Space Jam, the Looney Tunes feature film featuring basketball superstar Michael Jordan, is not a great movie. At least I don’t remember it being very good, though I’ve probably seen it maybe once since it first came out 20 years. But the legend of the movie as…I’m not sure, a campy good time (?) has persisted in the two decades since it first came out to the point where rumors constantly circulate around a potential sequel starring one of today’s NBA stars. And it’s popular enough that it’s getting a limited rerelease from Fathom Events this weekend.
The story of the movie is a mish-mash of the kind of plot contrivances that allow for such meetups to occur in comics and other stories: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters have been targeted as the next big attraction on theme park planet run by a ruthless overlord. But they trick him into freeing him if and only if they can beat his minions in a basketball tournament. So they themselves kidnap Michael Jordan to be their ringer in the game. Hilarity ensues in the story, which puts Jordan as himself along with a few other humans such as Bill Murray in the animated world to help Bugs and his friends earn their freedom.
There were a few different posters released, most of them showing Jordan standing amidst a crowd of animated characters. But the most memorable of them narrowed the pitch down to its core element, the pairing of Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan, their faces half-obscured on either side of the one-sheet. The title treatment stands out as a bright pop of color on an otherwise blueish design, the better to show off the starfield that’s in back of the two stars. Most all the posters use the same “Get ready to jam” copy point, though this is the only one where Jordan’s head doesn’t look badly Photoshopped onto the rest of his body.
The first trailer similarly cuts it down to its essence, immediately selling us on the team-up of Bugs and Michael, showing the star has been kidnapped to help with something, though what that is isn’t really made clear. So there’s little story here, instead just selling the spectacle of Jordan interacting in an animated world but still making it clear he’s playing basketball.
The second trailer offers a bit more of the story, showing that some sort of disaster is looming for Bugs and his friends before we once again get to the kidnapping that draws him into the world. Bugs then offers a bit of exposition before we get to more of the same basketball-based hijinks, explaining that the Mon-stars have stolen the talent of other NBA talent as a way to even the odds. There’s more of the cartoonish violence that runs throughout the movie here.
Like Contact from a few months ago, this is a rare occasion when we can still exam the official website for the movie, which has been locked in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch since 1996 and is rediscovered about once a year by the internet, who marvels at what amounted to cutting edge web design at the time.
The content is arrayed like planets around the title treatment’s sun. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff here, from bios on the real life basketball players who appear in the movie to the trailer, background sketches from the animation process and more.
But what’s striking with the benefit of hindsight is just how tiny everything is. All the pictures and even the navigation graphics are now what we’d consider thumbnails. Those GIFs used for the planets that make up the site navigation are small. Like really small. And the stills from the movie that are on the site are tiny compared to the full-screen images that most sites sport these days. The site shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards, of course, but still, it’s shocking to see everything crammed into such a small package. But that’s what you needed to do when you were accessing the site from your 14.4bps modem and hoping no one picked up the phone and killed your connection.
The campaign worked alright, with the movie bringing in a decent (for 1996) $32 million. But it wasn’t enough to either kick off a series of such movies or to substantively revive the Looney Tunes franchise, which still hasn’t returned to its glory days despite repeated attempts. Still, the marketing did what it needed to do, playing off the immense popularity of Jordan and the idea of pairing him with the beloved cultural characters from the Warner Bros. Animation empire. The movie may not be any good, but the marketing had few other cards to play.