15 Slam-Dunk Facts About Space Jam
By April Daley
More than two decades after Space Jam opened at the top of the U.S. box office, the fan favorite is finally getting a sequel, produced by Ryan Coogler and starring LeBron James. In the original live action/animated movie hybrid, Michael Jordan gets recruited by Looney Tunes characters to assist in a basketball faceoff between the Tune Squad and the alien Monstars. The kooky film didn't take itself too seriously, playing on its star's failed attempt at a baseball career following his first retirement from the NBA in 1993, and introduced a new generation to Danny DeVito. Before the sequel heads into production in 2019, look back on 15 ways the family-friendly classic hit 'em high.
1. THE CONCEPT BEGAN AS A COMMERCIAL.
One year before Space Jam hit theaters, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny faced off in a game of one-on-one for a “Hare Jordan” Nike commercial. Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk saw the concept’s big-screen potential and brought the idea to Warner Bros. His timing couldn’t have been better: The studio was searching for the perfect way to re-launch the Looney Tunes franchise—and Space Jam was born. "I am forever astonished that any commercial I did was popular, let alone have a movie made from it,” Jim Riswold, the brains behind the commercial, told the Chicago Tribune.
2. MICHAEL J. FOX, JASON ALEXANDER, AND CHEVY CHASE TURNED IT DOWN.
The sports film was one of the first of its kind: a combination of animation and live action. To add to the challenge, taking a role in Space Jam would mean working with cartoon characters and an athlete with no acting credits to his name. As such, director Joe Pytka said he had problems casting the role of Jordan’s publicist, Stan Podolak. Michael J. Fox, Chevy Chase, and Jason Alexander all passed. Alexander's Seinfeld co-star, Wayne Knight, eventually took the job.
3. WARNER BROS. BUILT JORDAN HIS OWN GYM.
When the studio signed Jordan, there was an understanding that their lead actor would also be focused on laying the foundation for a championship run with the Chicago Bulls. They accommodated his day job by sticking to a strict production schedule (Pytka made sure that Jordan started at 9 a.m. and left no later than 6 p.m. with a two-hour break for lunch and a workout) and by building a temporary, indoor mini-gym on the lot, which Pytka christened the “Jordan Dome.”
4. IN BETWEEN TAKES, JORDAN ORGANIZED PICKUP GAMES.
Jordan, known for his intense work ethic, made sure his free time didn’t go to waste. He gathered his co-stars for pickup games and extended the invite to anyone. Actor Keith Gibbs, who was an extra on the film, told Grantland, “I walk in, and it's Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Oakley. Grant Hill shows up. Jerry Stackhouse shows up. Now, all of a sudden it's an NBA All-Star pickup game. Every night.”
And Jordan was just as generous with his trash-talk as he was with invites to the games: “Jordan hit a 35-footer on me," said Gibbs. "I mean, it was ridiculous: leg out, tongue out, all that stuff … hit a 35-footer on me and goes, 'Get the f**** off the court.'"
5. HE TEED OFF AGAINST BILL MURRAY AND LARRY BIRD.
In some ways, a game of golf set the stage for the entire film. Jordan only meets Bugs and joins the Tunes world after he gets sucked down a golf hole. So it only makes sense that the game played a role off-screen as well: bonding time for some of the actors, Murray revealed on Grantland’s Pop Culture podcast in 2014. “That was really a lot of fun,” he said.
6. THE MOVIE WAS FILMED ALMOST ENTIRELY WITH A GREEN SCREEN—AND ACTORS WEARING GREEN SUITS.
With the input of 150 animators, Cinesite created a world of live action and animation. But to bring that world to theaters, Jordan needed stand-ins for the cartoon characters. The studio brought in a troupe of comedic actors who donned all green and ran around on their knees. The result: Jordan was able to simulate the correct eye level, as if he were actually looking at Bugs and friends. The movie was one of the largest visual effects film of its time, according to its VFX supervisor, Ed Jones.
