Space Jam
directed by Tony Cervone and Joe Pytka
Warner Brothers, 1996

What's up, Doc? If I'm any judge of popular taste, it will be movie rentals with the release of Space Jam, the latest attempt to bring real-life actors and animated cartoon characters together on the big screen.

Did I say attempt?

In all manners technical, the filmmakers have now succeeded. Through the wizardry of computer animation and special effects, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny can now act seamlessly in the same scene. And act they do, for 90 fast-paced minutes, trading barbs and tips on their way to saving the earth from six minuscule spacemen who mean to kidnap Bugs and his Looney Tune pals and force them to work in a theme park in outer space.

To ward them off, Bugs' boys challenge the aliens to a winners-take-all game of hoops, figuring the pint-size Plutonians won't stand a chance.

But the aliens, apparently the only beings in the universe who know less about basketball than the "Tune Squad," gain unfair advantage by stealing the talent from the NBA's top five players -- Larry Johnson, Muggsey Bogues, Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley and Patrick Ewing -- all of whom appear in the film. Not to be outdone, the Tunes kidnap Michael Jordan, whom the aliens missed because he was deep in the throes of his minor-league baseball career.

But the big question is: Why does a movie featuring two such funky dudes as Michael and Bugs have me in such a blue funk?

The answer: Space Jam is a big-star, big-budget, big-audience film that's probably going to establish some sort of pattern for years to come. And it's a bad pattern.

The problems lie where you'd least expect them to.

Jordan turns in a credible performance, Bill Murray does a funny turn as an NBA-wannabe and the ever-present hip-hop score is not only adequate, it's loud enough for the hearing-impaired to enjoy even without entering the theater.

The real foulups are in the script.

First, I simply can't take seriously any film that includes in a list of the NBA's top talents the name Shawn Bradley. Perhaps there is somebody in the universe who knows less about basketball than either the aliens or the "Tune Squad." It's nice to see a white guy on the team, and Bradley does lend himself well to caricature. But top talent?

Second, and more important, is the assumption that Bugs and his pals would ever need help from anybody to do anything. That undercuts the basic premise of the Looney Tunes, a premise which goes back to the 1930s: Incredibly resourceful Davids capable of knocking off oafish Goliaths with a myriad of tools, most of which appear from nowhere, or are ordered from the ubiquitous Acme catalog.

Third, as if one and two weren't enough, the writers gave the "Tune Squad" a ringer, Lola Bunny. Lola has obvious charms and abundant talent. But once again, her presence suggests that the Looney Tunes were not up to their chosen task.

A camel, it's been said, is a horse designed by a committee. Space Jam was written by Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick and Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod, and produced by Joe Medjuck, Daniel Goldberg, Ken Ross, David Falk and Gordon Webb. If camels are your meat, this horse is for you.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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