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Things Only Adults Noticed In Space Jam

Released in 1996, Space Jam was an unparalleled monolith of pop culture success. In fact, simply calling it the most financially successful basketball movie of all time is damning it with faint praise. Over the nearly 25 years since its release, some estimate the movie has pulled in as much as $6 billion in merchandise alone. To put that into context, that's nearly four times Michael Jordan's estimated net worth, and almost a third of what he's allegedly lost gambling.

So what keeps us coming back? Is it pure nostalgia, or is there a deeper level to Space Jam — the story of a group of Warner Bros.' intellectual properties playing basketball with a sports star — than is visible at first blush? Could it be that there's a mature, adult story at play whose voice only becomes audible once one passes into maturity?

Well, no, not really. However, there are a lot of gags that you only get when you're a grown-up. From sports jokes to pop culture references, here are things that only adults noticed in Space Jam.

Only adults noticed the weird Pulp Fiction reference

Let's set the scene: The Toon Squad, freshly juiced up on Michael's Special Stuff, are finally getting into their groove. They've begun to turn the tables on their Monstar adversaries, raising the ire of the nefarious alien team. One of the antagonists grabs Wile E. Coyote with a biblical fury burning behind his eyes when, all of a sudden, his teeth shatter one by one as a ricochet sound effect plays. The audience is then treated to a shot of Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, clad in black suits and sunglasses, brandishing a pair of what can only be described as "remarkably realistic handguns considering that this is a movie for kids."

If the costumes and armaments aren't a big enough clue, the fact that the rapid fire notes of "Misirlou" by Dick Dale and the Del Tones are playing over the shot sort of gives the game away. This is a direct reference to Pulp Fiction, which had come out two years prior. If you were a kid when you saw Space Jam for the first time, you may have been confused by the scene. If you were an adult, however, you were almost definitely perplexed. Why did the filmmakers decide to plug a Quentin Tarantino reference into their family flick? What purpose did it serve besides handing the parents in the crowd a pop culture moment that they could look at and shruggingly go, "I get it, but, why?" The world may never know.

There's a whole lot of name-dropping in Space Jam

Filmmakers have always loved to sneak affectionate references into their movies. For example, in The Muppet Christmas Carol, there's a store in the background of the last musical number called "Micklewhite's," which is Michael Caine's last name. 

As for Space Jam, well, adults in the "giant cartoon nerd" community will have noticed that the basketball flick features a couple of these Easter eggs. The first and most difficult to miss of the two comes in the form of the name plastered on the gym where the members of the Toon Squad practice their sick sports moves: "Schlesinger Gym." Even if you don't recognize the name, you probably noticed that it's too weirdly specific not to mean something.

Leon Schlesinger, in case you were wondering, was the name of the head of Warner Bros.' animation studios. He was the man who oversaw the hiring of not just Mel Blanc, the man who voiced the vast majority of the Looney Tunes catalog of characters for decades, but also Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, two of the creators/writers/directors who made the WB cartoons what they are today. 

Speaking of Chuck Jones, the godfather of American animation wasn't wild about the movie, but he also gets a nod in the film. When Michael Jordan first lands in cartoon world, there's a shop in the background called CJ's Toys.

Space Jam and the Mormon church

Out of all of the scenes in Space Jam, the sequence where the basketball stars try to deal with their sudden loss of moxy probably holds up the best. It's backed by the always in vogue tones of Barry White's "Basketball Jones" and full of references to real life struggles, scandals, poppin' fresh 1996 celebrity gossip ... and the dogmatic practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which kids go bananas for. Let's dive in.

During the montage, human palm tree Shawn Bradley is discussing what he might do if he can't go back to playing basketball. He says he has other skills, and that he could go back to the farm or "to the jungle and be a missionary again." Like every physical thing that Shawn Bradley has ever done, this likely went over the heads of children — and even most adults. It's in reference to the fact that Bradley spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Australia before he was ever drafted to the NBA, a fact that made hiring him a risky move, even if he was, at 7'6", technically taller than what scientists refer to as "everybody."

