Back in the 1990s, Bugs Bunny appeared alongside NBA star Michael Jordan in a series of Nike adverts called Hare Jordan. The team-up of the world’s most iconic cartoon rabbit with the world’s most popular basketball player proved a popular one, and in 1996, Warner Bros capitalized on it in a major feature film called Space Jam.
Featuring Jordan in his acting debut, the live-action/animation hybrid told the unlikely story of Bugs and his cartoon pals taking part in a high-stakes basketball match with aliens from Moron Mountain, and abducting Jordan as a ringer for their team. Oh, and many years before Zombieland, there’s a tongue-in-cheek cameo from Bill Murray, playing himself, in reference to an entirely separate series of ads in which his character attempts to join the NBA.
Prior to this, the Looney Tunes hadn’t really seen the inside of a movie theater for a while, apart from a series of compilation films released in the 1980s that wrapped the classic shorts up in a framing device featuring new animation. Space Jam was the first Looney Tunes narrative feature, and it was a sizeable hit, not only grossing $230 million on an $80 million production budget, but spawning merchandise, comics, and a 6 x Platinum soundtrack album.
So, with that kind of success, how come Warner Bros hasn’t released a whole bunch of Looney Tunes features in the last 20 years? Well, as you can imagine from the persistence of rumors about Space Jam 2, it’s not for a lack of trying. That film was last floated as a vehicle for LeBron James, who was so good in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, for Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin to direct, and that’s without counting all the other near misses in-between…
Jam for nothing
The success of Space Jam may have spurred Warner’s desire for more Looney Tunes movies, but to a certain extent, it also got in the way. To the studio executives, Hare Jordan had held the formula for success, and the sequel very much depended on Jordan returning.
Director Joe Pytka was on board to return, and for a time, the animation division got to work on developing character designs for the sequel, which would center around another basketball match. Designs for the film’s villain, Berserk-O, were styled after Mel Brooks, who the filmmakers wanted to voice the character, in a bid to replicate Disney’s success in tailoring Aladdin’s Genie to Robin Williams.
The trouble is, despite one producer keeping development going by claiming that Jordan was definitely willing to return, it turned out he definitely wasn’t. When the studio found out about this, development was shut down.
Speaking to Complex for the film’s 20th anniversary in 2016, Pytka said: “When they talk about making the new movie, God bless them, because they don’t have Michael anymore. Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes, they got rejuvenated because of Michael. There will never be another Michael Jordan. There’s only been two athletes with that kind of charisma: Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali…At one point a long time back, I was called in to look at a script for Space Jam 2 and Tiger Woods was written into that. It never came to be. It was a strange script. But Tiger was part of it.”
The Tiger Woods version of Space Jam 2 came out of a script conference at Warner Bros, but it didn’t really take off either. Another version of the sequel would have shifted focus to car racing instead, with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon in the lead live-action role. The working title of that one was Race Jam, but we’re not sure they thought that one through.
Back in action
With the success of The Jackie Chan Adventures, someone hit upon the idea of teaming Chan up with the Looney Tunes in Spy Jam, which is one of only two really good pitches mentioned in this article. It fell through for unknown reasons, but the spy movie idea stuck for the film that actually followed Space Jam – 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action.
Despite its box office success, Space Jam was never popular with critics or die-hard fans of the cartoons. It was even publicly slated by veteran animator Chuck Jones at a party on the Warner lot, and if anyone oughta know what makes good Looney Tunes cartoons, it was him. So when the great Joe Dante agreed to direct Back In Action, he expressly set out to make “the anti-Space Jam.” At odds with the studio, Dante found the production process frustrating.
“I was making a movie for them with those characters, and they did not want to know about those characters,” said Dante. “They didn’t want to know why Bugs Bunny shouldn’t do hip-hop. It was a pretty grim experience all around.”
The result was a manic, plot-lite gag-fest that stars absolutely no sports personalities playing themselves. Instead, the live-action cast includes Brendan Fraser, Steve Martin, Joan Cusack, Timothy Dalton, and a brief cameo from a Dalek from one of the Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies.
