'Space Jam' as a grown-up: An appreciation

Enduring message of "Space Jam:" When the going gets tough, call in the greatest player of all time. Warner Bros./Getty Images

Michael Jordan is turning 50 on Feb. 17, and to commemorate the occasion, everyone is talking about his legacy as if he were dead. I guess the point is to preserve the memory of 1990s Jedi Master Jordan (RIP) and deny the existence of the senile shapeshifter who has hijacked his identity, breathed curses unto the Bobcats, and shattered social order with his menacing cargo shorts.

For those of us who grew up during MJ’s prime, we lacked the historical perspective at the time to appreciate the magnitude of his talent, so we remember him not so much as an athlete but as a superhero of the highest order.

The only absolutes for a 9-year-old boy in 1995 were that (A) you had a bull cut, (B) you owned a vaguely triangular skateboard, (C) you doused yourself frequently with Michael Jordan cologne to celebrate His Airness’s musk, and (D) you had the same Michael Jordan “ELEVATION” poster that all your friends did, and it inspired you to stick your tongue out every time you went in for a layup at the Y.

And so naturally we rejoiced like Pee-wee Herman’s furniture when it was announced that MJ, the only grownup we unanimously worshipped, would be making himself accessible exclusively to us through our most trusted medium: cartoon. He gave us "Space Jam."

How weird is it that the most exalted athlete on the planet would abruptly denounce his throne in one sport to become a novelty in another, and then inexplicably decide to star in a Looney Tunes movie? It was ridiculously unlikely, yet somehow it transpired, and everyone ages 5 to 12 devoured it with fervor.

Sixteen years later, play the soundtrack at any party densely populated by 20-somethings and it will become emphatically obvious that the fondness for the movie has never waned.

But to watch the movie 16 years later is a very disorienting experience. It’s different. For one, the movie makes wayyyyy less sense than it did when you were 9, and two, your latent pining for Lola Bunny is now fully realized.*

Here are some other revelations that might catch you off guard when you watch "Space Jam" as a grown-up.

The soundtrack is STACKED

You probably realized this to some extent. You realized it was infectious, as the songs are still stuck in your head more than 15 years later. You realized, even in third grade, that R. Kelly’s tone was otherworldly. But no little kid could’ve realized how many certified heavyweights were taking the mic on that soundtrack. In addition to R. Kelly, pre-sabbatical D’Angelo makes an appearance, contributing an unapologetically sexy bit of soul that leads directly into Busta Rhymes’ gritty Monstar anthem, which features verses from -- get this -- Method Man and LL Cool J, the latter of whom goes bare knuckle on Bugs with the lines, “I'm rugged raw, my Monstars is getting money/When cliques get to bugging, I'm snatching up their bunnies." Then you’ve got Monica at her peak, Barry White and Chris Rock turning the lights down low, and an endearingly goofy team effort from Biz Markie and the Spin Doctors. But here’s the kicker: Hova himself shows up twice. Though he only appears as himself in R. Kelly’s “All of My Days,” Jay-Z holds the rare distinction of being the only kid from the Marcy Houses to ever ghostwrite rhymes for Bugs Bunny. He penned Bugs’ verses for the club track “Buggin',” and it’s a nutso testament to his versatility as an artist that he could hop from boasting about being up to his ears in carrots to laying the ground rules for murder in “Streets Is Watching.”

The movie has no business being called "Space Jam"

Though there are characters from outer space in "Space Jam," they travel to Earth 11 minutes in and remain there through the end of the movie. No considerable action takes place anywhere beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It’d sort of be like if "Waterworld" took place in a central Indiana cornfield, or if "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" took place in Gary Busey’s bathtub. It’s just a little dishonest, is all. But I trust that it’s clawing at the consciences of the studio executives and that it’s only a matter of time before the movie is re-released as "Land Jam (feat. Guys from Space)."

Moral of the story? Don’t believe you can fly

The message of "Space Jam" message initially seems glaringly apparent: Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything. Michael’s bottle of “secret stuff”? It was water all along! Ha-ha! But while the notion that crappy things happen only to people who don’t have self-confidence is touching, it’s not really supported by the movie. Bugs & Co. don’t even pretend to have faith in themselves. Not only do they immediately enlist a ringer when they encounter adversity, they get the undisputed king of the basketball universe to fight their battle. And though the ‘toons rally for a combined 32 points in the big game, MJ is responsible for the bulk of the buckets, and his game-winning buzzer-beater doesn’t come through his own innate talents but rather a ludicrous glitch in the cartoon world physics that momentarily endows him with Stretch Armstrong powers. This isn’t an underdog story, it’s a crash course in pragmatism: If you’re outmatched in life, immediately submit to your shortcomings and recruit the best available third party to resolve your woes and spare you from taking responsibility.

