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'Space Jam: A New Legacy' pays tribute to original but is more of a 'standalone' sequel, says voice of Bugs Bunny
Next time you see LeBron James in public, try getting his attention with your best approximation of Bugs Bunny. This particular stratagem worked incredibly well for Jeff Bergman, who voices the long-eared and carrot-munching Looney Tune in Space Jam: A New Legacy (out on Friday).
While attending the Los Angeles premiere of the long-awaited sequel earlier this week, Mr. Bergman was finally able to meet some of his co-stars like Cedric Joe (Dominic James) and Don Cheadle (Al G. Rhythm), but found it rather difficult to get an audience with James, who was surrounded by "a sea of people."
"You can't get to him," Bergman remarks during an interview with SYFY WIRE. "I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna use my voice.’ So, with as much projection as I could [muster], I said, ‘LeBron! It’s Bugs Bunny! It’s me, Doc! We really are family!’ He saw me and had the biggest grin and they ushered me in right in front of him. He was holding his daughter, she was asleep in his arms. We hugged and I just said, ‘Thank you so much, congratulations.’ And he congratulated me and we had our moment, so I couldn’t ask for anything [better]. It was impromptu and it was just great."
Sounds like Bugs has been watching all of the Fast & Furious movies lately because there ain't nothing more important than family, Doc. In all seriousness, though, family sits firmly at the center of A New Legacy, which revolves around the relationship between LeBron and his son (played by Joe), both of whom find themselves unwittingly downloaded into the Warner Bros. Serververse shortly after having an argument about Dom's future. LeBron wants his son to focus on basketball, but Dom is more interested in designing video games.
"It’s really not the same film," Bergman says in reference to the original Space Jam from 1996 (directed by Joe Pytka), which starred Michael Jordan in the central role. "It’s a really different film. This has a really great personal story that is really LeBron’s story, which is so different than Michael Jordan’s. So, from that perspective, I was really excited because it’s a standalone."
The idea of reconnecting with your loved ones applies to the Looney Tunes side of the story as well. When Al. G kidnaps Dom and challenges LeBron to a high-stakes game of basketball, the NBA All-Star joins forces with Bugs team in order to track down the other members of the Tune Squad, who have been scattered to the four corners of the WB Serververse — from the diesel-fueled post-apocalypse of Mad Max to Rick Blaine's Nazi-occupied club in Casablanca. Play it again, Sam!
"Bugs Bunny reminds me a little bit of Woody in Toy Story," Bergman adds. "He’s kind of rallying the troops. Woody’s rallying the toys [and] Bugs is trying to get all the Looney Tunes back together, and he’s just so gleeful when [they reunite]. I felt like he was the pied piper a little bit."
Bergman, who has been voicing Bugs for a little over three decades now, did not play the character in the first Space Jam. That version of the wisecracking "wabbit" (as Elmer Fudd might say) was portrayed by Billy West, another prolific voice actor known for his work on iconic shows like Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Futurama — to name a few.
"I did watch the original Space Jam again. I certainly wanted to see it because once I saw the script, I knew they were going to pay homage to the original film," Bergman explains. So, I did want to watch it. And, I know Billy. I am an enormous fan of his. We’ve worked together through the years, he cracks me up all the time, and so, I did want to see what that was. But, I think very much like Billy and all the actors [who voice Bugs], our reference is the Jedi Master, which is Mel Blanc ... Because ultimately, that’s where we all started from, is referencing Bugs Bunny cartoons."
Bergman briefly got to meet with Blanc while studying as an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. At the time, young Bergman was more interested in pursuing his career as a stand-up comedian with a talent for impersonations, but the OG voice of Bugs encouraged him to get his degree before heading out to Hollywood.
"He said, ‘Look, Jeff. If you can stay in school, get your degree, keep practicing your voices…’ — because I did a few impersonations for him — ‘why don’t you look me up when you get out to Los Angeles if you ever get out there?'" Bergman recalls. "It was a watershed moment, it changed everything in my life from that day forward. It was not so much advice, although he did say, ‘Stay in school,’ but there was something going on there. It was like, ‘Oh, I met somebody that gets me! He does something [similar] to what I do.’"
Sadly, Blanc passed away several years later and the two never got to meet again, but Bergman carried on the man's legacy when he landed the role of Bugs in Steven Spielberg's Tiny Toon Adventures. "When you look at, say, Sean Connery — he’s the original James Bond. And so, everybody after that — Roger Moore, Peirce Brosnan, Daniel Craig — they all have their own sensibility that they bring to [the role]. But it’s always James Bond; it’s always Bugs Bunny. There’s always the essence of it and I guess you can’t help but bring your own flavor to it."
