Why ‘Space Jam’ Would Not Work in Any Other Era But the ’90s

LeBron James, Space JamWarner Bros. via Everett Collection/Getty Images

With a quick and heavy stomp, LeBron James crushed our dreams and debunked rumors of a possible Space Jam sequel. For the uninitiated, Space Jam is a fondly remembered kid’s film from 1996 that featured the clumsy mash-up of NBA star Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes. The film retold the story of Michael Jordan’s brief retirement and transition from professional basketball to professional baseball, back to professional basketball, except with Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck in tow. The news, which feels like it was brought to life through the sheer will of about a million 20-somethings, came about when Deadline reported that Charlie and Willie Ebersol, sons of legendary broadcaster Dick Ebersol, were set to produce a sequel to the 1996 hit, with James at its center. But James denied having any knowledge of the project at all, telling the Sun Sentinel“It’s news to me. I haven’t heard anything about it. Like I said, I’ve always loved Space Jam. It was one of my favorite movies growing up. If I have the opportunity, it will be great.” And with that, the dream is over. Even though the kid in me is mourning the loss of something that never actually existed in the first place, the adult in me wonders if a Space Jam movie with LeBron James would even work in 2014.

The thing is, Space Jam was a quintessential ’90s thing in so many ways. It was so much a product of that particular time and cultural zeitgeist that it couldn’t possibly work in this day and age, no matter how much your heart might want it. For one thing, Looney Tunes doesn’t have the same cultural foothold that it did even in the mid ’90s. While the ’90s kids were certainly several decades removed from Mel Blanc’s heyday, the original Looney Tunes shorts still enjoyed regular reruns on Cartoon Network, so many of the children back then were well acquainted with the exploits of Bugs Bunny and the gang. Nowadays, those old school Looney Tunes reruns have been shuffled off the network in favor of modern cartoons, and sadly, many kids will never know the simple pleasures of the “Wabbit season! Duck season!” gag. And while there was a short-lived modern iteration of the characters called The Looney Tunes Show, it only aired for two seasons. Besides that, our kids’ attention spans are being stretched by an almost infinite amount of distractions, and they seem downright allergic to anything animated in two dimensions in a movie theater.

And just as Looney Tunes isn’t the same as it was in ’96, the NBA isn’t either. In the ’90s, Michael Jordan’s reign over professional basketball propped the sport up to unimaginable heights. Jordan wasn’t simply a basketball player, but a one-man cultural phenomenon. The entire world stopped to watch Jordan and the rest of his Chicago Bulls squad run the rest of the NBA ragged. His sheer dominance lifted the entire sport into mainstream consciousness, and the same can’t be said about LeBron James and today’s NBA. While James is by and large the NBA’s most popular current player, coming off of two championships with the Miami Heat and eyeing a third, he has never reached the same realm of cultural ubiquity as Michael Jordan. The ’90s were the decade where everyone wanted to be “like Mike,” and LeBron (or any other NBA player) has never enjoyed anything close to that same level of adoration. It also doesn’t help that some corners of the basketball world still view LeBron James as a villain rather than the hero. For as long as James stays in the league, to some people, he will always be the man that left his Cleveland for Miami. And even as the more rational members of society have cooled off that impression since 2010, some will always hold “The Decision” against him. 

So, with Looney Tunes quickly slipping out of kids’ minds, and the NBA simply not enjoying the popularity it once did, it seems like the idea of a Space Jam sequel was doomed from the start. Even though LeBron James is a wonderfully gifted basketball player, and might even have better on-screen presence than Michael Jordan did, the timing is all wrong. In any case, maybe the joy of Space Jam was the novelty and sheer inexplicability of it all. The idea of the biggest athlete of the decade staring in a half animated, half-live action retelling of his return to the NBA with cartoon characters from the 1940s and Bill Murray is completely bonkers when you think about it. It was product born out of very particular mid-’90s mind frame, and ir became a cultural touchstone almost despite how profoundly silly it is. Maybe it’s best that we leave Space Jam in the past.