Space Jam

on November 15, 1996 by Thomas Quinn
   TV commercial director Joe Pytka has spent so much time promoting products and condensing ideas into 30-second nuggets that he's forgotten that feature films offer, and require, a lot more breathing time. Hence, "Space Jam," playful and funny as it is, leaving a moviegoer feeling like he's just watched a two-hour high-pressure sales pitch. What's more, the product it's pushing isn't what audiences will come to see: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and all the Looney Tunes regulars. What it's selling is its live-action lead, Michael Jordan. Affable and dignified as he is, entirely too much adulation is heaped on the NBA superstar. And it's all done in Madison Avenue shorthand (slo-mo, slam-dunk sequences) that echoes every Nike ad made. It's a miscalculation, because Jordan's two-dimensional co-stars are what make this picture so watchable.
   Despite four writers ("The Santa Clause's" Steve Rudnick & Leo Benvenuti, and "Twins'" Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod), the plot doesn't do much. A band of quirky aliens from an amusement park planet come to Earth to enslave the Looney Tunes, unless the Warner band can defeat the space creeps in a basketball game. America's coolest characters (sorry, Walt) enlist the help of Jordan, who is sucked into their cel-painted universe (oddly located at the center of the Earth) in a kind of low-rent "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" adventure. The film provides Bugs, Daffy et al. with plenty of occasions to crack wise and pull pranks, and their antics are a hoot despite their distracting 3-D rendering. Even Jordan acquits himself nicely in his feature acting (well, sort of acting) debut. But in the wake of "Kazaam," the NBA's other recent foray into Hollywood (or perhaps it's the other way around), it's clear that some producers have it in their heads that any two "elements" with mass appeal (in this case, jocks and toons) make a winning combination. They're only half right. The central draw (pun intended) here isn't basketball, which is exciting only when it's live; it's the classic Warner characters, whose overheated action makes Jordan's athletic artistry look downright dull.
   Many generations have grown up with these terrific toons, and they're as hip today as they were in the 1940s, even without voiceman Mel Blanc's unique (and sorely missed) talents. "Space Jam" does deserve credit for this: It doesn't mess with their personalities, and their frenzied performances are a riot. One's tempted to wonder how much better this romp would have been with a real actor in the lead, and a better story. But the delight generated by the Looney Tunes troupe overwhelms all the picture's shortcomings, making it a kick for both grownups and the small fry. Starring Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Directed by Joe Pytka. Written by Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick and Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod. Produced by Joe Medjuck and Daniel Goldberg. A Warner release. Animation/live-action fantasy/comedy. Rated PG for some mild cartoon language. Running time: 88 min. Opens 11/15 wide
Tags: Starring Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck. Directed by Joe Pytka. Written by Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick and Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod, Produced by Joe Medjuck, Daniel Goldberg, Warner, Animation live-action, fantasy comedy

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