Casting dropped the ball

Space Jam was replete with cartoon cameos, but the biggest cast crossover slipped under plenty of people's noses. When the Nerdlucks (the tiny versions of the Monstars) go to a basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, they take a seat next to a couple. The lady — nervous about the classic family film hijinks inherent in a bunch of small dudes wearing a trenchcoat to look like a taller guy — is Patricia Heaton, best known for playing Debra on roughly 200 seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond. The gentleman is the star of what's potentially the only show that's run longer than that. 

That's because he's played by Dan Castellaneta. Castellaneta has enjoyed a long and illustrious career, mostly as a voice actor, and is best known for playing the voice of Homer Simpson for the last 30 years. For whatever reason, the filmmakers didn't see fit to take advantage of his vocal talents in Space Jam, but at some spiritual level, Homer was in Space Jam.

Nerdlucks living up to the first half of their name

There are a few things we can intuit from the basics of Space Jam that might inform us on the subject of who it was targeted towards. It was for kids, and it was for basketball fans, and you know what? If there's one thing that brings both sides of that Venn Diagram together, it's references to low-budget sci-fi TV shows from a different country. 

While pulling the "bunch of small guys in a trench coat pretending to be one guy" maneuver, eagle-eyed geeks will have noticed the Nerdlucks are dressed in an oddly specific way, sporting a long brown jacket, a floppy, wide-brimmed fedora, and an oversized scarf. The Nerdlucks borrowed their getup from another popular alien: the BBC's favorite merchandising piggy bank, the Doctor from Doctor Who. Specifically, they're dressed as fan favorite Tom Baker's fourth Doctor. It's bizarre, but then again, the little fellas did seem like they watched a lot of TV. 

There's truth in art, even in Space Jam

It's the 11th hour, and the members of the Toon Squad are in a bad way. For the first time since Judge Doom was defeated and his Dip was drained in the third act of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they've come to know fear for their physical wellness. A series of dirty moves on the part of the Monstars has left them a man short for the last stretch of the game. 

But then, as in all the great stories, the heroes' darkest moment leads to their greatest triumph. The Toon Squad's redemption comes in the form of Bill Murray's arrival on the court. How did he get there? It's a fair question, since Michael Jordan had to be pulled through a golf cup, and Wayne Knight dug his way in like a morbidly obese Caddyshack gopher. When Daffy asks Bill how he wound up there, Murray simply responds that he's close to the producer.

It's inside baseball, but it's true. Space Jam was produced by Hollywood legend Ivan Reitman. His list of credits is longer than Michael Jordan's cartoonishly distended arm, but most notably, he was the director on movies like Meatballs, Stripes, and the sleeper Bill Murray indie hit, Ghostbusters.

Space Jam was a commercial success ... in more ways than one

It might be a shock, but the movie where the world's most popular basketball player teamed up with beloved cartoon characters to the sounds of top ten songs didn't necessarily come from a place of artistic integrity. In point of fact, it was sort of an adaptation of that most dignified of creative outlets, the humble multi-million dollar ad campaign. After Nike put out a series of commercials starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in the early '90s, Hollywood, which had not yet figured out that they could print their own money by adapting Marvel properties, got dollar signs in their eyes, and lo, Space Jam was born.

The spirit of shameless capitalism is alive and well in the script, too. When Michael's new personal assistant, Stan Podolak, comes to pick him up for a baseball game, he exclaims, "C'mon, Michael. It's game time! Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we'll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark." More than just Wayne's World-adjacent product placement, every brand that he mentions is one that Jordan had, at that point, appeared in commercials for.

Space Jame throws some Madonna shade

After the Nerdlucks steal all their talent, the five iconic NBA players — Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson, and Mugsy Bogues — all lament their lost abilities in a goofy montage sequence. Some turn to therapy, some to physicians, and Barkley puts his fate in the hands of a higher power. Kneeling, he takes part in that most dignified stage of grief: bargaining.

"I promise I'll never swear again," Barkley says. "I'll never get another technical. I'll never trash talk ... I won't go out with Madonna again."

Now, everybody loves celebrity gossip, but in the great casino buffet that is the news, it's more like the weird jello cake with whipped cream on top than a substantive pot roast. In other words, you can consume as much gossip as you want, but it's never going to stick with you. So you'd be forgiven if you didn't remember that Charles Barkley and Madonna were sort of a thing there for a second in the early '90s. It was a rumor that circulated so widely that Barkley blamed gossip columnists for contributing to his mother-in-law's heart attack in 1993.

