Space Jam, 1996's classic animated/live action film starring Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, quickly became one of the biggest films of the year. Interestingly enough, 2019 marks the 23-year anniversary of the film, the same number as the one on the back of Jordan's jersey. With 2019 marking such an auspicious occasion, it's only right that we look back at the film that cemented Jordan as one of the most enduring basketball stars ever to dribble a ball.
There was no escaping this juggernaut of a film starring Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan and a host of Looney Tunes including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. On paper, the film seems like it should be a failure. However, it quickly became beloved, so much so that a sequel starring LeBron is on the way.
There are many reasons the film is still considered a cult classic by those who were kids in the '90s. Technically, it's a film that builds on the advancements achieved by 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While older viewers might have already been impressed by Roger Rabbit, Space Jam became the first film to introduce the younger set to the magic of seeing cartoons seamlessly interact with real people. And, while Roger Rabbit had plenty of astounding special effects, Space Jam was able to push the envelope even more by making Jordan and Bill Murray play an entire basketball game Looney Tunes and the villainous Monstars. In other words, they were playing against their imaginations. But on screen, it looks as if it makes perfect sense for Jordan to pass the ball to Bugs to score an easy 2-pointer.
Secondly, we're talking about Michael Jordan. Maybe a film like this was still a risk at the time, but to me, it only seemed natural that a film starring Jordan would be a huge success. Jordan wasn't just a huge basketball star; he was the unofficial leader of the 1990s. Everything in pop culture seemed to revolve around him, whether it was regarding Air Jordans, his co-starring role in Michael Jackson's "Jam" music video, his leadership of the U.S. Olympic basketball team (aka "The Dream Team"), or Saturday Night Live's skits about "Da Bears" and "Da Bulls." The iconic Nike commercial proclaiming "I want to be like Mike" summed up everyone's feelings towards Jordan in the '90s. He was a superhero.
As a superhero, it's only fitting that he'd traverse unknown realms and save the world from megalomaniac alien amusement park owners like Danny DeVito's Swackhammer. Of course Jordan's otherworldly basketball skills would be powerful enough to keep the earth safe from aliens who stole the powers of popular NBA stars.
Speaking of, Space Jam highlighted the best of the league at the time by giving them the right amount of shine. Charles Barkley probably had the biggest role aside from Jordan. Looking back on it, it's almost as if the script loosely played with Barkley and Jordan's slightly antagonistic relationship by making Barkley the Daffy Duck to Jordan's Bugs Bunny. Whereas Jordan was able to travel to the cartoon world and become a hero, Barkley got his talent sucked out of him and then was called a clown by teenage girl ballers. He was only left with unsuccessfully convincing his therapist that everything he'd been through wasn't a dream.
But seeing so many basketball stars in one place only heightened the majesty of Space Jam. This gave us another side of the NBA, a side that recognized its child fans, a side that wanted to make sure they were entertained and even encouraged to reach their highest heights. For many, Space Jam became inspiration for kids to explore their full potential.
Take for instance when the cartoon team is getting trounced by the Monstars and Bugs pretends the cartoon team's water bottles are full of "Secret Stuff" to help them play like Jordan. Eventually, Jordan tells them they don't need the "Secret Stuff" because it's fake; the talent was inside them the whole time. It might sound too deep for a film like Space Jam, but for many of us, this was one of our first interactions with handling the dreaded "impostor syndrome." We were able to take away from the film that no matter how bad we might have felt about our chances, we should still give ourselves a fair shot at achieving what we think is impossible.
Of course, the biggest thing we as grown millennials will have to reconcile is Space Jam's symbiotic relationship with R. Kelly's anthem "I Believe I Can Fly." You could even argue that the reason the film is as beloved as it is is because of Kelly's song.
As we grew up, we became more aware of the singer's depravity, but we understood the actual depths of his monstrosities in dream hampton's documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly. Knowing that a person who has created such an uplifting and resonant song also held young girls against their will and sexually abused them is difficult to put in perspective. But we now know the awful truth.
I don't know if I have any answers as to how we wrestle with Kelly's contribution to Space Jam's legacy. We could either choose to see the song within the time period it was made in, or we could choose to mentally erase the song out of our mindset all together. However, one thing that can't be argued is how much "I Believe I Can Fly" became ingrained many of our childhoods--not only did we hear this song in the film, but we sang this song at graduations, church functions, talent shows, with friends on the playground. This song has defined our lives like a comfort blanket. It's horrifying to know that this comfort blanket was created by a person who was victimizing other children our own age.
Even though Space Jam has a cloud over it because of Kelly, there are still fond memories we can mine. We can remember where we were when it seemed possible to believe that the realms of the fantastical and the realistic weren't that far apart. We can remember what it was like to see the biggest basketball star of all time entertain his child fans, cultivating us for a lifetime of love for the NBA, sportsmanship and dreaming bigger. We can remember that despite the negatives that might be going on in our lives, we always have the Secret Stuff inside us to succeed, to be like Mike.