What was then cutting edge is now hilarious

"Space Jam" premiered in 1996, which was roughly when everyone was getting their first 30-day AOL trial discs and testing out this wacky phenomenon called the World Wide Web. The folks at Warner Bros. sensed the buzz and evidently used a crayon and window stickers to make an interactive website extolling the exotic new technologies they used to create the film. From their own description, in which they enlighten the layman about how computer animation works:

“When moviegoers think of 'computer animation,' they are most likely without a clear idea of what that term really means. Many may assume that a computer scientist sits in front of a console, types in the words 'Bugs Bunny' and 'Daffy Duck,' chooses plot option C-27, and the setting 'Mars.' He presses 'enter' and goes out for a cup of coffee. He comes back an hour later to find a seven-minute cartoon sticking out of the side of the computer. Well, that’s not all, folks.”

There’s so much more. Nanobytes, cyber bloops, giga portals. Inter-link with your portable floppy drive and let "Space Jam" take you to a whole new galaxy.

Larry Bird’s character serves no purpose

None whatsoever. He stands on a golf course, engages in light banter, and that’s pretty much the full extent of his role. You get the sense the director just wanted to hang out with him, which is understandable. I mean, you’d imagine that basking in the collective aura of Larry Bird, Bill Murray and Michael Jordan would be sort of like sitting in one of those massage chairs at the Sharper Image while pug puppies lick your toes and IVs feed mint chocolate chip ice cream directly into your bloodstream. But, y’know, better.

Homer Simpson makes a cameo

Or at least the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta, who plays an aggravated Knicks fan in the scene in which Patrick Ewing gets his powers stolen. But, still, Michael Jordan and Homer Simpson? That is pure, uncut '90s glory right there. Throw in a Bill Clinton sax solo and Wheels from the BK Kid’s Club, and all of mankind would simply agree to cease existing, knowing that there would never again be a more representative confluence of pop cultural icons for the rest of eternity.

Pepé Le Pew is a monster

Pepé Le Pew is in "Space Jam," but only briefly and with no significant dialogue. My theory is that the truth suddenly dawned on Warner Bros.: that he is a skunk whose only agenda is to physically impose himself on females, irrespective of species or reciprocated interest, and methodically violate them as they squirm and protest, only relenting once the noxious gas he exudes renders them unconscious. Elvis couldn’t shake his hips on Ed Sullivan, but this guy was given four decades of unfiltered access to America’s most impressionable kiddos? Why not just give Ted Bundy his own variety hour?

The box score in the final game is preposterous

Not that you’d expect anything different from a showdown between rabbits, aliens and various farm animals, but the big game between the TuneSquad and the Monstars is a masterpiece of statistical chaos. As tallied by the good folks at the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, box score highlights include a 48-2 run in the second half for the Tunes, zero rebounds recorded by either team, only two non-dunk field goal attempts in the entirety of the game, and not a single personal foul issued despite frequent acts of disturbing violence (e.g., dismemberment, flagrant use of dynamite, employing one’s buttocks to deform an opponent, swinging an opponent like a 9-iron, etc).

But "Space Jam" and Michael Jordan are still the best

Like all of history’s most powerful works of art, "Space Jam" will forever continue to fill us with wonder, and none of the petty concerns I’ve raised here today should diminish the noble achievements of the TuneSquad and Michael Jordan. Especially M.J., who will only slip deeper and deeper into decrepitude, eventually being forced to resign from the Bobcats to become a Walmart greeter, where he’ll sit alone all day on his stool wishing that the assistant manager would trust him to round up the carts so that he can feel like the man just one last time. Even when all this happens, he’ll still always be a superhero in the hearts of every man who grew up thinking he could fly if only he’d stick out his tongue and go for it.

Happy birthday, old-timer.

* Actually, I take that back. She’s certainly got a smokin’ Disney princess vibe going, but her proportions are alarmingly unhealthy. In the movie, she exercises excessively, frequently bares her emaciated midriff, and is never seen without her white gloves, which you suspect she might wear to conceal her brittle, nutrient-deprived fingernails. Indeed, by the end of the movie I was extremely concerned with her physical and mental well-being.