Space Jam – An Analysis

Prologue:

Throughout my career in higher education, I’ve been tasked with writing many research papers, especially now in graduate school.  Typically, it seems as if the dreaded “final essay” is the bane to many a student as the calendar winds down to finals week.  I’ve never minded writing big papers much, as I’m usually pretty enthusiastic about my research, so the pages fly right on by once I get moving.  I wanted to post one of my research papers on here, but I can’t see anyone being interested in a thesis regarding defamation law and the blogosphere.  But I digress.  So, I figured I would do an analysis of a film I truly believe to be one of the finest motion pictures ever created; Space Jam.

A Cross-Sectional Analysis of the Societal Ramifications of Space Jam

In 1996, Warner Brother’s Studios allotted $80 million dollars of their hard-earned capital to fund Space Jam, a fictional account of NBA superstar Michael Jordan’s retirement, where he befriended several cartoon characters to defeat a group of malevolent space aliens in a winner take all basketball game.  During his time away from the NBA, Jordan was forced to deal with not only a tragic family situation, but also the falling out of his sudden, shocking retirement announcement.  Despite it’s cartoon cast and campy nature, Space Jam is a serious account of heartbreak, acceptance, benevolence, and triumph.  The societal commentary portrayed by Space Jam puts this timeless classic in a league with some of the most famous films in history, and the lasting impact will endure the generations.

The film begins with a montage dedicated to Jordan’s on-court brilliance, with a colorful, rambunctious display of Jordan’s heroics, such as him hoisting one of his three NBA championships, his national title run at the University of North Carolina, and his jaw-dropping, famous slam dunks.  The film then cuts to Jordan’s retirement speech, which is based on factual events.  Prior to the 1993-94 season, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA to pursue a career in baseball.  This news was shocking, as Jordan had won the NBA title the season prior with the Chicago Bulls, and was coming off one of his most prolific pro seasons to date.  However, Jordan’s abrupt retirement came after the murder of Jordan’s father, James.  Because the film only garnered a “PG” rating, too much detail couldn’t be disclosed, but the fact Jordan’s father had passed away was mentioned explicitly.  Here, we see a statement being made: despite being the most dominant basketball force on the planet, Jordan retired, instead focusing on a sport his father had dreamed of him playing.  The film suggests Jordan’s retirement was indeed a statement against the league as a whole, demonstrating the fact not only did he have more important issues to deal with, but also the league needed him, not vice versa.

Jordan is then shown struggling with his switch to baseball, and frankly not given much of a chance to succeed, as the opposing team’s catcher warns Jordan of the pitch locations before finally seeking an autograph after his ultimate strikeout.  Jordan’s ineptitude is matched only by the rampant enthusiasm of all those watching.  As Jordan arrives home, he catches a glimpse of a newscast on tv, mocking his efforts in baseball.  This display is another commentary made by the movie, suggesting no hero is invincible, no matter how significant their triumphs.

Meanwhile on Moron Mountain, an inter-dimensional theme park located in the earth’s mantle, a race of greedy, but business savvy aliens hatch a plan to kidnap the Looney Tunes characters.  Mister Swackhammer, the brains of the organization, feels featuring the Looney Tunes as the entertainment for his theme park will ultimately prevent foreclosure, although it appears Swackhammer might be the de facto emperor of Moron Mountain, negating any need to answer to banks or a credit union.  Swackhammer sends five of his minions to enslave the Looney Tunes, as the criminal aliens travel to yet another dimension in search of the characters.  After some of Buggs Bunny’s wacky antics, the aliens settle on playing a basketball game to determine if the Looney Tunes will be captured.  Bugs and his gang defeat the outmatched aliens, forcing them to return to earth in search of basketball powers, as they leach the talent from Larry Johnson, Muggsy Boggs, Shawn Bradley, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing, seemingly unaware there were more talented players in the NBA at the time.  After the talent of these players is captured by the aliens, they transform into hulking, muscle-bound basketball machines, referred to as the “Mon-Stars” by a terrified Sylvester the Cat.  Determining they are indeed in some deep trouble, Buggs Bunny returns to earth via an inter-dimensional golf-hole portal to kidnap Michael Jordan.

After returning to Looney Tunes land, Jordan is skeptical of helping the characters win their game, claiming if he were to help them, he needs his lucky shorts, allowing two of the characters to return to earth, break into his home, and steal his clothing, while failing to warn anyone about his sleeping family, or giant, angry dog.  Jordan receives his lucky clothes, and then in a slow motion montage featuring both Steve Miller and Seal, somehow, Jordan puts on a glorious display of basketball talent, showing he hasn’t lost any of his notorious skill.  This is a defining moment in the movie, and also the fictional universe in which this film takes place.  It appears at this moment in the film Jordan realizes basketball is his true love, although work still remains to be done.

