Why ‘Space Jam’ is a Dunk-Slamming Remake of ‘Seven Samurai’

By  · Published on January 11th, 2013

In the game of bad movie coverage, we are poised on the same lofty levels of excellence as either the 1975 Washington Capitals or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back when they had those supposedly heterosexual tangerine uniforms with the smiling pirate on the helmets. Every week, Junkfood Cinema brings you the best of the worst of the best movies ever made; exposing their faults and cackling like insane toddlers at their dense layers of absurdity. We really do love these films, and that fact of remains despite the mockery, and despite our therapist taking the controversial tact of encouraging us to repress our feelings. To reward you, the unsuspecting reader, for eye-prancing all the way to the end of the article, we will top things off with a sinfully tasty snack themed to the movie.

All that being said, today’s piece is different. It will not focus on a bad movie, but instead defend one improperly relegated as such. This article is fraught with anger, fraught I tell you! Today’s film is one most maligned by foolish plebes; those too bereft of wisdom to recognize its brilliance. This is a film that transcends the dubious confines of its genre and operates on a more didactic level vis-a-vis the human condition and societal mores. A film whose roots are embedded in the history of film itself and one that harkens back to some of cinema’s greatest achievements. I’m speaking of course of Space Jam.

The aspersions cast upon me even know are so palpable as to bleed through the computer screen and leave my keyboard looking a sticky mess. I have heard all manner of complaints about this 1996 family film. I’ve heard people talk about the lackluster integration of animation with real objects, saying things like “Roger Rabbit did it better eight years earlier,” and “no, animators, that’s not polished…it’s just colorful and it moves around a lot.” I know full well the criticisms of Michael Jordan’s dearth of acting talent. Perhaps you’re all right, and maybe we would have gotten just as much emotional range and depth from a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan than from the fleshy one. But at least he had the decency to only make one movie; no similar quarter would we be offered by Shaq.

And yes, perhaps there is some merit to your accusations of hokey, saccharine dialogue. Fine, maybe young MJ predicting the course of his entire life as he practices basketball on a dirt court outside his home, sinking shots with a more impressive success rate than can currently be boasted by the entirety of The Los Angeles Lakers, is a bit contrived. This is of course followed by a dopey montage reminding us who Michael Jordan is, just in case we’ve actually been jamming around space since the late 80s. This montage also features the most intense font with which Wayne Knight’s name has ever been introduced. Also Wayne Knight is a thing that happens to us in this movie. Okay, fair points all.

But where lies the genius of Space Jam, repeat the genius of Space Jam, is in its shared DNA with Seven Samurai, one of the greatest films of all time outside of Dead Heat. Akira Kurosawa’s undisputed masterpiece left such a solid impact on the medium of cinema that there have subsequently been several re-imaginings of it across multiple genres. The most famous is probably John Sturges’ western The Magnificent Seven, but Roger Corman also got into the “I can totally do that too” game with his sci-fi iteration Battle Beyond the Stars. I submit that Space Jam is, at its core, merely the looniest incarnation of Seven Samurai to date. Crazy am I? Drunk too you allege? How dare you, this empty was bottle when I found it.

Allow me to grant you new perspective on this magnum opus ( which is not, as we thought, Latin for an Oprah cameo on Magnum P.I.). So everybody clam up, stop your slams now. We’ve got the real Jam to show you now. Here’s your chance, take a new glance at this Space Jam. Alright.

Moments away from Bill Murray arriving to save the village.

For reference sake, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is about a village of farmers who know that a horde of bandits will soon be returning to steal their food and ruin their livelihoods. Knowing nothing of combat, they send envoys to recruit samurai to come and protect them.

Notice any similarities?

First, a little credit where credit is due. You may think Space Jam to be a forgettable kids movie, a cheap attempt to capitalize on both young Looney Tunes fans and the lucrative kindergarteners-who-religiously-watch-Sportscenter market, but there is some genuine talent behind this project. It was executive produced by Ivan Reitman, because if there is one person who clearly understands the ins and outs of the NBA, it’s that lanky scarecrow who directed Ghostbusters. On top of that, Oscar-nominated composer James Newton Howard did the music for Space Jam. Well, full disclosure, what he really did was compose melodious cartoon sound effects to fill in whenever the music of Quad City DJs or The Spin Doctors proved too…nuanced. And, bit of trivia for you, this was only director Joe Pytka’s second feature film. We’ve been assured that someday his third will be utterly fantastic.

The samurai elements of Space Jam are present even before it yields its direct ties to Kurosawa’s watershed film. It begins with Jordan’s retirement; the old warrior hanging up his sword and resigning himself to a more provincial life. Of course, in the case of Michael Jordan, a more provincial life means earning only a few million dollars a year playing baseball as opposed to all of the millions playing basketball. Still, he turns out to be as bad at baseball as he was not bad at baskethoops. He is therefore stripped of his honor and forced to live in a house with a troupe of actors he’s deluded himself into believing is his family. He’s hungry to reclaim his former glory, and, just as the village elder asserts in The Seven Samurai, “even bears come down from the mountains when they’re hungry.” We’re assuming the idiom applies to Bulls as well.

