To say “Space Jam” has developed into a cult hit in the two decades since it was released would be something of an understatement.
For people of a certain age, “Space Jam,” which was released 20 years ago on Tuesday, became a central marker of their childhoods. The film’s plot is simple enough: Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes characters enlist Michael Jordan to stave off the Monstars in a basketball game to help them earn their freedom from the evil Swackhammer. Along the way, Jordan falls back in the love with the game that he had left for baseball. Bill Murray is in the film. Wayne Knight, too.
The combination of Jordan, then the most popular athlete in the world, and Bugs (and Lola) Bunny, proved highly effective. The film grossed $90 million domestically and $230 million overall, becoming the most successful basketball movie of all time. Dressing up as the “Tune Squad,” the Looney Tunes characters’ team, has become a Halloween tradition for twenty- and thirty-somethings on par with passing out candy and throwing on fake blood. The mere mention of the film elicits nostalgia-inducing smiles among people my age, hence tailor-made internet traffic-grabs like “35 Facts That Prove ‘Space Jam’ Is Criminally Underrated.”
But let’s not ignore the truth: “Space Jam” was a cynical and highly successful marketing ploy, and that fact was much more clear at the time than it is now.
The release of “Space Jam” was not so much the release of a film as it was of a brand. With the movie came gumball machines, pinball machines, video games, a Happy Meal campaign, jerseys, action figures, barbie-like figures, weird figures, towels, cake decorations, shower curtains, toothbrush holders and even Koosh balls.
The campaign worked. In 2009, the Chicago Tribune reported that “Space Jam” merchandise had pulled in at least $1.2 billion ― dwarfing what “Space Jam” earned at the box office ― and an “industry insider” calculated that the brand’s “global economic impact” was actually closer to $4 billion, or maybe $6 billion. The film’s star-studded soundtrack went platinum six times, as well.
As beloved as it is now, it’s hard to argue “Space Jam” was ever thought of by those who green-lit it as anything other than the result of a simple corporate equation: Bugs plus Jordan equals revenue.
The idea for the film actually originated from an early ‘90s Nike commercial that was directed by Joe Pytka, who ended up directing the full-length feature film as well. The decision to enlist Pytka was more questionable than it seems now. As the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote in 1996, Pytka had “directed one bad movie and 5,000 TV commercials” at the time and brought “the attention span of the average gnat to the project, which lacks both coherence and cohesiveness.”
The movie’s corporate tie-ins were so blatant that the film itself self-awarely jokes about them, when Wayne Knight tells Jordan, then the closest thing to capitalism incarnate, to “Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nike’s, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark.”
The Nike ad that inspired “Space Jam”
Look back at reviews of the film in 1996, before it could benefit from the present-day nostalgia machine, and it becomes quite clear that the degree to which “Space Jam” was a calculated money-maker was not lost on critics.
TV Guide called “Space Jam” a “cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of Warner Bros. cartoon characters and basketball player Michael Jordan.” The New York Daily News labeled it “clearly a marketing tool.” The Cincinnati Enquirer in its review referred to the film’s “relentless publicity machine.” The New York Times, while noting its benefits as a “big-screen babysitter,” wrote that the film, at its root, is really “all about salesmanship.”
Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote perhaps the film’s most scathing review. In Entertainment Weekly, she gave “Space Jam” a D+ and said it was “greed promoted as synergy — this, to paraphrase that seminal media study, ‘Broadcast News,’ is what the devil looks like.”
Even the late Chuck Jones himself, the animator perhaps more closely associated with the Looney Tunes franchise than anyone else, hated the film. In an interview years later, Jones said he thought “Space Jam” was “terrible.”
That seems a bit harsh for a film about cartoons and basketball. Almost all full-length feature films are cash grabs, especially these days. And hey, Roger Ebert liked it. But let’s not pretend that “Space Jam” was created for children to enjoy. It was created to convince children to beg their parents to buy them a Happy Meal.
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