Extended Thoughts on ‘The Mighty Ducks’

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The Walt Disney Company places value in some of the strangest things, or so it seems sometimes. For example, they lavish attention on anything princess-related, but have had a long and checkered history of not catering to the young male audience in the same way. If you travel to a Disney theme park, there’s princess-related junk galore. If you go to a Disney Store, there’s princess toys and dresses up the wazoo. And it’s hard to avoid the various DVDs and Blu-rays that are aimed at little girls who want to be princesses or, in the case of the presumably successful Tinker Bell series of movies, fairies. But there’s not as much for boys.

Last summer, I discussed The Rocketeer for Mousterpiece Cinema and was pleased to see that my fond memories of the film as a child hadn’t waned. Unlike most movies with ardent fans fueled by nostalgia, The Rocketeer holds up as a fun throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s. Though it’s not the greatest live-action film from Walt Disney Pictures, The Rocketeer is enjoyable, entertaining, and thrilling. I bring it up now because on the episode where I discussed this 1991 gem, I bemoaned its bare-bones DVD release, which included the theatrical trailer and…well, that’s it. The widescreen transfer wasn’t even correct, appearing as standard-definition with the old letterbox format on a high-definition TV. By sheer coincidence, Disney chose to release a 20th-anniversary Blu-ray of the film in December that, while still devoid of special features, updated the widescreen transfer and is a beauty to watch.

However, the lack of marketing firepower that the Walt Disney Company has given The Rocketeer over the years makes a certain financial sense. This was a film that was touted as the big blockbuster of the summer of 1991. The company threw a lot of money into this film, but it sputtered against Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The movie became an obscure cult hit; even now, its fans aren’t exactly the masses. That it even got a Blu-ray release is something of a miracle.

What, then, do we make of The Mighty Ducks? After discussing this film on the latest episode of the show with Sound on Sight contributor Michael Ryan, I’m even more struck at how badly Disney has treated this film. There were three films in the Mighty Ducks franchise, and while none of them made anywhere close to $100 million at the domestic box office, they did well enough and were made cheaply enough; if not, why would there be three films at all? This series of films spawned an animated series, and an NHL team shares its name with the scrappy Pee Wee team from Minnesota. But you wouldn’t know it from the DVD release, which is just as bare-bones as that of The Rocketeer and features the same poor transfer.

Just like The Rocketeer, The Mighty Ducks is entertainment through and through. I wouldn’t place this as one of the crown jewels in the Walt Disney Pictures filmography, at least in terms of ambition. This is the opposite of ambitious, but it’s fun at the same time. Aping the style of other underdog sports movies, especially The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks follows Gordon Bombay, former Pee Wee hockey player and current bad-boy lawyer. Bombay gets pulled over for drinking and driving after winning a difficult case by being his usual ruthless self; his punishment is 500 hours of community services, which he performs as the coach of a terrible Pee Wee hockey team from the wrong side of the tracks. Eventually, he grows into a good coach and begins to love the game once again, while taking on the best team in the league, led by his former coach. Will the Ducks triumph over adversity? Will Gordon regain his confidence and become a better person? Will this paragraph end with a snarky question to fulfill the rule of threes?

Predictable though it may be, The Mighty Ducks is enjoyable, for the most part. It doesn’t have a lot of surprises in the story, written by Steven Brill, and the film isn’t directed with any surprise or panache. Stephen Herek, the film’s director, would prove reliable and competent enough to work on many of the big Disney live-action films of the 1990s, but nothing about his work behind the camera is remarkable. He may not have subscribed to the point-and-shoot style of filmmaking, but you wouldn’t find that evidence here. If anything, The Mighty Ducks is meat-and-potatoes filmmaking; nothing too special, but satisfying and filling.

This isn’t a perfect movie, though. Michael made a spirited defense on the show of an early chase scene that establishes a few of the Ducks players as being scrappy underdogs we should sympathize with, because while they pull a prank, they do so on a person who was willing to steal a random purse in the middle of the street. The prank itself didn’t bother me, but the ensuing chase did. In what may have been an homage to the Little Rascals, Herek shoots the chase in fast-motion photography. All in all, the scene lasts a minute, but it comes out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly. There are no other fast-motion scenes in the film, which actually made me sigh in relief. The first scene struck me as awkward and tone-deaf. Paying homage to a classic series of characters is all well and good, but the major flaw I found in The Mighty Ducks was a choppiness in tone.

Gordon Bombay’s struggle to become a better person may not be one of the truly dramatic character arcs of our lifetimes, but I was surprised to see the film focus so much on Bombay allowing himself to love hockey once again. Emilio Estevez, as Bombay, sells the frustration between wanting to ignore the past and not being able to let it go at the same time. Most of the performances here are passable, but Estevez is matched by Lane Smith, as the supercilious rival coach, and a young Joshua Jackson as Charlie, the Ducks’ great hope. Gordon sees Charlie as a new version of himself as a boy; though the script is perhaps a little heavy-handed in drawing the connection between these characters, Estevez and Jackson have a solid and confident rapport with each other.

Now, as I look forward to February and April, I also remain somewhat skeptical of the sequels. As I referenced on the episode, Michael isn’t the only person to be bullish about the next two Mighty Ducks movies being pretty damn good. My wife’s a huge fan of the series and was more than happy to watch the first film in the franchise with me. I’m still skeptical, though, that the series shouldn’t have just ended with the first film. Yes, the ending of The Mighty Ducks leaves the door open for a sequel. And sure, it wouldn’t take too much thinking to come up with a premise for a second or third film. But the subtle and unexpected charm of this movie may be difficult to replicate in a follow-up. I hope, as I said on the show, to be proven wrong. We’ll have to wait and see.

– Josh Spiegel

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