My review of SPACE JAM has always been the same: if you go into this expecting the definitive cinematic adaptation of the classic LOONEY TUNES shorts and everything that made them great, especially the work of the great Chuck Jones, you will be disappointed. But if you go into this accepting it for what it is, a family-themed sports-fantasy movie that just happens to feature the LOONEY TUNES characters in it, then you'll be adequately satisfied. This isn't a great movie, but it does give you exactly what you pay for.
The movie is directed by Joe Pytka, who'd mostly directed music videos and commercials, including several Super Bowl TV spots (which, pre-YouTube, was considered the golden timeslot for the highest quality commercials you'd see all year). And that's exactly what this movie really is: one feature-length commercial. A commercial for LOONEY TUNES, the NBA, and hip hop music, all rolled up into one movie filled with corporate logos.
The plot: aliens invade and threaten to enslave the LOONEY TUNES characters and make them attractions on their planet's theme park. So Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and the gang must come up with a plan and eventually decide to...challenge the aliens to a basketball game? Really? As pretty much every critic pointed out, these are characters known for such zany hijinks and slapstick-filled adventures that break the laws of physics. That they would pick something as mundane as a basketball game feels out of character. Chuck Jones disliked the movie and said his version of Bugs Bunny would have outsmarted the aliens in about seven minutes and not needed anyone's help to do so.
The movie is aware that it has a flimsy premise, but it needs it in order for the gimmick to happen: Bugs has to recruit Michael Jordan from our world to help the gang. Jordan coaches our heroes and they play in the big game, filled with CGI and-then groundbreaking FX. He has a dorky sidekick Stan (Wayne Knight) and a surprise ally in Bill Murray. Murray is actually the best thing in the movie, as his trademark ad-libbed, wink at the audience, "What the hell am I doing in this movie?" schtick plays well in a movie this self-aware.
The live-action portions of the movie are its weakest element. Which is a shame as there's some good acting by Jordan, Knight, Murray, and cameos by other NBA players (Charles Barkley and Larry Bird), as well as Patricia Heaton and Dan Castellaneta. But they are blandly- directed and feel like a collection of sketches with lame jokes, basically what you would expect from a director of commercials working with a cast of mostly athletes with little acting experience. And get ready to see tons of basketball-playing footage and shot-after- fetishistic-shot of baskets being dunked and Jordan making every jumpshot in slow-motion with graceful precision; in other words, what you've seen in countless athletic commercials before.
The animated portions of the movie are much stronger, featuring more colorful visuals, fun cutaway gags, and the usual mayhem and slapstick we've come to expect from these characters. Bugs Bunny is voiced by Billy West, and while he can never measure up to the legendary Mel Blanc, he does a great job giving us more or less what we expect this iconic prankster to be. Daffy, Porky, Tweety, Sylvester, Taz and Elmer are all there as well and each one manages to get in a few of their classic quips and gags. None of it ever lives up to the humor of the classic shorts of Chuck Jones and his contemporaries, but it generally works.
It's hard to explain what a sensation this movie was at the time. To any kid growing up in the early '90's, Michael Jordan was a God. He was the biggest athlete in the world who appeared in countless commercials and, while maybe not a professional actor, definitely had charisma and screen presence that matched his family-friendly persona. Even if you were a kid who didn't follow sports (like me), you heard about Michael Jordan on a daily basis: I still remember the entire school talking when this mythic figure announced he was leaving basketball to attempt a career in baseball, and his eventual return to basketball. I would argue there hasn't been a professional athlete since who has had the global popularity Jordan had in his prime. If you were a studio exec in 1996 and had to greenlight a film to serve as a starring vehicle for Jordan, having him act opposite a bunch of cartoon characters was probably the best option.
And on that note, everything about SPACE JAM is very mid-'90's: the hip hop soundtrack, the aggressive sense of humor, the attempts to give the cartoon characters edgy dialog and a "hip" attitude, the emphasis on athleticism and cast consisting mostly of NBA all-stars, and the pop culture references, right down to PULP FICTION.
SPACE JAM is junk food, filled with corporate logos, created for the sake of making money. But as a piece of nostalgia intended for kids, it's harmless fun. What else can I say but: that's all, folks!