SPACE JAM, a Fascinating Artifact of Jordan’s Early Retirement, Slams onto 4K Blu

The screen captures in this article are pulled from the Blu-ray disc, and not representative of the 4K image quality.

Few big commercial films can match the divisive fervor associated with Space Jam, loved and reviled in equal measure. With a sequel imminent, and interest in Jordan’s career reignited by ESPN’s excellent documentary series The Last Dance, this is a great time to revisit the film if it’s been awhile.

Critics of the movie find it hard to see past the stunt of combining the world’s biggest personality brand, NBA star Michael Jordan, with the cartoon antics of the Looney Tunes, all set to a contemporary hit R&B and hip-hop soundtrack. It sounds like something cooked up in a marketing meeting rather than a compelling basis for a feature film.

For fans of 90s hoops, though, it’s a big hug of a movie, swooping in on the bizarre real-life drama of Michael Jordan’s early retirement. The three-peating Championship winner and thrice-MVP shocked the world by quitting basketball at the peak of his career, choosing to challenge himself anew in a different professional sports arena: the baseball diamond.

It didn’t go well.

It may be difficult to explain the phenomenon of the death and rebirth of MJ to anyone who’s not familiar with the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty, jersey number 45, or “Johnny Kilroy”, but that’s the very real backdrop to this very fictional run-in with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang.

Besides the marquee power of Jordan, Space Jam also packs in some awesome player cameos from the golden age of the game including several of my own favorite players. The film came at a time when a flurry of several high profile basketball movies hit the scene, starring current or future NBA players — Space Jam was in good company with comedies like Eddie and Celtic Pride, and William Friedkin’s searing college hoops drama Blue Chips.

In the far reaches of animated outer space, an alien theme park magnate (Danny Devito) and his minions ponder how to bolster their flagging attendance. Their solution? To kidnap Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang and force them to become the park’s new star attractions (presumably unaware of their pre-existing association with Six Flags).

It’s decided that a game of basketball between the Looney Tune Squad and their would-be captors will determine their fate, but the aliens stack the deck in their favor by stealing powers from several NBA stars: Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, and my personal favorite Patrick Ewing. (Some of the movie’s funniest gags involve the existential crisis experienced by these players when they lose their skills).

With the tables turned, the Tune Squad’s only hope is that they can enlist the world’s best player, whom the aliens overlooked… because he was occupied playing Minor League baseball.

The movie also includes fun comedic turns from Wayne Knight and Bill Murray as himself (placing it in the Bill Murray Cinematic Universe alongside Coffee & Cigarettes and Zombieland).

The film’s a little CG-heavy for my taste, and while it looks a bit dated now, it’s unquestionably technologically impressive, constantly mixing live action and animation styles effectively. While characters are generally animated traditionally, much of the film takes place in true 3-D space. Animated characters are rendered with attention to shading and lighting which sets them apart visually from their classic animated cartoons.

Tying its plot directly into Michael Jordan’s mid-90s retirement period certainly dates the movie, but also gives it much of its charm. It’s legitimately fun seeing Michael interact with the Looney Tunes, and the film has plenty of laughs even if the cartoon cast are playing support to MJ’s lead.

The Package

Space Jam is new on 4K Blu-ray from Warner Bros. My copy included a metallic foil slipcover.

I was very much looking forward to seeing how the film’s animation fared in 4K, but the difference seems somewhat negligible — much of the animation is simply limited by the rendering of the time. It’s the live action aspects of the film where the uptick in resolution is most palpable.

Special Features and Extras — 4K Disc

Commentary with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and director Joe Pytka — the commentary track mixes real making-of details from Pytka with input from voice actors Billy West and Dee Bradley Baker.

Special Features and Extras — Blu-ray Disc

The special feature materials on the Blu-ray are presented in interlaced SD.

Commentary with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and director Joe Pytka

Jammin’ with Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan (22:32)
An EPK-style Making-Of special which was originally created to promote the film in advance of its release. Most interestingly, it discusses the process of mixing traditional animation, live action, and CGI elements.

Music Videos: Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” (3:53) and The Monstars Anthem, “Hit ‘Em High” (4:52)

Theatrical Trailer (1:15)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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