Maybe confirmation bias came into play for Warner, but the movie was not a hit. Having been pushed back from a summer release date to involve the Pixar juggernaut Finding Nemo, only to sandwich it between hugely popular November family fare like Elf and The Cat In The Hat. On a similar $80 million budget, (adjusted for inflation) it grossed $68 million worldwide.
Box office aside, Dante’s film is still more in keeping with that you expect from these characters’ anarchic sensibilities, and it’s possible that the desire for another Space Jam at the upper levels of the studio have got in the way of this kind of film actually getting made.
Since Back In Action, Warner made another try at reviving the Looney Tunes characters across four short films released between 2010 and 2012. Coyote Falls, Fur Of Flying, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, and Daffy’s Rhapsody all appeared in front of Warner family films such as Legend Of The Guardians and Cats & Dogs 2. In response to the popularity of this choice, the studio went back the other way with a clutch of feature film revamps for individual characters.
In 2012, we learned that Saturday Night Live alumnus Jenny Slate was writing a reboot of the property, with producers including Harry Potter’s David Heyman attached. By the time her excellent 2014 film Obvious Child was released, the project was dead.
“It was very, very fun to write it, but in the end, I don’t think I was able to be as formulaic and mainstream as that movie needs,” Slate told Yahoo. “It really needs that. It’s a very old, very important franchise, and if it’s going to be done, I think it really has to be a more mainstream thing. And I don’t know that I’m really interested in being that voice.”
After that, another potential Looney Tunes reboot had Steve Carell attached to star, reuniting with his Crazy, Stupid, Love directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who shared writing credits on Back In Action. But in the main, just based on artefacts that we have from them, the character spin-offs got further along.
There’s a whole sizzle reel for a Christmas movie based around Marvin The Martian, which would have featured Mike Myers as the voice of the title character and Christopher Lloyd as Santa Claus. That shows they at least got as far as completing animation, but the closest Marvin has got to the big screen is as one of dozens of characters who cameoed in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One earlier this year.
Warner’s sister studio New Line Cinema also announced Speedy Gonzales, to be written by Garfield’s Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen. Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, who voices Donkey in the Spanish-language dubs of the Shrek movies, was attached to voice the lead character in that one.
And then there’s Pepe Le Pew, a script which Warner bought from screenwriter Max Landis, that elicited a facepalm heard around the world. Landis’ take, described as a “romantic French new wave ‘60s heist movie” could have been interesting, but frankly, it never seemed likely to make it to the screen uncompromised in the post–Space Jam regime.
That’s all folks
To finish, I mentioned another good idea that didn’t get made, and here it is. Screenwriter Brian Lynch, who wrote Minions and The Secret Life Of Pets for Illumination Entertainment, recently revealed that long ago, he sold a script called Varsity Bugs to Warner Bros.
The story would have seen the Looney Tunes characters have to work to get a high school diploma, in accordance with an obscure clause in their Warner Bros contracts. Bugs, Daffy, and the gang would have gone back to school, along with fellow studio contract players Batman and Keanu Reeves, in order to get qualified.
Lynch recounted the details of his truly barmy pitch in an eye-watering Twitter thread by Lynch, including how he hilariously finished off the project after he followed the producers’ notes exactly and made it more like Space Jam. We’re left wondering what might have been, given how the crossover humor (involving Batman) wound up working so well for Warner in The LEGO Movie.
Minions are arguably the heir to the kind of enjoyably violent slapstick comedy that was the Looney Tunes’ standard. Trying to replicate Space Jam hasn’t done Warner Bros any favors, and it’s robbed us of at least one brilliant-sounding high school comedy, but maybe the success of their LEGO comedies, and Warner Animation Group could bring about a new Looney Tunes feature soon.
However, with legacy sequels in at the moment, and an audience of parents who were their children’s age when they enjoyed the first one, nostalgia for Space Jam might just overpower nostalgia for the beloved cartoons that came before. Maybe LeBron James and Justin Lin can do something with it, but we’ll leave the last word on that to Pytka, via the Hollywood Reporter, after the latest round of rumors:
“Don’t do it. It’s doomed.”