Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It’s a debate that will span from now until the end of basketball. Now, that discussion has added a new wrinkle — and a rabbit for a teammate. The time has come for King James to suit up for the Tune Squad.
On Wednesday, after years of rumors, James and his production company announced that the “Space Jam ” sequel is finally happening, and will tentatively start filming next summer.
With Ryan Coogler of “Black Panther,” “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station” announced as producer and Terence Nance of “Random Acts of Flyness” as director, the expectations for the sequel will almost undoubtedly be higher than they were for the 1996 film. The same goes for James, who played a “bizarro” version of himself in the 2015 film “Trainwreck,” which prompted the New Yorker to call the basketball star’s role as “the greatest movie performance by an active professional basketball player.”
In the 22 years since the Quad City DJ’s challenged audiences to slam (and welcomed them to the jam), “Space Jam” remains a cultural fixture and a financial success, pairing Jordan with the beloved Looney Tunes, grossing more than $230 million worldwide in the process.
The film is a pillar of nostalgia for ’90s kids who still wear the Tune Squad jerseys and know the lyrics to the movie’s theme. The highest grossing basketball film of all time also opened up the possibility of crossover film experiences that paired athletes, many with little to no acting experience, with bankable, historical animated characters.
“There’s never been a precedent for a movie like ‘Space Jam,’ ” Joe Pytka, the film’s director, told Charlie Rose in 1997. He would describe the movie in 2012 as basically two extended versions of two Nike ads, plus a couple others he had done with Nike. “It’s a miracle that the movie even got made, and now that it’s been successful, it’s just another miracle,” he told Rose at the time.
The idea started with two early ’90s Nike ads directed by Pytka.
Jordan and Bugs Bunny, his future “Space Jam” sidekick, were paired together for a couple of commercials, one of which aired during Super Bowl XXVI, that would show Warner Bros. they had a recipe for success.
David Falk, then Jordan’s agent, saw the potential and sold Warner Bros. on the idea of the movie, according to the New York Times. From there, Warner Bros. targeted Ivan Reitman, who had just completed “Dave” for the studio. Joe Medjuck, a producer who worked with Reitman on films such as “Ghostbusters,” “Beethoven,” and “Kindergarten Cop” among others, said he had been told how his colleague was approached by Lucy Fisher, then an executive at Warner Bros., while on a flight. The pitch to Reitman and his colleagues was straightforward: A full-length film featuring Jordan and Bugs Bunny.
“We thought we had the two biggest stars in the world,” Medjuck told The Washington Post in an interview late Wednesday. “I said, this is a great idea. Why wouldn’t we do this?”
The filming was intense, going from August to October 2015, right before the start of the basketball season. When the time came to wrap the film’s shooting for the day, Medjuck said Jordan, who made a dramatic return to the NBA months earlier, headed straight to the makeshift basketball court known as “the Jordan Dome” that had been constructed for him in the parking lot of the Warner Bros. set. Medjuck said that everyone from Dennis Rodman to Queen Latifah (and even Dean Cain) would show up to play with — or attempt to keep up with — Jordan.
“We had lunch one day and he said, ‘Next year, every game is the playoffs,’” Medjuck, 75, recalled. The next season, the Bulls went 72-10, then a single-season record for wins, and won the first of their next three consecutive championships.
But lost in the nostalgia and legend of “Space Jam” is the notion that the sequel has a low bar to clear to surpass the mixed bag of reviews the original film received.
“The technical razzle-dazzle that lets Jordan dribble on the cartoon court and inserts Bugs and Daffy into the ‘real’ world is, sad to say, less than dazzling: This is no ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ ” TV Guide wrote in its two-star review. “Can we go now, please?”
“Is it cute? Yes. Is it a crowd-pleaser? Yup,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in November 1996. “Is it a classic? Nope. [Though it could have been.]”
“The saddest part about this whole affair is that it took Bugs and Co. 60 years to make their feature debut — and this is what they get,” the Miami Herald wrote at the time.
The film’s uneven legacy among critics lives on through prominent movie outlets, such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
On Rotten Tomatoes, “Space Jam” holds a rating of 38 percent, with 34 of 55 reviews scored as “rotten.” “It is a mindless, feature-length insult to the dignity and perfection of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series, one of the greatest and most characteristically American artistic triumphs of the 20th Century,” one reviewer wrote in 2016.
The situation is not much better over at Metacritic, where the film scores a 59, with 10 of the 22 reviews deemed either mixed or negative. “Why did this have to happen?” one reviewer asked in May of this year. “Basketball is entertaining! The Looney Tunes are fun! There is no correlation between the two! I never laughed and groaned basically the entire time.”
The criticism did not stick to the film’s producers.
“We were used to criticism,” Medjuck said. “We made some critically acclaimed films and others that people didn’t really like. Sometimes they disappear, while others grow in stature. People who were kids when ‘Space Jam’ came out just love it.”
When asked in 2016 about the prospects of a sequel, Reitman was hopeful that whoever did it would stay true to the spirit of the Looney Tunes. Medjuck stressed that making “Space Jam” was challenging because they essentially had to make an animated and live-action film at the same time. He said he was happy to hear about the sequel.
“Ryan Coogler is coming off of three really good movies and the last time I saw LeBron in a movie, he was really good,” Medjuck told The Post. “They should be confident. If you’re in the movie business, you’ll have things go the way you don’t want them to go. But they’re in good hands.”
The responsibility to make a memorable sequel is not lost on James, who said he sees the sequel as something more than a movie.
“The Space Jam collaboration is so much more than just me and the Looney Tunes getting together and doing this movie,” James told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s so much bigger. I’d just love for kids to understand how empowered they can feel and how empowered they can be if they don’t just give up on their dreams.”
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