D3: The Mighty Ducks
Directed by Robert Lieberman
Written by Steven Brill, Jim Burnstein, and Kenneth Johnson
Starring Emilio Estevez, Jeffrey Nordling, Joshua Jackson
The drum I will keep beating throughout the entirety of this podcast, throughout however many years the show runs for, the one you will beg me to stop harping on (though I never, ever will) is internal logic. I don’t care what kind of movie you’re making, I don’t care if the audience is meant to be 5 or 50: you need to have internal logic in your story. If not, the story falls apart. Even great movies that are implausible manage to make audiences forget those implausibilities while it’s taking place. But movies that don’t try to make audiences focus on what’s truly important, movies that don’t have internal logic and don’t care, are the ones I dislike most of all.
There is, to my eyes, very little logic inside of D3: The Mighty Ducks, the final film in the 1990s trilogy about a group of ragtag kids who band together to be the best darned hockey team in the whole world (or something like that). The second film’s twist was that the team played in a version of the Olympics; this movie’s twist is that it’s a snobs vs. slobs story done the Disney way. Inexplicably, the kids have all gotten scholarships to a fancy private school called Eden Hall, and are now the junior-varsity hockey team. Unfortunately, Gordon Bombay is no longer their coach so they’re stuck with a hardass who doesn’t seem to appreciate or even acknowledge the Ducks’ traditions. In many ways, Charlie Conway, the supposed heart and soul of the team, is adrift in this movie as soon as the opening credits finish. Bombay has gotten the kids the scholarships, but he’s otherwise almost entirely out of the story.
The problem regarding the logic isn’t that we have no strong adult character to anchor the film in reality—though it is a major failing. It’s that the movie seems to forget who the Mighty Ducks are. One of the many threads running through this film is that the new coach, Ted Orion, is a defense-heavy coach. He cares more about defending the net than scoring, it seems, and he tries to beat this mentality into his players’ heads. The Ducks don’t only rebel against Orion and his methods, but in doing so, they appear to become the worst team in existence, based on the few times we see them on the ice (about which more later). Their offense is, at first, so fearsome, the goalie can almost twiddle her thumbs and start making ice sculptures, she’s so bored. Their defense, though, is about as bad as you can get from a group of people who skate around the ice in a team formation.
Here’s the problem: we are in the third film of a trilogy about a hockey team. Yes, they’re a ragtag hockey team, but they’re a team that wins at the end of each movie in the series (spoiler alert, in case you’ve made it this far into the column and are unaware of how Disney movies operate). At no point are the Ducks overly dominant—at least not without being punished for it, as we see in one of only two game sequences in D3—but they are triumphant at the end of each film, and not in the way that Rocky Balboa, for example, is triumphant simply for trying at the end of Rocky. For them to be triumphant, even if they do so in creative and clever fashion, they have to have some modicum of talent. If the first Mighty Ducks movie dealt with the characters not being good on defense, I’d be cool with it. But the third movie? Give me a break.
One of the other big problems, which I hinted at above, is the lack of hockey action in this movie. There is arguably more time spent on such taxing subplots as “Will Charlie get to charm the demure brunette who hates Eden Hall and jocks?” and “Will director Robert Lieberman shoot Joss Ackland doing anything but sitting in an easy chair and listening to the radio?” If not more time, it’s equal time. We see the Ducks practicing, but I’d rather see them playing instead of arguing with each other at practice. You could make an argument that this is intentional, as the kids on the team are literally going through growing pains. And Charlie, who’s basically the main character of the film, is having the toughest time of all. Bombay abandons him—it’s not intentional, of course, but as much as Charlie feels that loss, so does the audience—he’s at an unfamiliar school, and his new coach strips him of his captain status based on his immaturity and poor playing.
Putting the characters through the ringer isn’t a bad idea. Neither is putting these lower-class kids in an upper-class environment. Neither is the kids having to deal with a new coach. Some of these ideas make sense in the film, but they never go beyond feeling half-baked. For example, that scholarship. Bombay went to Eden Hall as a kid, which is how, I assume, he gets the Ducks players to go there for free. The kids, again, come from areas with less riches, so going for free is the viable option. But as soon as we learn that they get the scholarships, we see Charlie railing against having to go to the school at all. This leads me to ask an important, unasked question: why are these kids at this school? If they don’t want to go there, why don’t they go to a public school? We’re never given any insight into why their parents—and aside from Charlie’s mom, back from the dead zone known as the second movie, we see none of them—would switch their kids, en masse, to this private school.
Again, internal logic. These are, you may say, nitpicky questions. They’re small questions, which is why they should be so easy to answer within the movie. I don’t need to ask these questions, because there’s no reason they should exist. The opening credits are coupled with flashbacks to the previous films as well as a voiceover from Emilio Estevez introducing us to the concept of the Ducks at Eden Hall. It is nothing if not incredibly artless and rushed, but at least it tries to set something up. As soon as we get that setup, we’re thrown into the middle of the story, with no connective tissue. The same problem crops up with Coach Orion. As played by Jeffrey Nordling, Orion’s a hardass but not some mustache-twirling villain. Nordling, like Estevez, tries his best to stand above the fray of silliness surrounding him.
And yet, because we are being put into Charlie’s mindset throughout the film, we’re meant to demonize Orion. Now, of course Michael and I both know that Orion’s not a bad guy, but the presumed target audience–young boys–are meant to come around on Orion around the same time that Charlie does. After his and Gordon’s mentor, Hans, dies midway through the story, Gordon comes back to town to set Charlie straight after the boy basically quits the team and school because it’s too hard to work for what he thought he’d gained in the past. Gordon shows Charlie that Orion can’t be a bad guy, because, look, he’s playing on the ice rink with his paraplegic daughter, who he cares for so deeply, he gave up a career in the NHL! See? That’s a good guy.
But here’s the thing: we go from the Ducks rebelling to, suddenly, the Ducks and Coach Orion being on the same page. It’s as if there were 15 minutes cut out of the movie wherein we get more sketching in for how the Ducks–not just Charlie–grow to respect and even like their new coach. What I imagine we’re meant to assume is that, after Charlie realizes his new coach is a human being with a life and feelings and all that crazy stuff, the Ducks fall in line behind their leader once he retakes his spot on the team. Michael made similar arguments, I think, to other aspects of the story. These arguments, to me, presuppose that the script was written with a level of deep thought I don’t find present in what’s on screen. Is it possible that we’re meant to think this? Sure. But what we are given is a connect-the-dots puzzle where you’re just supposed to assume that, yes, of course D comes after C, even if C isn’t in the puzzle. Where else would it go?
So, at the end of the trilogy, I know I prefer D3 least of all. Whatever heart is present in the original got minimized through the second film and isn’t even present here. There are shameless attempts to wring tears from Han’s death and Charlie’s troubles at school and at home, but I don’t buy any of it. There’s a way to manipulate my emotions without making it obvious that you are doing precisely that. The people behind D3 can’t find that balance, and they can’t find any clear way to make this movie accessible to hockey fans like Michael or underdog-movie fanatics.