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Daffy Duck - I'm mad now! by TheDrifterWithin

2016 is not being a very pleasant year for us all, and I don't think we will remember it kindly.

The recent death of Leonard Cohen made us more culturally poor, and it was yet another sad departure following the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. Another sad chapter in a gruelling year, that made us very tired and uncertain about the future. Talk about annus horriblis: what we went through was extra horriblis.

But for whatever this news might represent, 2016 is also the year when “Space Jam” turns 20 years old. Not 10, mind you, but 20.
Hearing that is immediately depressing on a personal level, as it makes us Young Xers/Old Millennials feel old. Like when “Toy Story” turned 20 last year as well, it makes us realize we’re not young anymore, and neither are the things we grew up with. We aged, and “Space Jam” is certainly a film that aged as well, maybe faster than we did: it has some of those 90’s cues during its 88-minutes-long running time. Its gleeful abandon, its weirdness and its hysterical emotions make it very much a symbol of its time, before the dark and gritty phenomenon took over Hollywood in the following decade. But it also transcends its age, for it’s a film that endured. Maybe it’s not universally beloved, but it was something that was always there among us, one way or another. It's the film that both is and is not dated.

“Space Jam” seems to be like those movies that live in infamy, such as “Contact” or “Waterworld”. It’s weird, it’s unusual, it’s divisive… and yet, it exists. It's that 90's movie people still talk about, that made its mark in pop culture, that wasn’t swallowed by obscurity, you like it or not. Even generations that came after it mention it from time to time, maybe as a token of the previous generation, for better or worst. All in all, “Space Jam” is one of the most bizarre mainstream films ever made, and had it been a generic film, it wouldn't have lasted as it did.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Warner is going to re-release the film in selected theatres, after we saw it thousands of times in the television – “Space Jam” was definitely an afternoon session favourite in these last two decades. To see it in a big screen again must be a treat to those who first saw it in theatres back in the day, a nostalgic experience. With its visuals, “Space Jam” does feel like a perfect film to see in a big screen. In fact, it's a perfect contender for a 3D conversion.

To talk about a movie such as this, we should first talk about its circumstances, of how it came to be in the first place, its background and scenario. The year was 1996 – perhaps not the best year for American cinema, with many clunkers coming up that time (and people usually listing “Space Jam” as one of them). However, the movie was released so near to the end of the year that many people today perceive it as a 1997 film. Whenever it was 1996 or 1997, the world was much more different than it is now. We were not as connected as we are today, for computers and the internet were still on the process of growth, and many families perceived them as unaffordable luxuries. Bill Clinton was the American president, two years before the whole Monicagate scandal. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were still tall and strong – it was a carefree age, more innocent times, before the threats of the new century came to be.

At that time, Warner Bros. was going through an animation revival, with many popular cartoons on television such as “Pinky and the Brain” and “Animaniacs”. But unlike Disney, Warner Animation wasn’t really making that same success on the big screens. “The Lion King” had just shattered all records in 1994, and Warner didn't want to be left behind. “Space Jam” may have been an attempt of Warner to catch up with Disney... precisely like what is going on now with Marvel and DC (history repeats itself, doesn't it?). “Space Jam” was meant to be a safe bet, an adventure with the Looney Tunes we all know and love, characters long stabilized in the collective conciousness. So far, so good, you can't go wrong with that. But they would be in a situation even the most creative writer could not possibly come up with. Say it out loud: it’s a Looney Tunes film with Michael Jordan in it. How did these two concepts match?

Unbeknownst to many people, the most likely genesis for such unique project must have been a
Nike commercial from 1993, which first paired Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. The commercial was shown at the Super Bowl, in the year of Jordan's first retirement (in fact, the commercial specially revolves around this). At 90 seconds of length, I sincerely did not find it particularly good, but the idea itself must have appealed to executives at Warner, and a plot was devised to make that duo possible and logical.

