'Space Jam' at 20: How a Super Bowl Ad Became an Iconic Movie

A perfect storm—Warner Bros. colliding with Nike, the Looney Tunes colliding with Michael Jordan—led to 'Space Jam,' a movie that's still one of a kind.

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Before Space Jam's 1996 release, we'd never imagined that Michael Jordan would dunk on cartoon players, that Jay-Z would ghostwrite for Bugs Bunny, or that a cartoon rabbit could make us sweat. Our five-part "Space Jam: 20 Years Later" package grapples with all of these incomprehensible truths and many more, exploring the legacy of the worst-best film ever made. 

In the mid-1990s, the genre of animated film was being torn in two. After 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar and its RenderMan technology were leading a charge into the future, delivering a combination of eye-popping visuals and profound emotional intelligence. The studio (along with Dreamworks) had a quick chokehold on the medium, and it would only grow stronger. But there was still something to be said for more traditional animated movies; there was still gold to be mined. No movie tapped into that more than Space Jam, a Warner Bros.-Nike collaboration starring the most popular athlete ever, Michael Jordan, and one of the most popular cartoon franchises ever, the Looney Tunes. 

Though traditional in format, Space Jam wasn’t your standard kids movie. It had a kind of attitude and irreverence; it had diversity and a stellar soundtrack; it was confident and cool; and, well, it had Jordan. The movie pulled in kids in droves, but also basketball fans of all ages, and even people who didn’t know that the Houston Rockets won the NBA championship in 1995. Racking up over $90 million in the U.S. and an estimated $230-$250 million internationally, Space Jam was a cultural moment. And even if the movie’s nearly nonsensical plot doesn’t quite hold up on rewatch, 20 years later, Space Jam’s icon status is rock solid. 

It all began as a seed that was planted long before Pixar leapt onto the scene, a 60-second commercial birthed by Nike and Warner Bros. “It was based on a commercial I did with Bugs and Michael for Nike in 1992,” says Space Jam director Joe Pytka, who also directed 1989’s Let It Ride, as well as several Michael Jackson music videos. “These Air Jordan commercials—which were part of the ‘Hare Jordan’ series—started the whole thing.” The next year, Pytka and Nike made a follow-up ad called "Aerospace Jordan" that featured two animated outer space creatures. Warner Bros. saw those minute-long commercials and knew there was a movie there.

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“The Warner Bros. characters at that point were a part of hip-hop culture. Rappers had Marvin the Martian t-shirts on. They got Daffy Duck jeans on. This is where hip-hop was at the time,” Bruce Smith, Space Jam’s animation director (Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Princess and the Frog) says. “Hip-hop was kind of pushing the culture forward. I think the mesh of these two characters—MJ and Bugs—took it there. It just felt like the right movie for the right time.”

Developing a feature-length film was the logical next step. Warner Bros. wanted to strike while the iron was hot, especially considering the “Hare Jordan” commercials were highly publicized, wildly successful Super Bowl spots. “The commercial precipitated the movie because the first commercial was [rated] number one on USA Today,” Pytka added. “You saw several hundred million people loving this thing—you know there’s a built-in audience for this idea.” That many approving eyeballs would make any studio exec salivate, and Warner Bros. rose to the occasion. 

The concrete building blocks for the feature’s foundation were already in place. A trusted brand in Warner Bros, globally recognizable pop culture pillars in the Looney Tunes, and, most importantly, a national treasure of a leading man. “Aside from being a legendary hero in the athletic world, Michael Jordan has this interesting straight man charisma on screen,” says Smith. “It seemed to mesh really well with the Tunes characters. It’s funny and fun and it makes sense that you throw the ultimate NBA legend, who’s not completely known for his comedic side, in with this complementary group of characters. We then just laid the basketball template down and had some fun with it.”

We knew right away we were making something different with Space Jam. —Bruce Smith, Animation Director

It was this organic lightning in a bottle on which Pytka and Smith capitalized. And they needed it, because on paper it would seem like an insurmountable task: create an animated film that could hold its own against the game-changing, immersive visuals now being churned out from the Pixar factory. However, the challenges they were presented with weren’t so much technological ones as they were classicistic, traditional ones. How do you update the Looney Tunes, iconic animated figures that are so deeply rooted in generational nostalgia? “I fought with the animation department for a while before we got on track,” Pytka says. “When we did the original ‘Hare Jordan’ spot, we fought with Warner Bros. for several months to get Bugs a different kind of look—a more modern look.”

Pytka and Smith’s updated version of Bugs—more svelte, more edgy, more attitude—bridged the gap between viewers accustomed to a certain Tunes look and a younger generation desperate to see themselves reflected in their cartoon heroes. “We knew right away we were making something different with Space Jam,” Smith says. “That 1995 landscape was more of the ‘animated musical’ variety. We knew right away we were more contemporary and a bit hipper. We spoke to a different audience. The attitude was very different. I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, so as much as I love movies like Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, that’s not me, and that’s not the audience who responded to those Jordan commercials. I welcomed the Jordan brand to animation.”

