Pump up the jam as family favourite Space Jam is celebrating its 25th anniversary!
While this year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy is largely dominating the court right now, it wouldn’t be here if director Joe Pytka’s seminal basketball-cartoon hybrid hadn’t redefined the sports movie genre.
In 1996, the newly formed Warner Bros. Feature Animation studio released its first movie – Space Jam. Taking the tried and tested nostalgia of the Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny chomped down on a carrot and chuckled, “what’s up, doc?” for a whole new generation.
With those troublesome toons being a regular fixture since 1930, the studio needed a way to reinvent them, and thankfully the brilliant brainwave of combining Bugs and basketball was a hit.
The man of the hour was Michael Jordan! Following two Super Bowl Nike adverts starring the NBA superstar and Bugs Bunny, Team Jordan pitched a full-blown feature film to Warner Bros. execs.
Ahead of Space Jam, sporting movies were largely confined to being heartfelt stories about a struggling Little League team or budding sportsman whose career is cut short by a tragic injury.
But we were two years out from Forrest Gump, which (believe it or not) is classed as a sporting movie. Gump’s comedic tone was a hit with audiences, while the legacy of Teen Wolf as a basketball movie in 1985 also gave hope to the idea that Space Jam could be a slam dunk if it had the right mix of talent, story, and heart.
As it stands, Space Jam is still the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time. It might sound like an easy title to take considering how niche the genre is, but alongside the above, other firm favourites include Hoosiers, Coach Carter, and White Men Can’t Jump.
And it wasn’t just a perfect storm of timing. The same year Space Jam was released, Dan Aykroyd starred in Celtic Pride, while elsewhere, Whoopi Goldberg took the lead in Eddie.
Safe to say neither was a patch on Space Jam in terms of takings or reviews, meaning there was a clear winner in the basketball movies of 1996.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went right with Space Jam, but it appealed to both adults and kids alike, targeting that wider demographic.
Younger viewers loved the Monstars, colourful backdrops, and deluge of merch that came with the film. With everything from Walkers Tazos to the classic McDonald’s Happy Meal, it was a massive merchandising opportunity that has been similarly replicated with A New Legacy.
And for adults, there was enough of a story, as well as famous faces they knew. Remembering the Looney Tunes have been around for decades, it gave most parents at least something to relate to. It was much the same with 1994’s Flintstones, which wasn’t a huge hit at premiere but became a cult classic.
Although the cast was beloved, it could’ve been even more so. Wayne ‘Jurassic Park‘ Knight was superb as publicist Stan, but imagine if Pytka had got his first choices of either Michael J. Fox or Chevy Chase.
Elsewhere, Bill Murray’s role as himself was originally confined to the opening. Murray reportedly saw how well production was going and lobbied himself for a much bigger part – just because you’re Bill Murray and you can.
Rather baffling though is the fact that bosses originally wanted someone with more acting experience than Jordan. According to a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Prytka confirmed: “We tried to recast him and we couldn’t find anyone better.”
Buddy comedies were everywhere, with Arnie and DeVito in Twins or Carrey and Daniels in Dumb And Dumber, but the pairing of Jordan and Bugs was a risk that paid off (although of course he was never going to win an Oscar).
Tracing the legacy of Space Jam back 25 years, it’s easy to argue that Jordan laid the groundwork for other sporting stars to try their hand at treading the boards.
Nowadays we’re in a renaissance of wrestling stars dominating the box office, with Dave Bautista, Dwayne Johnson, and John Cena earning a pretty penny as the muscular men of Tinsel Town.
Sadly, Space Jam was something of a brief foray into acting for Jordan. He was famously “done” with the idea when filming wrapped, reportedly hating that he had to act against co-stars that were drawn in later.
With dollar signs in their eyes, Warner Bros. rightly tried to option Space Jam 2 for decades. A sequel with Jordan was planned as early as 1996, however a producer apparently lied that the lead had signed on as a way to keep production going.
Other ideas were floated over the years, including sequels with Tiger Woods and Jackie Chan. The most interesting projects that never happened were the mythical Race Jam that would’ve starred NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, or Skate Jam with Tony Hawk.
Development hell plagued the sequel and led to the series lying dormant in favour of the disappointing Looney Tunes: Back In Action. That was until the surprising 2014 announcement that James was working on would eventually become A New Legacy.
It’s no secret that Space Jam: A New Legacy is regarded as the weaker film in the franchise, and although a revamped story that fits today’s modern society, sticking fan-favourite Zendaya in the role of Lola Bunny, and even luring Jordan back for a cameo were all smart moves, Space Jam was very much a movie of the ‘90s.
But whilst A New Legacy might’ve faltered at the box office, by opening up a pandora’s box of nostalgia, there are already whispers that a third movie could be on the cards.
Added to this, it’s still not outside the realms of possibility that something like Race Jam or Skate Jam could work. Elsewhere, why not Space Slam, starring familiar faces from the world of WWE taking on those toons?
If you’d asked us in 1995 whether a movie charting Jordan’s retirement and taking on a team of superpowered aliens with a cartoon rabbit could be a box office smash, we’d probably have laughed you out of the room.
However, Space Jam rightly earns its own place in the history books as possibly the greatest basketball movie of all time. Even 25 years later, there’s a reason we can still hear Quad City DJ’s theme song and the roar of the crowd.