September 10, 2013

SPACE JAM and the Cruelty of Time (Part 1)

Starring Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Charles Barkley, Bill Murray, Larry Bird and the voices of Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, Danny DeVito, June Foray, Bob Bergen. Directed by Joe Pytka. (1996, 88min).

There will always be a special place in my heart for Looney Tunes. I was practically raised on them during my formative years in the early 70s. This was back when the only time to catch the best cartoons on TV was on Saturday morning. Sure, The Flintstones, Popeye, Tom & Jerry and a slew of cheap-ass Hanna-Barbara shorts would pop-up on local TV stations weekday afternoons, but the coolest stuff always aired on Saturday…Scooby-Doo, Superfriends, Tarzan, Speed Buggy, Groovy Ghoulies, Wacky Races, etc. We’d be up at the crack of dawn, bowl of Cocoa Puffs in-hand and ready to start our weekend with five hours of animated fun before college football took over. In fact, all three networks (yes, there were only three) would air ‘sneak-peek’ specials on the Friday before the start of each season in September, which had us salivating at the wonders waiting for us the very next day. Hell, we couldn’t wait to get up early on Saturday, the only day our parents willingly gave us control of the living room TV.

Looking back decades later, most of those Saturday morning shows were total shit…cheap, cynically-made sludge created to sell toys or capitalize on pop culture trends (Jabberjaw, anyone?). Most shows came and went within a season or two; others would often be repackaged and shoved down our throats yet again. For example, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? begat The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which begat Scooby‘s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics, which begat Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, which begat The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, which begat A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, ad nauseum. Today’s reboot craze has nothing on the recycled TV ‘toons of the 70s & 80s. I use Scooby-Doo as an example because there’s a ton of inexplicably-nostalgic love for this show, even though it represented everything wrong with Saturday Morning TV. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t watched it lately.

The one exception was Looney Tunes, a Saturday morning staple for nearly four decades. Considering kids’ short attention spans and their tendency to poo-poo anything created before they were born, it’s ironic that the longest running Saturday morning show of all time (under various titles from 1962-2000) consisted of nothing but old Warner Brothers cartoons from the 40s, 50s & 60s. Hong Kong Phooey, Captain Caveman, Grape Ape and The Pebbles & Bamm Bamm Show may have come and gone in the blink of an eye, but the Looney Tunes continued to usher-in our weekends until they were eventually regulated to cable (the main culprit behind the death of Saturday morning TV). We never saw anything new…no Looney Tunes babies, no creatively-bankrupt mash-ups, no Sonny & Cher showing up as guest-stars to help solve mysteries. Just good old fashioned cartoon mayhem, made when it was still acceptable for toons to try and kill each other with ACME products, shotguns or dynamite.

That’s because those old shorts were actually funny, their humor timeless, made before political correctness and over-sensitivity to violence & sexual innuendo ruined everything fun. Geniuses like Friz Freling, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Robert McKimson didn’t make these classics with kids in-mind…they made them with entire audiences in-mind (much like Pixar does today). And they stayed true to their characters…for the most part, Bugs Bunny was always a wise-ass, Daffy Duck was always bitter and angry, Elmer Fudd was always an idiot and Wile E. Coyote & Sylvester the Cat always failed to secure a meal. That unwavering consistency was what made these characters endearing. That is, until 1996, when the product known as Space Jam (I hesitate to call it a movie) kind-of shit all over the Looney Tunes legacy.

Lola is obviously unaware of Bugs' occasional
tendency to cross-dress.
I need to admit I actually enjoyed Space Jam, mainly because I’ve loved Looney Tunes all my life, but aside from the occasional short cartoon here and there, Warner Brothers had shut down their animation department decades before. Why they chose to bring back their iconic cartoon creations for this cynically-made exercise in stunt casting is likely due to the phenomenal success Disney had with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the greatest combination of animation and live-action ever. Space Jam isn’t nearly as creative or clever, but at least my beloved Bugs & Daffy were back on the big screen, even if they mostly took a backseat to Michael Jordan (a pop culture phenom back then). Though we know we’re watching more of a marketing campaign than an actual movie, Space Jam is often amusing, and aside from the idiotic “plot” (Jordan must save the Looney Tunes by challenging nefarious aliens to a basketball game), it seldom insults the viewer’s intelligence. Sure, it’s a little jarring to see Bugs & Yosemite Sam as teammates, not to mention most of these classic characters’ personalities are far-removed from those we grew up with. Sure, giving Bugs a love interest is a stupid idea and the R&B soundtrack smacks of a ploy to sell CDs. But the film is also quite funny at times, with a lot of cameos by sports celebrities willing to poke a little fun at themselves.

Old school cartoon fans might make the argument that throwing the Looney Tunes into something as calculated and pandering as Space Jam is no different than the Harlem Globetrotters showing up save the day in Scooby-Doo episodes. I would argue back that the makers of Scooby-Doo began including “guest stars” in their episodes to boost flagging ratings (this was before they even introduced Scrappy Doo, the worst character in cartoon history) and the animation was still as shitty as ever. While not nearly as jaw-dropping as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Space Jam is technically impressive and briefly succeeded in endearing these characters to a new audience. For all us old folks, it had been years since we’d seen these guys (aside from a few cameos). Hence, I welcomed them back like old friends, even if they were forced to square-off with aliens on a ball court.

It hasn’t aged well, though. Because it’s essentially a period piece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still looks, sounds and feels timeless. Space Jam is an amiable-but-instantly-forgettable product of the decade from which it sprang, becoming dated the minute Michael Jordan retired for the second time. Many of the cameos and pop culture references will be totally lost on anyone watching it for the first time today. In fact, I'd be willing to wager there are a lot of twenty-somethings right now who loved this movie as kids, only to revisit it (perhaps introducing it to their own children) and wonder why the hell they thought it was so great. Looking back, it's obvious Space Jam was never meant to have a long shelf life.

What’s ultimately sad is my beloved cartoon favorites were much more lovingly, accurately and hilariously depicted in Looney Tunes: Back in Action seven years later (directed by Joe Dante, whose career was hugely influenced by those old shorts). Hardly anyone saw it, yet folks showed-up in droves to catch the godawful live-action Scooby-Doo movie a year earlier, which in-turn granted the franchise a totally-undeserved new lease on life.

I dunno…maybe it’s me who has the problem. Maybe this is the ultimate sign I’m officially old and out of touch. We’re living in an era where the fucking Smurfs are a film franchise, yet the greatest cartoon characters of all time are banished to a dumb little program on Cartoon Network featuring Bugs & Daffy as roommates (and occasional Road Runner shorts done in CGI…as blasphemous to me as Marilyn Manson performing at the Vatican).

Speaking of which, if anyone reading this is a kid, whose parents or grandparents try to convince you how great TV cartoons were back in the day, don’t buy into it. Nearly all of them, Scooby-Doo included, were predigested swill, vomited out every Saturday for kids who apparently had no standards whatsoever. Your cartoons are a lot better.

So is Space Jam, for that matter.

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