Space Jam begins with what is quite possibly the only unironic use of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in recorded history. The minute I realized this, I understood what I was in for. I am a millennial who has made it to 2016 without ever watching Space Jam. It was released three years after I was born, so I just missed the hype. But as a millennial who’s just done something, I will now take it too seriously and write a thinkpiece, as is my internet-given right.
People must love Space Jam for nostalgia’s sake, because it’s not a good movie in the cinematic sense of the word. I won’t even get into how goofy the animations look today, because that’s actually nobody’s fault. But even if you allow a liberal suspension of disbelief, the plot is disjointed at best. Aliens challenge Looney Tunes characters to a basketball game, but the aliens steal the talent of five NBA stars while Looney Tunes recruit Michael Jordan. Humans and cartoons forego even the most basic laws of the universe and move back and forth between the cartoon world and Earth without harm. You shouldn’t expect a lot in the way of realism.
But why does it have to be so insane and unbelievable? Why does no one—especially his family—notice Michael Jordan is gone while he’s in Toontown? Why isn’t there a montage of the animals training for the basketball game a la Rocky? The stakes are high enough that literal slavery is on the line—why does Michael Jordan tell his team to just “go out there and have fun”?
It’s not the real world, you say. Fine. For the purposes of this movie, I’ll accept that a human being can be sucked into a golf hole and it be no cause for great concern. I won’t even take issue with Michael Jordan’s performance. He’s Michael Jordan, and it’s a joy to watch him do anything besides dunking (but that’s cool too). He actually does an okay job considering he’s acting alongside literally nothing most of the time. Michael Jordan is the only thing that ties the movie together. Maybe I’ve been too spoiled by awesome cinema in my lifetime, but if Space Jam 2 is ever made, the plot will be a major concern, because in 2016, big stars do not a good movie make (ahem, Suicide Squad).
The plot would also have to appeal to its new audience. I grew up in the age of social justice, so I think it’s important to, oh, I don’t know, treat people with respect. With this in mind, there are two more serious issues I couldn’t gloss over while watching Space Jam.
The first is Lola Bunny. I appreciate that there is never any question that she belongs on the Tune Squad due to her gender. But she is hypersexualized to the point where it’s more important that she’s hot than that she plays the sport. I’m all for a lady, whether human or cartoon, taking charge of her sexuality. But if you can only be taken seriously because you’re also really sexy, you’re not being taken seriously. I don’t think this would’ve passed the 2016 test.
Something else that someone should have been noticed is that the biggest conflict of the movie, the driving motivator for the entire showdown, is pretty problematic. If the Tune Squad loses, they and Michael Jordan will be forced into slavery. And by slavery they mean standup comedy at an amusement park and signing autographs, respectively. The two just aren’t comparable, and it’s tone deaf to even suggest it. I understand it’s a joke, I just think a similar punchline could be achieved without reaching for slavery. Twitter would never let that go.
If you’ve read up to here and haven’t already ordered your pitchfork on Amazon to protest my very existence in true millennial fashion, allow me to say this: Despite all of it, Space Jam is one of the greatest movies I have ever seen. It’s not just because of nostalgia, or the fact that it reminds me of being a kid who didn’t care about things like plot holes or feminism.
Besides the fact that it’s genuinely hilarious, watching it for the first time reminds me that nothing has to be taken that seriously. A movie can be structurally confusing and amusing at the same time; it can be problematic as well as an inextricable part of pop culture.
Is that duality not indicative of the world I have grown up in? A world both dynamic in its diversity and yet tremendously confusing. A world of Atlanta on television but Suicide Squad in theaters; a world of Beyoncé and Meghan Trainor; a world where Barack Obama and Donald Trump will have the same job. A world where I can overanalyze a 20-year-old movie on the internet and only be three years older than the movie itself. We love Space Jam because it’s not trying to make any kind of point. It’s just fun. That will always transcend generational gaps.
Centuries from now, when aliens are studying our civilization (luckily for them, the Space Jam website will still be perfectly intact), I hope they’ll see Space Jam as a cultural high point. It’s the perfect '90s time capsule: a mixture of era-specific technology, pop culture, and cultural understanding. It’s a screenshot of a society still unaffected by the cutting irony of the Meme Era or Twitter, where nothing is sacred. That’s why we should cherish it: as a reminder of our own innocence.