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Double Dribble

Critics normally don't spend a lot of time praising producers; in a medium that is both commerce and art, our job is to evaluate the art side of the equation. And the assumption is that while producers are raising, counting or raking in moolah, a movie's aesthetics are in the hands of the director, the actors, the cinematographer and...uh... oh, yes, maybe the writer(s).

But sometimes the packaging is a project's primary virtue. Remember back in 1988 when ads started appearing that simply said: "Schwarzenegger...DeVito...Twins?" It didn't really make that much difference how inspired the final movie might have been; the concept was enough. That the film was reasonably funny was just a bonus.

Twins was the obvious example that leapt to mind, even before I remembered that the new Space Jam, in fact, comes from the same producer, Ivan Reitman. (Reitman also directed Twins; and writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod worked on both films, here sharing credit with Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick.) Space Jam is a marketing dream, matching up basketball superstar Michael Jordan with the Warner Brothers stable of Looney Tunes characters. It's easy to picture the eyes of studio execs ringing up animated dollar signs at the prospect of pulling in sports fans (to whom it was massively advertised), kids, their parents, African-American moviegoers, and nostalgic boomers raised on the library of Warner Brothers' golden age of cartoons.

It's not merely that the concept is great by marketing standards; the potential for a really terrific movie is there as well. The notion to pair the cheerful but hardly animated Jordan with a gang of the wackiest characters in movie history is pretty choice. But while the film has many enjoyable moments in its swift 87 minutes, it remains a tad disappointing. The animation is dandy; Jordan does his stuff adequately; and the brief presence of Bill Murray helps. But better that Reitman's crew of writers had spent another six months punching up and tightening the script.

The movie opens with a pre-adolescent Jordan practicing his moves with his dad and expressing his dream of becoming...a baseball player. Flash forward to a montage of his basketball career, ending with his announcement that he's hanging up his shorts for a baseball uniform.

Simultaneously, we are informed that an evil theme-park magnate in some alternate cartoon universe needs a new attraction for his outer-space Moron Mountain. (Danny DeVito does the voice for the character, who comes across as a green Louie De Palma.) He sends a bunch of adorable little minions down to Warners' cartoonland to kidnap the Looney Tunes stars.

Bugs somehow convinces his abductors that the WB gang deserves a fighting chance. Given how small the aliens are, Bugs settles on basketball as their best bet. But the aliens bring in ringers, including Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. Bugs's gang, in turn, sucks Jordan into cartoonland. Everything comes to a head at the big game.

The way the story exploits Jordan's real-life flirtation with baseball is exceedingly clever, and once you get used to the increased three-dimensionality of the venerable and familiar WB characters, the animation is excellent. The obvious comparison is to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the groundbreaker in live-action/animation hybrids. In that film, the cartoons were convincing in the real world, but human Eddie Valiant's brief trip into Toontown was less successful; his depth was too at odds with the classic 2-D animation style. In Space Jam, the animated universe is given much more dimensionality so that Jordan, Murray and co-star Wayne Knight don't seem so out of place.

There are some very funny self-reflexive bits, the best of which is a dig at Disney. In the final third, movie references fly by so fast you barely have time to absorb them, including one Pulp Fiction joke with what appeared to be Yosemite Sam Jackson. And animation buffs will have fun spotting the numerous minor Warner cartoon characters who show up in the background for a shot or two.

The climactic game serves as a model for what the film could have been. It replicates the bonkers, free-for-all energy of the Warners cartoons of the '40s and early '50s, when Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng were cranking out masterpieces by the month. It's exactly what most of the movie should have been. Instead, there is an excess of slower-paced exposition, punctuated by the occasional great gag. While it might have been too exhausting to pace the entire film at the climax's breakneck speed, it is no disrespect to the star to suggest that it might have benefited from a little less Jordan and a little more Looney-ness.

Space Jam. Written by Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick and Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod. Directed by Joe Pytka. With Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, and a bunch of other Looney Tunes characters.

 
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