The Mighty Ducks (1992)
Dir. by Stephen Herek
Starring Emilio Estevez, Lane Smith and Joshua Jackson
A Minneapolis defense attorney, who’s successful but an arrogant asshole, is sentenced to community service coaching youth hockey following a DUI arrest. He is assigned to the worst team in the league, an underfunded squad without much in the way of talent or equipment. While he initially refuses to take the job or the team seriously, he starts to embrace both when he begins a rivalry with his old coach from when he was a youth player himself, who still blames him for blowing the shot that would have won the championship.
I was a typical science fiction nerd growing up, which means I didn’t really follow sports at all. As such, I wasn’t big on professional sports movies either. Rocky, Field of Dreams, Major League…couldn’t have cared less. However, for some reason I watched a lot of youth sports movies, and this one was my favorite. Maybe it was growing up in Detroit, a city that still bears the nickname “Hockeytown,” during the era of the Russian Five. Whatever it was, I probably watched this several dozen times between the ages of 10 and 16. It never made the jump to DVD in our house, though, so I haven’t seen it since I stopped watching VHS around 2004.
Sports movies, especially underdog ones, have a very defined formula. A new coach comes in, takes over a terrible team with untalented players, and suffers a few humiliating losses. He eventually rallies the players around him, and they end up improbably winning the big game at the end. If the movie’s a comedy, the players will often have bizarre and distinctive quirks to make them stand out, and which will usually factor into the team’s victory in some fashion.
The Mighty Ducks doesn’t really break that mold at all. It’s almost a remake of The Bad News Bears with the sport changed, the only major difference being that unlike the Bears, the Ducks actually win the final championship game. The movie still has the major theme of obsessive competitiveness being bad both for the kids and their coaches, though it does throw an extra narrative wrinkle into the mix by having the Ducks’ ultra-aggressive rival, the Hawks, be the childhood team of their new coach. It does seem to be a little bit of stretch, however, to imply that most of Coach Bombay’s personal problems stem from a single blown shot twenty years ago. Letting go of his old team and their win-at-all-cost attitude is Bombay’s main character arc, and while it’s a believable lesson to learn, hinging his entire character on a single experience was a bit much for me.
In fact, if you look a bit closer at the plot, the movie actually manages to undercut its own message. At the beginning of the movie, Bombay is seen in court, using dirt that he’s dug up about the presiding judge to get an objection against him overruled. It’s an underhanded tactic that leads to a victory, but gets him chewed out by both the prosecutor and his own boss. Later on, he’s shown to be using the same dirty tactics with the hockey team, teaching them how to cheat by taking falls instead of actually learning how to play.
If the lesson Bombay is supposed to learn is that having fun and coming together as a team is more important than winning, you’d expect him to change his tactics over the course of the movie. However, late in the film he informs the league that Hawks star player Adam Banks is living in an area that was redistricted, and is therefore ineligible to play for them. He does this without first approaching the Hawks or Banks’s family, using it as a gotcha tactic right before a game. This is exactly the same sort of dirty tactic that he was shown using as a lawyer earlier in the movie. Sure, this time it’s done to correct an injustice (to his team, at least – they should have had that player all along) rather than create one. But try telling that to Banks.
Overall, I actually find that I don’t have a whole lot to say about the movie. It’s a perfectly fine kids’ sports movie, with a nice performance from Emilio Estevez at the center. But it’s not much more than that.
-This movie kicked off a whole mini industry of sports movies with kid protagonists. Within two years you’d have Rookie of the Year, Little Big League, Little Giants and the Angels in the Outfield remake. I’d include The Sandlot as well, but that movie is both a period piece and more of a coming-of-age movie that just happens to involve baseball.
-Yes, this is the movie that inspired the original name of the Anaheim Ducks NHL franchise, which was added as an expansion team the year after the movie, and was originally owned by Disney.
-I grew up watching Lois & Clark on TV, so seeing the actor who played Perry White be so nasty here as the rival coach caused a fair bit of cognitive dissonance when I was young.
-I won’t be covering it, because I’ve only seen it once and have no nostalgia for it (and it’s not that good), but the third Mighty Ducks movie was actually filmed in part at my alma mater, Carleton College.