He continues: "I grew up in Philadelphia and New York and knew a lot of people from New York and Queens. And so, I think that East Coast [inflection] — there’s something about that that I think is just inherent in Bugs Bunny. I just can’t help it. Mel Blanc was Jewish and to me, it seemed like Bugs Bunny was Jewish. I’m Jewish [and] think that there are those ethnic qualities that come out in Bugs Bunny’s voice and I hope I bring that to it. I feel like I do most of the time."
Given the fact that the new Space Jam digs deep into the deep catalog of properties Warner Bros. has cultivated throughout the decades, Bergman also got the chance to voice other beloved characters such as Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.
"I grew up in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, so when I saw Bugs Bunny cartoons, I saw Bugs Bunny advertising for Tang … That was Mel Blanc. I remember seeing that and then Fred Flintstone [advertising for Welch’s Grace juice]," he adds. "Those are such indelible memories for me that to get to do that — Fred and Yogi Bear — that was just insane because I grew up with all those characters. And then have it be in Space Jam? I was like, ‘Whaaat?!’ … There’s something for every generation in this film. You’re gonna recognize somebody."
Bergman boarded the sequel last spring and had about three in-person recording sessions before the world went into lockdown. As a result, the actor found himself on many Zoom sessions with director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Night School) and animation producer Troy Nethercott.
"Malcolm just wanted the characters to still be very loony, but we had to establish that connection between Bugs and LeBron. We wanted that playful energy between the two of them," Bergman says. "He would often read LeBron's lines. He worked with LeBron, he was working with him all the time, so he had a real sense of how he was gonna deliver the line. That was a little easier for me to respond [to]. But he wanted a realness. And being that LeBron lost a little bit of a connection to his son and I’m a father of two sons and Malcolm is a father, too, so I think we all sort of got that and the Looney Tunes were the vessel for LeBron to find his way back to connecting a little bit better with his son towards the end. I think we had to keep all that mind without overthinking it."
While Bergman was in his 30s and a little too old to be swayed by the antics of the Tune Squad when Space Jam first hit the scene in 1996 ("it wasn’t necessarily marketed to me, my particular generation"), he still recognizes the massive impact the film had on pop culture.
He doesn't think it would have been possible without 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which A) broke new ground for the world visual effects, B) changed the way in which closely-guarded studio IPs could cross-over with one another, and C) helped sparked an "animation revolution in the ‘90s with Tiny Toons, Animaniacs — just one after the other," Bergman says.
"I think once Tiny Toons came around, that was a monster hit. It set off a firestorm and Space Jam [came out] in 1996. That gave the Looney Tunes a bigger spotlight that they had never ever had. They were always in six-and-a-half-minute cartoons, so people were like, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ And then Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Wayne Knight — it was so quirky and so different. It was not like Roger Rabbit. But they kind of suspected, ‘Oh, wait, we’re gonna put the animated characters in with a lot of live-action, that this might really work.’ And so, it did. Oddly enough, I don’t remember that it got great reviews, but it didn’t matter. People wanted something silly and something fun."
"Bugs Bunny is almost 82 years old in 2022. I just can’t figure it," Bergman admits. "The only thing I can say is Chuck Jones said, ‘Bugs Bunny is who we all aspire to be; Daffy Duck is who we’re often stuck with.’ I think there’s something about him — he’s almost like the superhero that’s not a superhero because he uses his wits and his charm. We all want to be that clever, but we’re not in a sense. Maybe it’s like the Wizard of Oz. That’s just a rite of passage that every child, at some point, is gonna know what that film is. There’s just an unexplainable magic ... There’s just something about them. They’re like the Three Stooges. It’s pure fun, there’s no real message with the Looney Tunes."
Space Jam: A New Legacy will offer fans courtside seats to one of the greatest basketball games ever played when the film arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, July 16. Only one question remains: Will we have to wait another 25 years for a potential sequel?
"I wish I knew the answer to that because there was nothing in my contract that alluded to any ensuing properties or sequels," Bergman concludes. "I think maybe the pandemic might actually work in its favor because it would be a movie that you’d want to see on the big screen. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter — those are films you want to see on the big screen. My guess is, if it does well, there will definitely be [a sequel]."
Rabbit season indeed.