In a 1990 commencement address to Kenyon College, Calvin & Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson eloquently expressed the reasons he turned away hundred of millions of dollars by refusing to merchandise his creation, telling students:
Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons. Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules, and rewards.The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation.
It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need. What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty, and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
In the face of immense wealth, Bill Watterson said “no.” His integrity, and the integrity of his creations, was worth more to him than hundreds of millions of dollars. Watterson said no, and in doing so went from being a brilliant cartoonist, Charles Schulz’s true creative heir, to being a modern folk hero. It placed him in a category alongside Dave Chappelle, J.D. Salinger, and other creators whose legend was greatly enhanced by their simultaneously alluring and insane belief that there are things in the world more important than money, power, and fame, the superficial things we spend our lives chasing. The commercial possibilities for Calvin & Hobbes were endless. And also gloriously, blissfully moot, since Watterson ensured that the merchandising floodgates would never open, and Calvin & Hobbes would remain what it always was: a perfect comic strip. Its original context would remain its only context.
I thought about Watterson’s words a lot while watching Space Jam, a 1996 blockbuster that embodies everything Watterson warned about. But Watterson’s words also made me think of a more immediate precedent as well: Peanuts, the beloved comic strip that was a formidable inspiration to Watterson. By saying “no,” Watterson made sure Calvin & Hobbes would not become a merchandising juggernaut like Peanuts, chugging along long after its creator’s death. Watterson was ensuring that Calvin and Hobbes would not someday inexplicably find themselves wandering through corporate offices in television commercials selling life insurance, as the Peanuts gang continues to do in ads for Met Life.
I don’t want to paint an overly dark picture of the tricky intersection of art and commerce: The same boom of interest in all things Peanuts that allowed Snoopy to become an insurance spokesman also gave the world A Charlie Brown Christmas and other works of art that respected and expanded upon the world Schulz created in his comic strips. Snoopy’s status as an insurance pitchman doesn’t ruin Peanuts. Nothing could. But just as Bart Simpson’s sideline as a Butterfinger pitchman and part-time novelty rapper takes a little of the glow off The Simpsons, it’s also impossible to ignore. Similarly, the astonishing achievements of the original cartoons created for Warner Bros. by crazed geniuses like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and Tedd Pierce aren’t marred by the fact that their creations went on to enjoy second lives as pitchmen, costumed theme-park characters, and Michael Jordan sidekicks. Still, maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t.
It’s difficult to overstate the achievements of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts produced by Warner Bros. (and yes, originally created to sell songs). The cartoons they cranked out, especially in the 1940s, were wild, witty, fearless, paced like runaway trains, and overflowing with energy and ideas. They were the work of brilliant, driven, overworked and underpaid young men who set out primarily to amuse themselves and each other, and entertained the world in the process. They were the Simpsons, South Park, and Rocky & Bullwinkle of their time. The cartoons were smarter, funnier, quicker, and jazzier than the era’s live-action comedies. And at their best, Warner Bros. cartoons weren’t just funny, they were dangerous, offering a sneering rebuke of authority and propriety.
As Bugs Bunny and the gang became timeless American icons, they came to play a different role in American culture. When I was a teenager, there was a brief but intense fad for oversized T-shirts adorned with images of the Looney Tunes gang in stereotypically “street” poses: scowling, with arms crossed in a b-boy stance, while wearing outsized, sagging clothing. The most popular of these featured the Tasmanian Devil and Bugs Bunny outfitted as briefly popular novelty rappers/backward-clothes enthusiasts Kriss Kross, complete with pants worn backward (a style that made forward movement impossible, but looked amazing), earrings, and, in Taz’s case, cornrows. For some inexplicable reason, there was a brief window when kids were intoxicated with the image of Bugs and Taz duded out in urban street fashions.
By the 1990s, Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang belonged unmistakably to kids and to the Warner Bros. corporation. And if kids ate up the wisecracking hare in such a tacky, incongruous context, then what would happen if you teamed up Bugs Bunny with Michael Jordan, the greatest athlete of all time? Oh, but money would rain down from the heavens!
That was the thinking behind the successful 1992 Super Bowl Commercial “Hare Jordan,” which paired Bugs and Jordan and achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making Jordan even richer, more popular, and ubiquitous than before. Jordan was so big that when he appeared in the Michael Jackson video “Jam,” it was a meeting of equals, the two greatest entertainers of their time joining forces in a way that barely made sense, but—like seemingly everything Jordan did in the 1990s that didn’t involve baseball or gambling—proved enormously successful.
