[Dan note: Apparently it's "You finally watched what?" week in the sports blog world. Just a coincidence, I assure you. In other news, I also need to Space Jam]
There was never a good reason to not watch The Mighty Ducks.
I wasn't ignoring it consciously out of movie snobbery, nor was it not available to me during its times of theater or home video release. It came out when I was a sophomore in high school, and scanning the list of movies that were released in 1992, I can remember seeing a ton of them which were better (Alien 3, Wayne's World, Passenger 57), worse (Mo' Money, School Ties, Stay Tuned, and Emilio Estevez's other movie that year, Freejack) and less memorable (Lethal Weapon 3, The Distinguished Gentleman).
With entertainment so pervasive and disposable even before we had every movie ever made streamed directly into our living rooms via video game consoles, it's easy for something to fall through the cracks. That's basically why it took me 22 years to see a beloved movie that spawned two sequels, a host of memorable characters and a bunch of recurring gags that involve my favorite sport. After its release on Netflix this week, I decided it was time to right a wrong I let fester for too long.
A recap, for the benefit of any other holdouts: Asshole lawyer Gordon Bombay is picked up on a DUI and gifted a sentence of community service by his boss who, for reasons he will forget about about 90 minutes later, wants him to learn the principles of fair play. As a kid, Gordon was a talented hockey player who failed to score on a penalty shot and cost his team a championship. To exorcise the demons of that loss, the cruel words of his even more asshole-ish coach and the death of his father, Gordon is assigned to coach a kids hockey team in his old league.
The kids, naturally, are an unorganized, untalented bunch of photogenic wiseacres who don't want their reluctant coach anymore than he wants them. But over time, they learn to trust and listen to each other, expand their own club of misfits and beat the evil coach and his evil team for the title. Oh, and Gordon hooks up with a player's mom.
As Gordon, Estevez is in full later Martin Sheen mode, right down to the immobile cascade of brown hair on his head. Never as menacing or edgy as his father, Estevez is believable as both the asshole lawyer and the well-meaning coach of a gang of moppets who are almost as tall as he is. After the expositionary first half, his main job is listening to someone, having an epiphany and delivering a rousing speech that encourages whoever needs encouraging at that moment.
The main target of this encouragement are the Ducks, the team made up of perfectly outfitted kid actors with signature schticks that in no way make them seem like actual people. Goldberg is the loudmouth goalie who is terrified of pucks. Peter is the tough-talking runt who wears six flannel shirts, two leather jackets and fingerless gloves at all times. And Averman is the requisite insufferable recent graduate of the Screech Powers School for Comic Unrelief. Only Charlie Conway, played by future Pacey Joshua Jackson, seems like a real kid. Maybe that's why Gordon and his mom hit it off so well.
In fairness, the world of The Mighty Ducks isn't supposed to be real. It's a world in which youth hockey leagues let kids play goalie without leg pads (I mean, Jesus Christ, even Georges Vezina had them), teams are allowed to remain nameless for half a season, gangs of children are taught to rollerblade inside of shopping malls and peewee hockey games have Bob Miller as their play-by-play announcer.
The Disney gloss covers every inch of The Mighty Ducks and without the nostalgic ties, it's difficult to divorce the movie from its corporate cookie cutter. It's formed from the same Totally Rad 1990's mold as Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, Hang Time and every single teen show currently produced by Nickelodeon and Disney itself. That coat of paint works for The Mighty Ducks, which is a pleasant enough sports fable, because we're so used it.
Unfortunately for The Mighty Ducks, I had recently watched another kids sports movie, in fact the undisputed king of all kids sports movies, Michael Ritchie's original The Bad News Bears. It's unfair to compare the two because they're really apples and oranges (or, pucks and baseballs).
But by sharing the same basic structure and many similar plot points to The Bad News Bears, it's easy to imagine Ducks as a version of the Bears script that had been funneled and strained through studio notes from the suits at Disney in an alternate universe. "Coach too gruff. Make him fall in love with a player's mom." "They need to win in the end." "Needs more pop songs."
The absence of all of that is what gives The Bad News Bears depth and emotions that The Mighty Ducks lacks.
The divide is most evident in the endings of both films. In The Mighty Ducks, our heroes win in a perfectly foreshadowed triumph of team and coach, Gordon gets the girl and a tryout with a minor league hockey team and vows, "we've got a title to defend." In contrast, the cynical Bad News Bears has the titular kids lose a torturous championship game to their hated rivals and angrily tell them to take their trophy and shove it up their ass before being showered by beer (um... it was 1976).
Bears is a movie for adults that just happened to star kids. Ducks is a movie for kids starring kids and it never lets you forget it.
Take the Shot
None of those differences make The Mighty Ducks a bad movie. It's well-crafted, audience-pleasing entertainment with a wholesome message. The characters are over-the-top but not embarrassing and the pace is brisk except for the scenes about Gordon and Mrs. Conway's forced courtship. The hockey games in particular are well-shot and don't skimp on speed and (amplified) hits.
Maybe if I had seen the movie 20 or so years ago, I'd feel differently. I saw it as harmless studio fluff. I didn't see it at an age when I could envision myself playing for the Ducks or being friends with their players. Watching it didn't fire my imagination the way it did a generation of kids who grew up on it.
On the other hand, I am one of the few people on Earth who enjoyed Alien 3.