7. IT INTRODUCED BUGS BUNNY’S GIRLFRIEND.
Lola Bunny sashayed onto the scene with blonde bangs, a feminist catchphrase (“Don’t call me doll”), and impressive game on the court. It’s no wonder that audiences fell in love with her even before Bugs. She would go on to make appearances in DC Comics’ monthly Looney Tunes comics, the webtoon Dating Do’s and Don’ts, and The Looney Tunes Show (where she was voiced by Kristen Wiig).
8. IT FEATURED A LOT OF NBA TALENT.
It pays to have friends in talented places. Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley, Del Harris, Vlade Divac, Cedric Ceballos, Paul Westphal, Danny Ainge, Alonzo Mourning, A.C. Green, Charles Oakley, Derek Harper, Jeff Malone, Anthony Miller, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Brian Shaw, Bill Wennington, and Scottie Pippen were among the dozens of pro ballers and coaches who made credited and uncredited appearances in the movie.
9. RESIDUAL CHECKS FOR APPEARANCES ARE STILL BEING DOLED OUT.
If you don’t remember spotting Jim Rome in Space Jam, you’re probably not alone. The sports radio host makes a tiny cameo in the beginning of the film—and his stint continues to pay off, ever so slightly. In 2014, the sportscaster shared a snap of his residual check:
10. CRITICAL OPINION ON THE FILM WAS MIXED.
Roger Ebert may have called the movie “a happy marriage of good ideas” and awarded it three-and-a-half stars, but critics were divided on the film. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote that director "Pytka brings the attention span of the average gnat to the project, which lacks both coherence and cohesiveness," while Variety’s Todd McCarthy dubbed it “generally amusing rather than outright funny."
11. IT’S THE HIGHEST GROSSING BASKETBALL FILM OF ALL TIME.
The hoops-focused film racked up more than $90 million in theaters, toppling the previous record-holder, 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump.
12. THE MOVIE KNEW HOW TO DELIVER A PUNCH LINE.
If it has been a while since you’ve gone down memory lane with Jordan, you might have forgotten a few of the film’s jabs at both its stars and its rivals. Charles Barkley tries to bargain with God for his basketball skills, promising that he’ll “never go out with Madonna again.” It was a reference to rumors of a 1993 romance with the "Like A Virgin" singer. In another scene, all of Jordan’s endorsements get name-checked, in a nod to his many, many promotions. There’s even a diss aimed at Disney: After Daffy suggests the team go by "The Ducks," Bugs Bunny responds with "Please! What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would name their team the Ducks?" (Disney's The Mighty Ducks had been released four years earlier, in 1992.)
13. THE FILM’S ORIGINAL WEBSITE IS STILL UP AND RUNNING.
In 2011, we wrote about how the website was still running in all its mid-'90s glory, complete with a coloring book section and original character sketches. Seven years later, it's still there. Created during a time when putting a URL on a movie poster was still a new concept, the promo site is like a beloved time capsule of Hollywood history. Take a look here.
14. AN EARLIER SEQUEL WAS STARTED, BUT QUICKLY HALTED.
In 2015, LeBron James teased fans with the possibility of a Space Jam sequel after he announced his plan to work on projects with Warner Bros., which owns the rights to both Looney Tunes and the Space Jam name. But it wasn’t the first talk of a follow-up to the film: In 1997, it was impossible for studio executives to resist trying to repeat the box office success of the first film. So when a producer confirmed that Jordan was in for a sequel, the studio jumped on the opportunity.
Pytka returned to direct and the studio began gathering other key players, according to animator Bob Camp. The screenplay wasn’t fully completed, but Warner Bros. knew they wanted to pit a renowned comedy star against their all-star athlete. The studio hoped that Mel Brooks would voice their planned villain, Berserk-O!. Unfortunately, before the studio could get a commitment from Brooks, they got bad news: Jordan wasn’t actually on board. An unnamed producer “was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, Jordan is on,’" said Camp. "But he was lying. The guy didn’t have Jordan hooked up with the project." So the studio immediately shut down Space Jam 2.
15. IT LAUNCHED A SOUNDTRACK THAT WENT PLATINUM.
R. Kelly’s Grammy Award-winning track “I Believe I Can Fly” buoyed the soundtrack to second place on the Billboard 200 chart and introduced a new generation to R&B. The memorable album was certified as double platinum less than two months after its release. By 2001, it had reached platinum status, six times over.