Every so often, a film will come along that is definitive of its era, an all-encompassing cinematic masterwork that perfectly captures the culture, mood, political climate, and idealism of a society. Need we look further than Stray Dog or Godzilla for a cinematic representation of post-war Japan? Well, in a very, very, similar way… actually, in an almost perfectly identical way, one movie defines ‘90s culture so flawlessly, so absolutely, so… jammingly.
Space Jam (1996)
The Plot: Trouble comes to the Looney Toons when a rich alien villain (Danny DeVito) becomes bent on enslaving them as entertainers at his space theme park. Faced with unexpected odds in a basketball game for their freedom, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Toons turn to basketball legend Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan) to whip them into shape and play for their future.
So, this may not sound like much. Indeed, on the surface, Space Jam is a pretty straightforward sports movie, but it is the sports movie. It contains great lessons for kids about teamwork, determination, hard work, and the importance of right over wrong. The filmmakers are able to create a surprisingly insightful and poignant critique of professional sports, particularly the NBA. They provide commentary on product sponsorship, drug-abuse, and what it means to be a real athlete, all through the seamless lens of a kid movie. In a very interesting way, this simplistic guise is what most contributes to the film’s complexity. It’s easy to comment on those issues as an adult, to throw facts and statistics at an unassuming audience, to shock them with stories of misconduct in the NBA, but Space Jam is subtle and almost sneaky in its delivery. The innocence of the premise and of the target audience hits home, reminding the viewer that in essence, sports are supposed to be clean, honest, fun games.
Furthermore, this film holds great value for the cinematic industry, trailblazing new special effects techniques. The story merges the two worlds of cartoon and reality, so most of the film was shot in front of a green screen, as actors like Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, and Bill Murray imagine the world and characters around them. This film actually really pushed the envelope on green screen technology, paving the way for the innovations we see today in films like Avatar, Life of Pi, and The Hobbit. Without Space Jam there would be no Gollum. Furthermore, Jordan’s performance should be studied today by all who hope to act alongside an animated character. Speaking of The Hobbit, I mentioned in my review of that film last year that some of the fighting seemed a little artificial, since all the goblins were CGI instead of actual stunt(wo)men like in The Lord of the Rings. You can tell that when Bilbo swings his little sword around, he’s not actually hitting anything. Well, I love Martin Freeman and Peter Jackson as much as the next guy, but they both could have taken a few pointers from Michael Jordan. His interactions with the Looney Toons are flawless. At times it seems like he’s actually part of the cartoon.
But wait, I’m getting a little sidetracked. I started off this article by making the somewhat hefty claim that Space Jam is the definitive film of the ‘90s. How exactly am I going to back that up? Well, first of all, I’d just like to say that you shouldn’t have to take my word for it. I’m not alone in my opinion of this film. For example, the late Roger Ebert gave Space Jam 3.5/4 stars, calling it a “Happy marriage of good ideas.” Just in case that isn’t a powerful enough vote of confidence for you, and in case you still aren’t appreciative of the film’s cinematic merit, allow me to describe to you what the ‘90s were like. The final decade of the twentieth century saw a lot of interesting socioeconomical developments. The economy prospered as the rap industry boomed. The world of film met such groundbreaking newcomers as Quentin Tarantino and Dramatic Spielberg. Despite this time of general prosperity, however, MTV groomed a terrible horror known as Generation X. These mindless, apathetic drones meandered through life with no ambition, no love, and no appreciation for their culture. Essentially, they were disillusioned because no one understood why they were disillusioned. Everything clean and good about the ‘90s was in danger of being swallowed up by a gaping abyss of nihilism. Then, in 1996, a film came out that featured every positive aspect of the contemporary society with one message: “Hey guys, this stuff is pretty cool.” That movie was Space Jam. Despite its serious commentary and technological superiority, at its heart the film was just a celebration of life and everything it has to offer. As the opening credit sequence kicks off, singer/songwriters Quad City DJs pose the thought-provoking question, “Hey, you, watcha gonna do?” Well, without waiting for an answer, they proceed to declare, “Everybody get up; it’s time to slam now. We’ve got a real jam going down. Welcome to the Space Jam.”
Well, though specifically about the ‘90s, Space Jam remains a timeless classic, encouraging the common viewer to embrace life, work hard, think imaginatively, believe in yourself, and also interplanetary slavery is bad. As we think back on Space Jam we need only remember one line from the iconic song, “Y’all ready to stop? No? Y’all wanna know why? ‘Cause it’s the slam jam.”
It sure is, Quad City DJs, it sure is.