Smith says that the Looney Tunes were the perfect vehicle for the edgier feel Jordan wanted. “I grew up loving Bugs and Daffy because they had these great personalities. There was sort of this dichotomy compared to Disney characters at the time. Mickey, Goofy, Donald Duck, they were a bit more saccharine. As the years grew, those characters became a bit more domesticated. Donald had nephews. Mickey had a nephew. Goofy was a dad. But Bugs was never a dad. Bugs was kind of a player!” Bugs’ role as the Looney Tunes’ eternal bachelor helped with the creation of Lola Bunny, the sexy, talented walk-on who became the apple of Bugs’ eye—and oddly, of most young boys just hitting the emotional throes of puberty. 

Space Jam

Once the studio and the creators gelled in regards to the aesthetic, the rest of the puzzle pieces assembled naturally. While Pytka and Smith weren’t employing the RenderMan-enhanced CGI of Pixar, they had a few new technological tricks of their own up their sleeves. “Space Jam was the first film to use digital ink and paint,” Smith remembers. “It was the melding of digital and animation. There was a lot of experimentation being done at the time. Digital ink and paint came in and that added another breakthrough. The digital flourishes we did with the [Wayne Knight’s] character flying around and stuff. This was twenty years ago! The progress they made digitally was phenomenal.” 

In a completely digital world, the risk of drowning out the human element is a real one (even in a digital world with an IRL human at the center of it). Space Jam succeeded on this level by striking a perfect balance of realism and escapism that young viewers—especially those obsessed with the NBA—could instantly identify with and transport into. Not just in the beautifully detailed look of Toontown but also in the design of the mighty Monstars, whose composition was inspired by Michael Jordan’s most formidable opponents on the court. “There was a Patrick Ewing Monstar, so we gave him a little flat top and the part. The Charles Barkley Monstar was of course bald-headed and shaped big and wide like Charles. The shortest Monstar was Muggsy Bogues. We wanted to make sure we had those personalities driven into those characters.”

And for the adults in the crowd, the presence of Jordan's fellow Chicagoan Bill Murray instantly reassured that Space Jam would cater to them as well. You never realize how many jokes went over your head as a kid until you watch the film again as an adult. For instance, when the Tunes resort to their trademark trickery and mischief during the final game against the Monstars, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam suddenly transform into Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction to intimidate their opponent. Or there's the scene in which Jordan asks Bill Murray how he arrived in Toontown and Murray responds with, “Oh, I’m just doing a favor for the producer” (a wink to Space Jam executive producer Ivan Reitman, who directed Murray in Ghostbusters).

A perfect storm of unprecedented digital animation, America’s favorite NBA hero, and hilarious family fun launched Space Jam into the cinematic stratosphere. It murdered the box office and made millions more in branded merchandise. The soundtrack would instantly be canonized thanks to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” a song that amplified Space Jam’s success across cultures and generations. (Additionally, rappers LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Method Man, B-Real, and Coolio would team for the less memorable posse cut “Hit ‘Em High [The Monstars Anthem]”.)

When they talk about making the new movie, god bless them, because they don't have Michael. —Joe Pytka, Director

As Space Jam’s legacy still echoes on 20 years later, it was only inevitable in this era of reboots and sequels that the film’s original fans would want to see the property updated. Calls for a sequel were met with rumors of a Lebron James-fronted project, which was met with delight and dismay in equal measure. While Lebron remains coy about any rumored Space Jam 2 details, and reports of it spinning its wheels in development continue in the press, Pytka and Smith have their own opinions towards any attempts at a follow up. 

“When they talk about making the new movie, god bless them, because they don’t have Michael anymore,” Pytka says. “Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes, they got rejuvenated because of Michael. There will never be another Michael Jordan. There’s only been two athletes with that kind of charisma: Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. At one point a long time back, I was called in to look at a script for Space Jam 2 and Tiger Woods was written into that. It never came to be. It was a strange script. But Tiger was part of it.”

Smith admits, “Parts are assembling. There’s no story that I know of that’s been whispered. You hear sometimes that LeBron is attached to it. I can’t confirm it.”

He continues: “Michael Jordan was pretty much [the face of the NBA] back then. Compared to ’95, there are so many personalities in the NBA today. I think LeBron would be hilarious, but there’s other guys out there—Blake Griffin has great charisma on screen, too.”

Whoever does end up taking the mantle will have some tough shoes to fill. Even in 1995, the animated film industry was already progressing beyond flat, hand-drawn 2D characters. Yet Space Jam still found its crowd. With today’s technological advancements constantly redefining our cinematic experiences, will audiences even be receptive to a sequel? Only time will tell if the stars (and Monstars) of Space Jam can align to recapture the magic of a classic.


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