Before heading to the theater or couch to watch LeBron James assemble the Looney Tunes to save his son from a rogue A.I. within the Warner Bros. server in Space Jam: A New Legacy, take a trip to 1996 when famed athlete Michael Jordan did the same, except, in his adventure, it was to save the Tunes from alien slavery in the 4K UHD restoration of the original Space Jam. To the uninitiated, that previous sentence is likely a bit of a mind twist. The Looney Tunes have been a WB staple in one form or another since the 1930s, and Michael Jordan is considered the greatest that every played the game. But putting them together in a movie? It was enough of a draw to earn $250 million+ in its theatrical run, worming its way into the collective consciousness at the same time. As someone who didn’t follow basketball at all, I still enjoyed it for what it was: an amusement. While one can argue it’s quality, it’s difficult to argue that where it works, it’s an absolute slam dunk. With this first-ever 4K UHD release, at-home audiences can re-experience this ‘90s popcorn confection with newly treated high-dynamic range (HDR) and all the previous bonus features.
It’s 1995 and Michael Jordan is trying to enjoy his time playing Minor League baseball, while former basketball colleagues are finding themselves suddenly without the ability to play. The reason for what’s happening to his friends comes crystal clear when Michael himself is kidnapped by one Bugs Bunny (voiced by Billy West) in a bid to help keep the Looney Tunes from becoming the slaves of an alien race led by the villainous Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito). The only thing standing between their eternal enslavement and continued freedom is a single game of a basketball, but can Michael, rusty from retirement, be the one to save the day?
The summer Olympics of 1992 might be the only time I truly ever cared about sports. I distinctly remember being at Camp Blue Star and the organizers setting up a place for campers to watch various matches. More than anything, it featured the inclusion of the first-ever Dream Team: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Clyde Drexter, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullen, and Christian Laettner. I knew many by name or reputation, but had never taken the time to learn anything about them. Something about watching this group of talented athletes competing on a global stage in Barcelona just struck me. Perhaps that’s why, four years later, when Space Jam would hit theaters, I was stoked to check it out. (I suspect it also had something to do with finally being able to talk about something with my more sports-minded friends and family, but that’s another conversation entirely.) In Space Jam, there was a chance to take something I’d loved (Looney Tunes) and combine it with something I often felt like an outsider with (sports), creating a ridiculous adventure whose strengths far outweigh its obvious weaknesses. Even now, 25 years later, Space Jam remains just as much fun as ever, ready for new audiences to have a ball, even if the high-caliber athletic cast means literally nothing to them. This, perhaps, signals the greatest weakness it possesses, more than the stilted acting from Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, and others: it’s entirely a time capsule of the moment. The songs are specific to the era — Barry White & Chris Rock’s “Basketball Jones,” Seal’s cover of “Fly Like an Eagle,” and even the titular “Space Jam” by the Quad City DJs — and speak to a specific moment in music. This isn’t a bad thing as fans continue to enjoy them quite a bit, it’s just that when you listen to these songs, just like watching the film proper, those in the know feel transported back in time. Newer audiences don’t have the emotional connection to the period to help gloss over the less ideal things about the film. When I write “less ideal,” I’m referring to the casual way in which both Bugs and Michael imply that Michael takes a performance enhancing serum to play as well as he does, tricking the rest into taking some of the same. That’s a weird message in a family film, but one which I never noticed until I was an adult as I was too busy enjoying the Looney Tunes’ antics on the b-ball court. (Yes, even the Pulp Fiction reference that I shouldn’t have understood at the time, but totally did.) Unlike similarly mixed live-action/animation noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which feels modern and timeless and perpetually accessible, Space Jam is specific to one time and place. I’d even go so far as to say it became irrelevant within a year or two of release given the rapid shifts in pop culture and music. But for those who remember the first time the Tune Squad took on the Monstars as “Hit’Em High” performed by B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes played, Space Jam remains a cherished bit of cinema.
Fans of Space Jam likely don’t need much in order to consider picking up a copy, but a re-release does require something a little extra to make it worth spending the coin. As explained in the press notes for the home release, the only thing new about the 4K UHD restoration is the inclusion of HDR. There’s no new audio mix, no new bonus features, and nothing new in the way of packaging. This means that the decision to pick up a copy comes down to how well the HDR improves the home viewing experience. Surprisingly, the live-action sequences look much improved over the standard HD version. The sequence where Michael gets kidnapped on the golf course is where you’ll notice the best of the HDR on the release. The greens are vibrant, the silvers on Bill Murray’s shirt glisten, and everyone has a less flat visage. Shockingly, the animated moments appear paler in comparison to the live-action sequences. This is strange because animation usually restores more beautifully than live-action. Here, the animation possesses a visible sign of distress which generates a stark difference when Michael, or any other live-action element, is on-screen. The colors strangely lack a vigor audiences expect from Looney Tunes characters. They may be more realistic with the HDR, but realism isn’t something audiences want from Looney Tunes. Ever. Regarding the previously mentioned bonus features, the 4k UHD disc only contains the feature commentary, with the remaining materials on the Blu-ray.
It’s still uncertain as to whether A New Legacy will be more of the same or offering a unique enough shift that it won’t be as locked in time as its predecessor, but, until then, we can at least enjoy Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, and the rest of the Tune Squad getting nuts on the basketball court. Personally, I’m ready to jam with the ’96 or ’21 edition, even if it means spending time trapped in a time capsule. If this feels like your bottle of Gatorade, snagging the new 4K UHD edition of Space Jam is for you. If, however, you’ve got all you need with a Blu-ray copy, you’re likely fine to wait.
Space Jam Special Features
- Commentary from director Joe Pytka, Bugs Bunny (voiced by Billy West) and Daffy Duck (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker)
- Featurette: “Jammin” with Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan
- Music videos including Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and Monstars’ anthem “Hit ‘Em High”
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital July 6th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Space Jam website.
For information on the upcoming sequel, head to the official Space Jam: A New Legacy website.