There has never been a time when popular culture has been more pervasive and influential in American society. With advances in technology and creative innovation, outlets for popular culture have expanded greatly and are virtually innumerable. Through the consumption of television, music, magazines, movies, newspapers, blogs, and memes to name a few, American citizens and others around the globe are inundated with ideals and images that work to mold their collective psyche by impacting every facet of their daily lives and by providing a critique of modern-day society.
Perhaps much of the influence of popular culture lies in the fact that its primary function is to appeal to the masses; therefore, it is widely and easily accessible to an extremely large audience. Many people in this audience partake in popular culture simply to be entertained; however, they fail to realize the extent to which it shapes their way of thinking in areas such as education, politics, the economy, racial relations, and overall global relations. The analysis of popular culture is an essential practice for the sheer fact that it has such an overwhelming presence in our lives.
Space Jam, a highly popular movie made in 1996, blends elements of animation, comedy, sports, and renowned American icons to spin a tale that is not only highly entertaining but provides tropes and narratives that are teeming with insights and critiques of American society. The first step toward analyzing any piece of popular culture is to lay out and understand its explicit plot, or storyline. Space Jam is an enjoyable film starring world famous basketball player Michael Jordan and the characters of the Looney Tunes franchise as the main protagonists of the story in a partially live action and partially animated cartoon world.
The film begins with an introduction to Michael Jordan’s childhood days with his father as he practices basketball. His father’s ultimate goal for his son’s career is to be a professional baseball player even though Michael’s exceptional talent as a basketball player is apparent from an early age. After this opening sequence, the movie fast forwards to the present day in which Michael has chosen to retire from a successful NBA career to pursue professional baseball. This transition is not an easy one, and even though he maintains a strong fan base from his previous athletic career, his performance on the baseball field is somewhat mediocre.
One day while he is playing golf with a few friends, he gets unceremoniously pulled through a hole in the golf course and finds himself in Looney Tunes Land. As we learn about Michael Jordan’s struggles with his sports transition, the cartoon side of the story is also being laid out for the viewing audience. On an alien planet in an alternate universe, the audience is introduced to Swackhammer, the owner of failing amusement park, Moron Mountain. In a last fail attempt to improve ticket sales and save Moron Mountain, Swackhammer decides to kidnap the Looney Tunes to work as enslaved entertainers.
He sends his small alien minions, the Nerdlucks, to kidnap the Looney Tunes, which include iconic characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Tweety and Sylvester, the Tazmanian Devil, and Lola Bunny. The Looney Tunes strike a bet with the aliens: if they can beat the Nerdlucks in a game of basketball, they can have their freedom. The Nerdlucks use their powers to steal the talent of five major NBA stars (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Shawn Bradley) to become the Monstar team.
Realizing that they are no match for the Monstars alone, the Looney Tunes kidnap Michael Jordan to help them. Jordan agrees to be a part of the team and attempts to train them for the big game. After many practices, Jordan realizes that the Looney Tunes may not do well in the game, and he makes a deal with the Nerdlucks in which he agrees to work for Moron Mountain in the event that the Tunesquad loses in exchange for the freedom of the Looney Tunes. The final game ends with the Tunesquad beating the Monstars with an unbelievable dunk from Michael Jordan.
At the conclusion of the film, the Looney Tunes are free, the stolen talent is returned to the NBA players, and Michael Jordan returns to the real world and his basketball career. There are numerous tropes, or repeated themes, present in this movie that teach important lessons and give insight into American ideals. The first trope present in Space Jam is the theme of ‘Americans vs. Aliens’. This theme revolves around the fact that the alien Nerdlucks invade Earth, more specifically Looney Tune Land, in order to kidnap the Looney Tunes.
A repeated trope in many forms of popular culture, the underlying elements of Americans versus aliens are hostile takeovers, aliens being labeled as enemies, and American resources being stolen by those beings. In this case, the resource being taken is the Looney Tunes. The Looney Tunes can be considered an abstract form of a resource in light of their value as an entertainment commodity and position as a prominent American brand. The appeal behind this trope lies in the ideal that aliens carry the allure of the unknown; there is a mysterious component to them that is not easily understood to human beings.
The element of otherness is both intriguing and frightening to the American people; therefore, the socially constructed fear of foreign entities is prevalent and leads to aliens being portrayed as the ‘bad guys’ or enemies in many plotlines such as this one. Good versus evil is another trope present in Space Jam, and is perhaps the most prototypical of all themes because it is present in every story since the beginning of time. The setup of the good guys being the Looney Tunes and the bad guys being the Monstars is evident from the beginning of the movie.
This setup gives the audience an easy decision for which team to root for. The appeal of this trope is easy to identify because it plays upon one’s natural inclination and socially constructed normative values to root for the good, honest side as opposed to the bad side. This triumph of good versus evil provides a positive and familiar ending that is preferred by American audiences. There are not only repeated themes in this movie, but also storylines that make themselves apparent throughout the plot. The first narrative to discuss is ‘freedom from oppression’.
Although this may seem like a serious storyline for a movie made solely for entertainment, oppression is certainly present in the form of Swackhammer’s plan to enslave the Looney Tunes to perform as entertainers for his amusement park. This storyline has some ties to America’s darker times in history in which slavery was common and minorities were cruelly discriminated against. This, in a way, provides a critique of America’s past because it shows the injustice of slavery and frowns upon the exploitation and subjugation of people.
This narrative also has some appealing qualities in that the audience likes the ideal of the underdog rising up to fight for their rights and win freedom from their oppressors. Space Jam skillfully blends two American iconic figures, Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes, in a way that heightens its entertainment value and appeals to the overall audience of adults and children alike. As we can see in many events such as the Olympics, American citizens take pride in their sense of unity, competitiveness, and hard work, and they almost always rally behind the American team.
This is apparent in the film as the audience is primed to cheer for the Americans (i. e. Tunesquad) and their victory against the alien enemies. This presents, in a sense, an ‘America is best’ mentality in which Americans are the heroes and victors in almost every scenario. This clear display of patriotism and American exceptionalism is prominent in this film and helps to explain the overarching psychological appeal of Space Jam to an American audience.