It wanted to tell a fictionalized story about when Jordan retired from basketball, had an unsuccessful turn at baseball, only to return to the Chicago Bulls in 1995. In all fairness, this does look like something that could be made into a film, like all these biopics we’ve been seeing ultimately. It could very well have been a sly fish-out-of-water comedy, maybe even something in the vein of Aaron Sorkin. And imagine... a biopic starring the actual real person! But Warner executives really wanted a Looney Tunes film to capitalize on the momentum of their animation division and to tap into the ever-growing animated market.

So the story is that a group of small, abused aliens from a theme park planet are ordered to enslave the Looney Tunes. The gang however doesn't go out without a fight, and makes a bet with the invaders: they decide to settle their fate in a match of basketball. The Tunes think this will work on their favour, given how small and weak the creatures are (despite being heavily powered), but the situation takes a turn for the worst when they absolve the powers of top NBA players, becoming massive monstrosities and overnite professionals. So in face of that, the Tunes kidnap Michael Jordan, unaware of his retirement, and beg him to help them. Which he does with little convincing.

The film was directed by prolific director of commercials Joe Pytka, who did the Nike commercial three years earlier. "Space Jam" was his second and last feature film - apparently, a concious decision. Ivan Reitman was one of the producers, and this indeed feels like one of his projects: it's not absurd to think that the man who teamed up Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito twice was also behind the teaming of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. The director of photography was the one and only Michael Chapman, perhaps one of the most important cinematographers of the New Hollywood era. Besides Michael Jordan, the film also starred other real NBA personalities – none of them even slightly recognizable to foreigner kids, or maybe even to American kids. And it’s interesting to see how their lack of acting skills actually ads up to the infamy of the film. On the other hand, we could say they were actually being themselves, and what we call “realistic acting” is nowhere near how we as humans would act in real life. What we usually see in movies would be a strange reproduction of reality, and we’ve been so used to it that we would believe anyone who’s being actually realistic is acting badly. So take that, Daniel Day-Lewis.

"Space Jam" wasn’t the hit that Warner may have wanted it to be, as it cost 80 million dollars, and made a modest success of 230 millions. The real success however must have come in merchandising: I remember quite well spotting “Space Jam” lunchboxes and backpacks at my school. Video games, home video, toys, even pinball… the film really put Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang back on the map. And now when I think about it, that must have been an influence for “Batman & Robin” from the following year to have been so relentlessly juvenile and stupid: to pander for children audiences, so it could also be a success in merchandising. But it was way too juvenile and stupid, in a way "Space Jam" wasn't. And we all know how that ended up for Warner.

Critics didn’t love it. While it had some notorious defenders such as Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy, most critics were indifferent over it. Some of them outright hated it, such as James Kendrick, who was outraged that the advertisement in the film was approved before the screenplay was ready, saying it was "a prostitution of the film industry" (critics say the darndest things!). Legendary cartoonist Chuck Jones was particularly angry with the way the characters he worked with for decades were presented, declaring Bugs Bunny would have defeated the invading monsters all alone, all easily with his trademarked wits in around seven minutes.

“Space Jam”, like “Man of Steel” or “Moulin Rouge!”, is one of those polarizing films that had many audiences debating over the years. So whatever my opinion about it is, it does not seem to fit into any consensus. Well then, from my part, it was a very good film. It was not great, but it was engrossing and well written, while its over-the-top nature doesn’t stand in the way of the narrative. With gratifying cameos by Wayne Knight and Bill Murray, self-referential humour (“hey, I didn't know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture!”), and a marvellous soundtrack that is addicting to hear with or without the film, the project was a true triple-threat. This is not to diminish some of the criticism the film received, and certainly not to demerit Jones' issues with it, for indeed the Bugs Bunny of the 40's-50's cartoons was a very different character from the Bugs Bunny of this movie. He is no longer that cool character who is always in command, always confident and always assured. But like the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, the film genuinely adopted a more adult humour, as it aimed at pleasing both kids and adults - it wasn't bond by its PG rating.

