SPACE JAM - DVD review

Space Jam is harmless kiddie fare, but it may not be every adult's idea of a good time.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In 1988 Warner Bros. and Disney got together to produce the best combination of animation and live-action yet produced in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Eight years later in 1996, WB went it alone to try and duplicate the feat with "Space Jam." Using all the familiar Looney Tunes characters and an all-star NBA roster of basketball players, with Bill Murray thrown in besides, the movie still couldn't match its illustrious predecessor. In fact, for adults it hardly compares.

Nevertheless, "Space Jam" did well enough at the box office, mainly with children, that Warners felt it merited a two-disc, special-edition set. I'm not entirely sure that the younger children who might be the film's primary audience are going to be too interested in the documentary, but they may find the audio commentary with Bugs, Daffy, and the director amusing if their attention spans hold out; and I'm sure they'll enjoy the shorter Looney Tunes cartoons on disc two.

So, why doesn't "Space Jam" work as well as "Roger Rabbit"? Well, for one thing it hasn't got the period atmosphere that "Roger Rabbit" enjoyed, the late 1940s environment of gumshoe detectives and classic Looney Tunes shorts. Second, while it has Murray, it hasn't really as strong presences as Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd as the good-vs.-evil leads. Third, its characters aren't as universally appealing, many of the NBA players that were so well known a decade ago already having faded from memory. Fourth, and perhaps most important, it doesn't have the Disney cartoon characters along with the Warner Bros. creations, thus stripping the film of some of its stars. Mostly, though, it just isn't as funny as "Roger Rabbit"; the gags aren't as inspired or wacky. In short, "Space Jam" is more juvenile than "Roger Rabbit," and while it should appeal to kids, it might not cut it for adults.

What "Space Jam" does have is Michael Jordan. He is arguably the best basketball player the sport has ever known. But he is not the best actor we have ever known, and, unfortunately, the movie pretty much centers on him and includes him in virtually every scene. It's not that he's bad, mind you; the filmmakers were wise enough not to give him much to do or say beyond standing around and looking regal. He just doesn't inject much spark or energy into the proceedings, and his early scenes with his family are downright tedious. Worse, I suppose, his costar is Bugs Bunny, who is not nearly as zany as Roger Rabbit. Bugs's natural forte was always playing off someone else in his cartoons, someone who usually wound up smashed, mashed, or blown to smithereens while Bugs stood by and grinned. Here, Bugs gets no one to play off, no one to outsmart, so he's merely there, with little to do.

Nor is there little plot. The evil owner of an outer-space amusement park sees business dropping off and decides he needs the Looney Tunes characters to bring in the crowds. He sends his moronic minions to Earth to kidnap the Tunes, but once there Bugs challenges them to a basketball game, winner take all. If the Tunes lose, they go willingly to the park; if they win, the aliens go away and leave Earth alone forever. Trouble is, neither the Tunes nor the aliens can play basketball. So the aliens suck the talent out of five major NBA stars to give them an edge, while the Tunes recruit Michael Jordan to help them out. The whole story line is designed to get us to the climactic game, which takes up the last third of the movie. It isn't worth the wait.

I wonder if it occurred to anyone making this film that maybe not everyone likes basketball? It may still be popular as an in-person spectator sport, but a recent poll I read of sports on TV revealed that basketball is now among the least liked of televised events.

Mel Blanc is no longer with us, of course, so the voices are taken over by mostly new people. The evil amusement-park owner, Swackhammer, is recognizable as Danny DeVito. The other animated characters (Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Sylvester, Elmer, Wile E. Coyote, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn, Pepe LePew, and the Tasmanian Devil) are voiced by Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, Bob Bergen, and Bill Farmer. The one exception to the new voices is June Foray, who's been doing the voice of Granny for the past sixty years! The human characters are more or less recognizable: Bill Murray pops up as himself but looking and acting much like his old persona in "Caddy Shack." Larry Bird would have been better off had he let Randy Quaid play his part. Others in the cast include Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley, Ahmad Rashad, Del Harris, Vlade Divac, Cedric Ceballos, Jim Rome, Paul Westphal, and Danny Ainge.

