Before the 1996 movie Space Jam, starring the legendary Michael Jordan, could become a 25-year pop culture powerhouse, it started out as a small commercial idea.
In the two Nike ads, titled Hare Jordan and Aerospace Jordan, the basketball star and the popular cartoon character joined forces. The success of the commercials was a catalyst for Space Jam. But behind the scenes, the director, Joe Pytka, butted heads with Warner Bros executives over modernizing Bug Bunny.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film, Pytka spoke about the difficulty of trying to inject some modernity into the popular, yet outdated, Bugs Bunny:
“We had a tough time getting it together. We fought with Warner Bros. for months, trying to modernize Bugs’ character for the commercial. They finally came around to accepting what we wanted to do, we then did the spot, and it was a huge success on the Super Bowl.”
After considering the success of the commercials, Warner Bros. would go on to approve the project — initially without Pytka. Warner Bros. planned to create animated films that were geared towards adults and deviated from the animation standards set by Disney.
But this film wasn’t just animation. It was a combination of both live-action and animation, a process that was not only time-consuming but difficult to master. Even with the decades-long success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, director Robert Zemeckis discouraged Space Jam producers from moving forward with the project.
Considering the scale of the project and its difficulty, Pytka was brought on to the project since he already had experience working with both animation and live-action. But from the time he was onboarded, more difficulties and issues arose.
While editing and rearranging the script to his liking, Pytka couldn’t bring his friend and famed director Spike Lee on to help with the project because Warner Bros didn’t agree with the way Lee had come to direct and produce the 1992 Oscar-nominated film Malcolm X.
But besides that ordeal, the premise of Space Jam — a fictionalized account of Jordan’s 1993 retirement from the NBA to his 1995 comeback, where he helps the Looney Tunes win a basketball match against a group of aliens who intend to enslave them for their theme park — was seen as ludicrous. While several NBA players signed on to the film, the absurd premise didn’t attract other actors.
“We had a hard time casting a lot of the minor characters because people just didn’t want to be in a movie with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny,” Pytka told EW. “I mean, they’re going to work with an animated character and an athlete — are you serious? They just didn’t want to do it.”
Despite Jordan’s inexperience in front of the camera, he made up for it by showing up on time, learning lines, and, well, being himself. Because Space Jam is based on elements of his real life, it made the experience more comfortable for Jordan, along with an on-set dome with a full basketball court. In between takes of filming, Jordan would train for the upcoming season. Sometimes Pytka and other NBA players would join him.
Space Jam was also one of the first films to be shot in a virtual studio. The majority of the scenes were shot in a green screen room with motion trackers and improv actors and NBA players in green suits.
Regardless of the troubles behind the scenes, when the film was released in 1996, it was No. 1 at the box office, and it brought in almost $6 billion in merchandising and helped relaunch Looney Tunes. When a film exceeds expectations, there is reason to suspect a sequel on the horizon, but, at the time, Pytka rejected the idea of another Space Jam film claiming that it just wouldn’t work.
“I think it’s ridiculous to try and make a different movie out of it,” he told EW. “I can’t see it. I can’t imagine how it could be what that film was. Not that ‘Space Jam’ is a great movie, but it had something that touched that period of time because of who those athletes were and it doesn’t exist anymore.”
But after 25 years, Space Jam is still a cultural feat. Besides bringing in billions of dollars, it recharged the flailing Looney Tunes brand with a whole new generation. It also allowed Jordan to rewrite his narrative with his own slightly bruised image due, in part, to his abrupt retirement in 1993. In a way, Space Jam paved the way for existing franchises and other entertainment properties to lean on fan loyalty to generate relevance and box office numbers.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is directed by Malcolm D. Lee and produced by Ryan Coogler and Maverick Carter, and, this time, it is LeBron James who will go on an extraterrestrial adventure with the Looney Tunes gang.
In this journey, James and his son, Dom, are trapped in a digital space by a rogue A.I., and the only way for James to get them home is by recruiting the Looney Tunes team to win a game against the A.I.’s team of basketball stars on the court.
It’s guaranteed to be a summer blockbuster, which is severely needed after a lackluster showing last summer, but, like the original Space Jam, it could cement James as a pop culture icon.
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