Furthermore, the film introduced to the pack one of the best animated characters of the 90’s: Lola Bunny, a badass girl who doesn’t take shit from anyone. One could argue that her creation was pretty sudden, without a proper previous development: the gang needed the most basketball talents they could gather, and she popped up out of the blue, while also evidently being a love interest for Bugs. But you have to admit she was a great character to see and to hear, and she made the movie even better. She was voiced with much charisma by Kath Soucie, and there was never a dull moment regarding her. I'm pretty sure that for many boys hitting puberty around the time, Lola must have represented a very confusing sexual awakening.
Unfortunately, she was dumbed down in the pitiful “The Looney Tunes Show”, reduced from a strong independent female character to a possessive needy girl.

But I think the thing I liked the most about this film was its morality. I know this may sound silly, but this film carried a very important message to children and even to adults. A message of solidarity: Jordan seeks to help the Looney Tunes apparently with no rewards in mind. He sees their trouble and accepts their challenge - in fact, at one point of the film, he raises the stakes by including himself as part of the deal. And by the end, the reward must have been the realization of what his true talent is, and how he inspired and connected with millions of people by it. It's kind of funny that I only took best notice of this when I got older: he was a man doing the right thing because it was the right thing, because there were others in need. And in a way, it collaborated to expand the myth of Michael Jordan today as more than just an athlete, but as a transcendental figure like Muhammad Ali. A good person within and outside the courts.

Another message I spotted in the film was a message of union. The Looney Tunes - for all their bickering - put their differences aside and work together for their own freedom. Elmer Fudd is no longer hunting down Bugs or Daffy; Sylvester is no longer chasing Tweety; Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner put their shenanigans on hold. It was a very important message, and one that more people today should embrace.

Maybe its advertisements can be cringe-worthy, as Kendrick complained about. And some of its moments are too over-the-top for adults to embrace. But ultimately, “Space Jam” is a
competent film that is both brave while also being formulaic. It's at the same time contrived in some aspects but original in many others. It’s accomplished both visually and substantially. It succeeds much more than it falters. And with the modern boom of CGI animation, it’s refreshing to see real actors interacting with hand-drawn cartoons. It has this demented “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” vibe in it, and it would barely be made like this nowadays.

"Space Jam" was a film that had its values, and it had its unique memorable moments:

After some ups and down, Warner Animation released in 2003 Looney Tunes: Back in Action”. And as the title suggested, it was something of a sequel to “Space Jam”. This time, it was directed by veteran director Joe Dante, while starring names such as Brendan Freser (remember him?), Steve Martin and Joan Cusack. It was also the last work in the career of renowned composer Jerry Goldsmith, who died after the film was released. It was poised for worldwide success – it was actually meant to be the hit “Space Jam” really wasn’t. But the film actually flopped big time, failing to recoup its 80 million dollars budget. Now, I can’t judge this film because I haven’t seen it. However, I would say this is part of my point here, for the film became obscure right at its release. It was left under the radar, people didn’t talk about it, television wouldn't reprise it. It would be something of a generic film, while “Space Jam” was something absurd yet memorable.

After that, Warner decided to in a certain way give up trying to compete with Disney animated films, making a work here and there, but without maintaining the pace of a company such as Pixar. However, in 2014, with all the success of “The LEGO Movie”, a talk started brewing in Hollywood about a possible “Space Jam” sequel, even with LeBron James as the main star. In 2015, things started to get more and more real, and in this year, Justin Lin - director of four "The Fast and the Furious" films and "Star Trek Beyond" - was approached to direct the film. The sequel is not just small talk anymore: it’s very much likely going to happen, unless a tragedy takes place.

Nevertheless, we all saw what happened to “Independence Day: Resurgence”. Nostalgia alone won’t do the trick. Whoever is helming that film must compromise in doing a distinctive work of art, something great – something even better than the first film. This cannot simply be a cold, heartless studio project. It should, like the original film, have a soul of its own.

It’s nothing short of what Bugs, Daffy and my beloved Sylvester deserve.
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