Anyway, whether or not you like the plot, characters, or gags, there's no denying the animation is good looking and fairly well integrated into the live action. The Looney Tunes characters are done up in a much richer, more detailed look than in WB's usual cartoons, giving them an almost three-dimensional quality similar to the animations in "Roger Rabbit." Some bits during the final game are cute, too, including Murray showing up to lend a hand. Had Murray been the center of attention instead of Jordan, the filmmakers might have had a movie. And there's a cute tribute to the original producer of the Looney Tunes, Leon Schlesinger, in the form of a "Schlesinger Gym."

"Space Jam" will undoubtedly appeal to younger children, but I would have to caution adults about it. Lovers of the old Looney Tunes as well as "Roger Rabbit" may find the "Jam" a major disappointment.

Most everything about the picture quality is fine, but there is more of a brightness contrast between the animated sequences and the live action than I would have expected. The cartoon portions of the film are luminous, colorful, sharp, and clean. The live-action segments are somewhat soft, light, and dull by comparison. It's nothing that probably wasn't in the original print, but it does make a person long for a brighter, more vivid overall impression. Otherwise, the image is presented in an anamorphic widescreen measuring about 1.74:1 across a television screen, with little or no noticeable grain or transfer abnormalities.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio displays a gut-busting bass and strong dynamics. It's loud from the word "go," the opening credits accompanied by blaring, noisy theme music. There are some good surround effects, a few of the sounds, like those of space ships, appearing as though they were created especially for the DVD; still, they don't come up as regularly as they might have for maximum sonic effect. The music is reproduced well, though, especially in terms of its rear-channel ambience.

This is by my count the third time Warners have released "Space Jam" on DVD, the first being a regular edition in fullscreen and the second a single-disc "special edition," also in fullscreen. This newest two-disc "special edition" is not only in widescreen, it's the first to include a documentary. Unfortunately, the second disc appears to have been added mainly for promotional purposes, as it is not very well filled out. Disc one contains the widescreen movie; the 5.1 soundtrack; an audio commentary with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and director Joe Pytka; a widescreen theatrical trailer; and a healthy thirty-eight scene selections. Spoken language choices and subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish.

Disc two is where you would expect to find an abundance of bonus materials, especially from Warner Bros., but there are, in fact, relatively few. The primary extra is a twenty-two minute documentary, "Jammin' with Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan," made in 1996, that provides some brief history of the Looney Tunes but otherwise plays like an extended commercial for the film. Then there are five Looney Tunes cartoons of fairly recent and not entirely classic vintage: "Another Froggy Evening," "Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers," "Night of the Living Duck," The Duxorcist," and "Bugs vs. Daffy: Battle of the Music Video Stars." The cartoons are followed by two music videos: "Fly Like an Eagle" by Seal and "Monsters Anthem." Finally, the box announces a Looney Tunes Game demo, a theatrical trailer, and some DVD-ROM features on disc two, but the trailer is actually on disc one, and I was never able to find the game demo. Maybe it's in one of those "More" categories I sometimes overlook, or maybe it's in a hidden Easter Egg. I dunno.

The two discs come packaged in a foldout box, enclosed in a silver-foil slipcase, one of those cases that looks great until you notice that it registers every fingerprint you put on it. I can just imagine what it would look like after a ten-year-old got hold of it for even a few minutes. Oh, well. I guess it's the thought that counts.

Parting Shots:
"Space Jam" is harmless kiddie fare, but it may not be every adult's idea of a good time. The story is too simplistic, the acting too shallow, and the humor too mundane. The notion of combining animated and live-action characters is no longer novel, and it was done so much better in "Roger Rabbit" that the newer movie suffers mightily by comparison. Not even the DVD set's extras are anything special. This Special Edition "Space Jam" turns out to be a rather mediocre enterprise any way you look at it.


Film Value