Space Jam takes aim at Dan Aykroyd

Danny DeVito, voicing the villainous Mr. Swackhammer, gets maybe the cruelest burn in the entire picture during the last few minutes of the Monstars/Toon Squad game. When verified American treasure and comedic demigod Bill Murray makes his heroic entrance onto the court, Swackhammer, already fuming, exclaims "Whoa, whoa, whoa! I didn't know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture!" It's a throwback to that old Hollywood truism, "There's no cut more cruel than the one that mistakes you for the wrong Ghostbuster." Kids probably didn't know or care that Dan Aykroyd was Murray's SNL and Ghostbusters co-star, but their parents got it.

On a side note, if you haven't caught up on Dan Aykroyd's day to day in the last few years, there's a lot going on. Out of everyone tangentially connected to the Nerdlucks, he's probably the most likely to believe in them. He's made appearances in what you could, technically, call documentaries, explaining his theories on the paranormal. Also, he might think that Ghostbusters was real. There's just a lot going on.

The film has a sick Disney burn

A long time ago, back before Disney and Warner Bros were feuding over IPs like kids' cartoon characters from Marvel and DC, they were feuding over IPs like the kids' cartoon characters from Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes. Harsh words were spoken, and things were said that can never be unsaid. And the verbal warfare is on full display in Space Jam. Things get personal, and it's messy.

When Bugs and Daffy are discussing what to call their team, Daffy has a typically self-involved suggestion, saying, "How's this for a new team name? The Ducks!" "Please," Bugs responds, "what kind of Mickey Mouse organization would name their team 'the Ducks?'"

Sick burn much? Oh yeah. Not only is he referencing The Mighty Ducks, Disney's comparably small potatoes family sports flick from four years prior, but he pulls the unforgivable move of using "Mickey Mouse" as a pejorative. In the end, Disney never recovered from the insult and spiraled into bankruptcy and would eventually be forgotten by all but the most dedicated film historians.

Only adults noticed 'Michael's Secret Stuff'

The younger folks reading this might not remember, but for a couple of decades there, people felt pretty strongly that drugs were bad. Everyone from Nancy Reagan to Pee-Wee Herman to Bugs Bunny himself got in on the anti-drug movement

Which is why it gets super weird when Bugs Bunny decides to light a fire under the Toon Squad at halftime. He pulls a classic move: the ol' Dumbo's magic feather routine. Filling a water bottle with, you know, water, he tells the other members of the team that it's actually a, um, performance enhancer called "Michael's Secret Stuff." He demonstrates its magical efficacy by taking a swig and then instantly beefing up. If that sounds a little steroidy, it's only because that's exactly what they were going for. The joke goes from implication to outright juicing reference when Daffy Duck says, "This goes against everything they taught me in health class." No word yet on the results of the inevitable Senate hearing on the matter, but the Looney Tunes brand Livestrong bracelets are forever tainted.

Down the rabbit hole

It's time to delve intensely into the world of cartoon rabbit conspiracy, attempting to find deeper truth in the crevices of animated hare history where others hear nothing but white rabbit noise. It's time to go, if you'll forgive the Alice in Wonderland imagery, through the looking glass.

Space Jam gave us our first glimpse of one Lola Bunny, the long-awaited female counterpart to Bugs and precursor to the unspeakable community that would form around Zootopia a scant few decades later. She had all of the earmarks of your standard "girl-version-of-an-established-cartoon-character" character. She looked alarmingly similar to her predecessor, she sported additional eye makeup to differentiate her, and she didn't get a lot of jokes. There was just one big distinguishing difference.

There have been a lot of gender-swapped versions of cartoons over the years: Petunia Pig, Daisy Duck, and Minnie Mouse. Traditionally, they carry the same alliterative name structure as the dude who was there first. Lola, on the other hand, does not. Where did the name "Lola" come from?

We're not pretending to have definite answers. All we're saying is that Bugs spent a lot of his time dressing in girl clothes, and that the Kinks have a song called "Lola" that's probably totally unrelated.