Jordan and the Looney Tunes arrive for the big game against the “Mon-Stars”, and quickly fall into hole, trailing by over 100 points entering halftime.  Jordan gives his team a speech that goes ignored, but Buggs deceives his teammates into drinking “Mike’s Secret Stuff”, which is clearly just tap water labeled differently.  This is clearly a reference to the placebo effect, which occurs when an artificial side effect happens simply because a subject believes the drugs being administered to them are indeed beneficial.  It’s also worth noting this scene could perhaps be a statement about performance enhancing drugs, as Jordan even states “you guys don’t need that stuff”, certainly foreshadowing the outcome of the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which will come two years later.  In real life.  Not Looney Tunes land.

Higher stakes are added to the game, as in an effort to save the Looney Tunes no matter what, Jordan claims Swackhammer can take him back to Moron Mountain should the Looney Tunes be defeated.  This scene represents Jordan’s trademark burning desire and will to win, as he has so much confidence in himself, he risks it all, knowing he will come out victorious.  After cutting the deficit to only one point with 10 seconds remaining in the game, the Tunes find themselves with an injury depleted lineup.  Heroically, actor Bill Murray seemingly discovers an inter-dimensional Toon portal of his own, showing up in full uniform to the arena, ready to help Jordan out.  Play resumes, with Jordan set to take the final shot (again, more commentary on Jordan’s role as the leader).  With six full seconds remaining, Jordan takes off from half court for a dunk, an ill-advised, ambitious decision at best.  Regardless, Jordan remains in flight for several seconds, before the entire Monstars team grabs Jordan around his waist, clearly a personal foul, which would’ve awarded Jordan three free throws, since his ridiculous dunk is considered to be a shot.  However, the obvious foul goes unnoticed, as Marvin the Martian, the referee, seems to be a representative of the shady happenings and fixed games of the 90’s, despite he himself being a Looney Tune. Jordan’s arm then begins stretching, as if made of rubber, gaining at least 15 feet of length, allowing Jordan to dunk the ball and win the game just as time expires.  Another commentary, perhaps, of Jordan’s complete and utter dominance on the court.  The growing arm was reflective of Jordan being so talented, people literally thought he wasn’t human.  The normal celebrating ensues, although Swackhammer belittles his Monstars team, forcing them to return to Moron Mountain.  However, Jordan convinces them to fight back, as the newly invigorated Monstars strap their former boss Swackhammer to a rocket and launch him to the great beyond.

Jordan returns from his monumental victory.  For most, a collegiate national championship and three NBA titles, matched with a 1-0 record in inter-dimensional play would have been enough to call it quits to an illustrious career.  However, Jordan realizes his heart never really left basketball, as the film ends with him coming out of retirement and being reintroduced to the Bulls.

Space Jam, more than anything, represents the butterfly effect.  Had James Jordan not been tragically gunned down, Michael never would’ve retired from the NBA in the first place, meaning the Looney Tunes likely would have ended up enslaved by Swackhammer and his criminal race of tiny aliens.  Another major theme explored in the film is one of following your heart.  Obviously, Jordan retiring in the first place because “his heart wasn’t in it” is a valid excuse.  But the film seems to suggest Jordan only attempted a career in baseball to vindicate his father’s wishes.  It’s not what Michael wanted, but what James wanted.  Defeating the dreaded Monstars showed Jordan where his real talent resided, and gave rise to his fiery, competitive spirit.

It’s also worth noting the film’s portrayal of Jordan’s dominance of the 90’s.  The film rightfully asserted that Michael Jordan simply could not be stopped in the 1990’s.  The Monstars, who each took on the full talent of each of their respective NBA stars, still could not use their combined talents to defeat Jordan and a team of cartoon characters with little to no basketball experience.  In fact, it seemed as if Jordan and Lola Bunny were the only two players on the same page, clearly comparing their relationship to that of Jordan and real life teammate Scottie Pippen.  Coincidentally, it seems as if several of Jordan’s cartoon teammates were meant to represent his Chicago Bulls teammates.  For example, Daffy Duck’s colorful antics, perversion, and generally un-likability were clearly meant to depict Dennis Rodman, a future teammate of Jordan’s, post retirement.  It’s as if the film predicted Rodman would leave the Pistons to sign with Chicago for Jordan’s second string of championships.  Buggs was meant to depict Horace Grant, no doubt a valuable member to the team, but nowhere near the level of Pippen or Jordan, much like Jordan and Lola Bunny.  Bill Murray was meant to depict John Paxson, as his clutch performance in that one moment is comparable to Paxson’s game winning shot in game 6 of the 1993 NBA finals, which clinched the trophy for the Bulls.

So as you can see, Space Jam is a riveting social commentary, meant to depict the effects of loss, desire, and companionship no matter what the odds.  Doing what makes you happy is a major theme explored by Space Jam, displayed by the hall of fame career Jordan enjoyed, the 6 NBA titles Chicago has to their name, and the $230 million this movie made at the box office, tripling their budget.  The final, lasting commentary displayed by Space Jam is this:  If it has Michael Jordan’s name on it, it’s gonna make a ton of money.

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