Meanwhile, the beloved Looney Tunes are invaded by aliens called Nerdlucks and told that they must return with the tiny terrorists to be slaves on their home world of Moron Mountain, which is apparently a planet-sized amusement park. The toons are given a chance to defend themselves via a game of basketball, but through illicit means and space snot technology, the formerly lilliputian aliens acquire serious height, strength, and talent on the hardwood by stealing it from four NBA superstars and a talking ginger tree named Shawn Bradley. Their fateful match looming, the toons venture outside their world to recruit someone who can help them.

The newly-dubbed Monstars, like the marauders in Kurosawa’s flick, are jeopardizing the livelihoods of these poor villagers/toons by demanding that forthwith all trademark looney antics be part of a Moron Mountain attraction as a function of their enslavement. Bugs Bunny therefore elects himself envoy to enlist (or more accurately abduct) a warrior to help them defend their home and their sole currency; that is, working for Warner Brothers. So basically yes, the Looney Tunes are the hapless farmers and SamuAIR Jordan trains them to battle their foes in the chosen arena. It’s essentially the Monstars versus the Toshiro Mifune Squad. And hey, the former septet of warriors is condensed into one nearly seven-foot-tall man. Efficiency. America.’

Not convinced? Are you so stubborn as to not be moved from your ignorance by incontrovertible evidence and cogent arguments? Who are you, the internet? Very well. Consider the following finer points of Space Jam and how they touch upon elements of Seven Samurai:

So why, of all possible alterations to the Seven Samurai narrative, would Space Jam choose to incorporate the game of basketball into Kurosawa’s tale? Considering which American sports have become popular in Japan, wouldn’t baseball have created a more tangible bridge between the two masterpieces? No, and also shut up. Actually, belay that childish deflection. Let’s examine the central battle strategy utilized by the samurai in Kurosawa’s film. Kambei builds barricades and then allows one bandit into the village via a gap between these barricades. He then blocks off the other bandits with a wall of spears so they only need deal with one at a time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is that not also the conceit behind a zone defense? Use your players as barricades to cordon off sections of the court and then, as the opposing player enters a designated zone, close him off so that he is without aid and vulnerable to attack? It’s as if Space Jam is teaching kids the fundamentals of the game, and the fundamentals of classic film at the same time.

Space Jam and Seven Samurai also share certain thematic and tonal similarities. Both films deal with the themes of honor and the pitfalls of stratified class systems. Whereas Kurosawa examined the strife between warrior and peasant classes, Space Jam shines a spotlight on the cultural idolization of professional athletes. Oh yeah, I said that. Look at what happens to the five pro basketball players who lose their abilities. They become pariahs, mocked by all, including children and are even thought to be infected with a serious illness just because they are no longer able to play a game for a living. Athletes are raised upon so lofty a pedestal in our society that there are those who would even believe that they can fly, as Mr. Robert Kelly’s satirical song from the soundtrack so eloquently points out. And yet, as ideal as they appear to be, believe it or not, athletes are not insusceptible to the temptations of vice. Almost as soon as the Looney Tunes don their uniforms as the Toon Squad, at half time they decide to ingest what they’re told is Michael’s “Secret Stuff” in order to improve their skills. One game in, and these ballplayers, nee beloved cartoon characters, are already using what they believe to be performance enhancing drugs? Th-th-th-that’s an awful example for kids, folks.

Physical humor is also a big part of both movies. In The Seven Samurai, it’s the wild shenanigans of Toshiro Mifune, and as far as the the Looney Tunes, it’s everything they ever do ever. It seems every few seconds these idiots are prat-falling or getting incinerated or something dumb. If memory serves me correctly, and by memory I mean that fever dream I had once, I believe the Criterion release of Seven Samurai features a scene of Takashi Shimura in drag dropping an anvil on a bandit’s head before turning to the camera and admitting, “ain’t I a stinka’.”

So there you have it, we’ve finally put to bed that nasty rumor that Space Jam has nothing to do with Seven Samurai. So the next time you want to accuse Space Jam of being a bad film, go pick up the Criterion Kurosawa set. Then we’ll see who calls what a bad what. Oh you know what, that might actually make Space Jam look worse.

On second thought, just accept that we’re right and Space Jam’s good and anyone who disagrees is wrong.

Junkfood Pairing: Jordan’s Jam

This week’s pairing is an obvious reference to basketball icon Michael Jordan, the animated basketball comedy in which he stars, and the verb describing what he does with said basketball when in appropriate proximity to a hoop. Jordan’s Jam is a product of Ireland where, point of false, Marvin the Martian is actually from. Eat a big spoonful while watching and the movie gets even better. Probably.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.