Audiences simply wanted to see Michael Jordan. The context didn’t matter. So, according to a Chicago Tribune article, when Warner Bros. began looking to resurrect the Looney Tunes characters, Jordan’s agent, David Falk, “pushed for the movie, as much for the merchandising potential as for its box-office appeal” before selling the studio on “Jordan’s charisma and well-established track record as America’s foremost pitchman.” It worked as well as the studio anticipated. The film grossed more than $200 million worldwide. But that was just the beginning: The film grossed over a billion dollars in merchandising.
Greatest basketball player of all time and America’s foremost pitchman: That’s a helluva combination. No wonder he was irresistible to Warner Bros. Who cared if Jordan couldn’t act, and had a reputation for being surly and arrogant on and off the court? All a studio needed to do was let him play himself (or a friendlier version of himself, at least), fill the films with basketball scenes, give cartoon characters all the funny lines, and wait for the money to roll in, both in the form of box-office receipts and ancillary revenue streams.
To Warner Bros., the teaming of Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan smelled like money. To people like me, who grew up revering these entities in their original context, it smelled like advertising. Warner Bros. and Jordan’s team (that would be his lawyer and agent and manager, not The Bulls) saw the film as an extension of Jordan’s work in advertising, and oh boy, does the film feel that way.
Space Jam opens on a decidedly un-Looney Tunes note of sentimentality, with a child actor portraying the younger Jordan shooting hoops one night in the summer of 1973 against a backdrop of stars and R. Kelly’s inspirational anthem “I Believe I Can Fly,” which the six-times-platinum Space Jam soundtrack popularized. His dad comes out to gently ask his son to stop shooting hoops so the family can sleep, and young Jordan asks him, voice quivering with wonder, if maybe, if he gets really good someday, he can play in the NBA. And after that, gee willikers, he wants to play baseball, just like his pops!
“Baseball. That’s a fine sport. And after that I suppose you’re going to fly, huh?” dad says warmly as the young Jordan looks meaningfully at the moon. He then leaps toward the hoop in slow motion, as strings soar majestically. Then, through the magic of editing, Jordan the boy dreamer becomes the adult Michael Jordan, world-conqueror.
Michael Jordan, world-conqueror, delivers every line with the same inflection: a bored monotone. He delivers his announcement that he will be retiring from basketball at the top of his game to pursue a career as a minor-league baseball player with so little emphasis, he might as well be talking about what he had for lunch that day. In Space Jam, as in real life, Jordan quits the NBA to play for the Birmingham Barons.
Unlike in real life, Jordan’s path from basketball to baseball then leads to being recruited by the Looney Tunes gang, who live in a world of their own called Tune Land. They recruit Jordan to lead a team of cartoon All Stars against the evil yet tiny, comical minions of Mister Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), the alien proprietor of Moron Mountain, a failing theme park. Swackhammer wants to increase attendance at Moron Mountain by enslaving the Looney Tunes gang and taking them to the theme park where, in the words of one of the minions, “You will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.” Swackhammer dispatches his henchmen to Tune Land, where Bugs challenges them to a basketball game, figuring that since they’re so small and puny, the Looney Tunes bunch will have a distinct advantage.
Alas, Swackhammer doesn’t play fair. His minions travel around the United States, acquiring the basketball skills of the best NBA players who would agree to appear in the movie at the time, including Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, and Larry Johnson. With this stolen talent pumping through their veins, the minions develop into “Monstars,” giant beasts adept at the human game of basketball. So the Looney Tunes gang travels to Earth to recruit the conveniently retired Jordan to head up their squad.
The Looney Tunes shorts were defined by their blinding speed and density; the animators were seemingly on a mission to see how many witty gags and ideas they could cram into a seven-minute cartoon. Space Jam has a different orientation toward time. It’s less concerned with making the most of every moment than in running out the clock. Jokes that should fly by are lingered over extensively. The beats feel way off. Early in the film, for example, Jordan plays golf with Bill Murray and Larry Bird. Murray has what can charitably be deemed the “funny” lines, all about how he wants to play in the NBA. (Murray has seldom been given less to work with, and this is a man who has featured in multiple films about the cartoon character Garfield.)
