appeal to younger audiences. Now normally this would be considered by many to be sacrilege, but you know what? It actually worked! As evidenced by the box office returns for SPACE JAM, viewers both young and old embraced the Looney Tunes new “wiseguy” approach to comedy, and it’s been the foundation of their comedic stylings ever since.

Additionally, SPACE JAM came along at a time when moviegoers were still being wowed by the wonders of blue screen technology. Yes, it had been around for quite some time before SPACE JAM had gone into production, but it was the quality of interactivity between the film’s live-action and animated actors that really made the film stand out as a well-executed special effects venture. In fact, in order to keep things running smoothly, director Joe Pytka asked to have comedy troupe join the cast. This group would, while dressed in green jumpsuits, act out the actions of the animated characters featured in the film. Considering that the NBA players starring in the film had little to no acting experience whatsoever, it was more or less imperative that they be given the opportunity to work alongside human actors whenever possible.

Another intriguing aspect of the film’s production is that it took a year and a half to make. One of the reasons for this is that the script for SPACE JAM remained in a perpetual state of flux throughout the filming process. Why, you ask? Well, with so many comedic personalities on the writing staff having gained access to some of the greatest and funniest animated characters of all time, it goes without saying that the jokes are bound to come in droves. Additionally, much of the dialogue featured in the final cut of SPACE JAM is nowhere near what was originally intended for the film, causing the artists and animators to double their efforts. With these new lines of dialogue constantly popping up throughout production, the art staff were expected to work day and night to accommodate them onscreen. What a nightmare, right? Well, in several interviews with the film’s staff you’ll find that many of the animators welcomed the challenge brought on by this “up-to-the-minute” writing process.

Oh, and before we get out of here, let’s focus a little bit on Lola Bunny (Kath Soucie), who makes her debut as Bugs’ girlfriend in SPACE JAM. Lola was created (more or less) as part of a way to market the sports oriented film to female viewers. Lola, while having an obvious crush on Bugs, was also a fierce, intelligent, and formidable athlete – a perfect fit for the film. However, as time went on, Lola appeared in less and less Looney Tunes related ventures. It’s actually quite sad. When she did pop up in programs like THE LOONEY TUNES SHOW and BABY LOONEY TUNES, her character had been changed, dumbed down if you will. For some reason I cannot fathom, Lola’s spunk and smarts had been replaced by a girl bunny who was in constant need of help from other male characters. Ridiculous. Perhaps one day she’ll make a triumphant return to her former incarnation, but who the hell knows?

As it turns out, SPACE JAM met with a fair amount of success as it’s total score at the box office reached an impressive $90,418,342 in the United States and over $230,000,000 worldwide. It also has the honor of being the highest grossing basketball film of all time (Ha ha! What’s the matter? THE AIR UP THERE or BLUE CHIPS not up to snuff?). In my opinion, SPACE JAM exceeded people’s expectations. In addition to putting the Looney Tunes back in the public eye, it also prompted otherwise inactive children to participate in sports. How do I know this, you ask? Well, for one, I was one of those children. Following the release of this movie I got my ass up out of the house and played more games of H.O.R.S.E. at the local park than I can count. It is all thanks to Micheal “Air” Jordan, a wasscally wabbit, an ill-tempered duck, and a cast of standout comedians such as Wayne Knight and Bill Murray that I still love watching basketball to this very day. That’s all, folks!


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.