The appeal of Jordan’s Space Jam performance—and it is a bit of a stretch to call it that—is the same as the appeal behind professional athletes appearing on Saturday Night Live: morbid fascination as to just how badly the athlete will embarrass himself. Space Jam offers some of the same train-wreck fascination, but since it’s a film, and Jordan can do hundreds of takes in 20-second increments, the exhilarating element of danger and spontaneity is removed. But no film magic can hide that Jordan’s skills are taxed beyond their breaking point, even in scenes where he has to say “hello” to the actors playing his wife and kids. It seems sadistic to force him to spend much of the film pretending to interact with colorful cartoon characters.
Remarkably, things don’t improve once Jordan is back in basketball shorts and seemingly in his element. Space Jam doesn’t just tarnish the Looney Tunes legacy, reducing it to something vulgar, cheap, and dumb. It also subtracts from the tremendous joy of watching Michael Jordan play basketball. Watching Jordan awkwardly wisecrack with Bugs Bunny and the gang is like watching a proud lion wear a beanie and ride a unicycle in a circus: a great and powerful force reduced to a dumb, pointless joke.
Space Jam introduces a new character that epitomizes everything wrong about the project: Lola Bunny, a love interest for Bugs and a sexpot whose tiny shorts, midriff-baring tank top, and grotesque over-sexualization make it clear she’s meant to appeal both to little girls who want a girl Bugs Bunny doll of their own to play with, and furries, who also want a female Bugs Bunny figure of their own to play with, albeit for less wholesome reasons. Lola isn’t really a character at all. She’s a merchandising and marketing vehicle whose only real purpose is to kiss Bugs at relevant moments and try to make audiences forget Bugs’ own rich history of gender-fuckery, cross-dressing, and flamboyant androgyny. Space Jam makes Bugs a tedious heterosexual instead of the sexually ambiguous character he’s always been. (There’s a reason Robert Crumb said his first sexual memory was being turned on by Bugs Bunny in drag. Firstly, because Robert Crumb’s a big weirdo, but also because Looney Tunes was awash in sexual perversity.)
Where Looney Tunes was gleefully adult, yet overflowing with youthful energy, Space Jam’s conception of adult humor extends to throwing out a sex joke every half-hour. After Patrick Ewing loses his basketball-playing abilities to an evil, talent-stealing minion, for example, a psychiatrist leeringly asks him if he’s been experiencing other physical impairments as well. That’s funny, because it makes children think about Patrick Ewing wrestling with erectile dysfunction.
It’s fitting that Jordan’s last line is also the only one he delivers with any conviction: a wide-eyed look into the camera before asking, “Can I go home now?” after the credits roll. You sure can. We all can. That’s the best that can be said of Space Jam: It eventually ends. That’s something.
Some of you might be thinking, “Why are you being so hard on Space Jam? It’s just a kids’ movie.” That way of thinking is condescending to children, movies, and children’s films of merit. There’s no reason a Looney Tunes movie had to be this dumb and mercenary, to feel like an 80-minute-long commercial for Michael Jordan and Space Jam merchandise. Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action, a 2003 film that explicitly set out to be the anti-Space Jam, wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was inspired, and its heart, soul, and spirit were in the right place. The same can’t be said of Space Jam. It sets out only to make money from the public’s enduring affection for Michael Jordan and Looney Tunes. The world being what it is, it succeeded commercially, while the infinitely superior Looney Tunes: Back In Action failed.
Since I announced this as the next Forgotbusters, it has come to my attention that this film has a significant following among a generation that grew up in the 1990s. It hit an entire generation in a pre-critical phase with two hurricane-like cultural forces sure to appeal to kids: Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. Yet while it’s lingered for some, the film has receded in important ways. Jordan never made another movie, even though Space Jam made more than a billion dollars in box-office and merchandise. (And history has illustrated conclusively that Michael Jordan likes money.) Director Joe Pykta—a veteran of commercials (shocker!), including the “Hare Jordan” spot—never directed another feature, either. Despite the film’s success, there were no sequels. In the long, distinguished history of Michael Jordan and Looney Tunes, Space Jam does not occupy a place of pride. I suspect that’s because it existed only as a means to sell things, not to say things, and fewer folks than ever are buying such mercenary nonsense these days.