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MMYIF: The Mighty Ducks

My Misspent Youth In Films...

The Mighty Ducks
Directed by: Stephen Hereck
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Joss Ackland, Lane Smith
Released: October 2, 1992

A self-centered Minnesota lawyer is sentenced to community service coaching a rag tag youth hockey team.

What I Thought Then

This was our sports movie. We didn't do Rudy or The Sandlot or The Bad News Bears or Little Giants. We did The Mighty Ducks and its sequels. Also, when this movie came out people told me that Averman was basically my twin, which caused me to do a little soul-searching.

What I Think Now

Some of these re-watches are a surprisingly rewarding, and some are so awkward that you have to pause halfway through and take a break. This was one of the latter.

Let's start by saying something nice. The kids are good actors. (Oh, hey, Elden Hensen is in this! And so is... Jussie Smollet...) The hockey is well-shot. I can't tell if it's a good hockey portrayal, but it's at least recognizable as the sport it's portraying. It's got good pacing, which is important since it's over 90 minutes and is made for children. It hits all the beats of an underdog sports story correctly, including the part where they recruit a couple of ringers to help get them to the championship but then both of them are benched during the final game just to prove that the team got there on their own. There's an amusing--if sophomoric--homage to A Christmas Story in the first act that revolves around a dog-poop joke. And there's some genuinely good dialog. "Ducks don't even have teeth!" / "Neither do hockey players." Or "You're not even a has-been, you're a never-was." I'll also say that I like the way the prologue is shot, the flashback of Gordon as a child losing The Big Game™. The stylistic choices amuse me, from the soft focus and shallow depth of field to the action 80s synth score with those huge gated snare hits, to the stutter-frame camera work. It's a choice, and I admire that they just went for it.

But man, overall the movie didn't work for me. And the biggest problem is that Emilio Estevez just isn't much of an actor. There's a reason his career fizzled after he aged out of the Brat Pack. This franchise was the thing that kept him afloat for years (and lemme tell ya, going back to watch The Breakfast Club when you were raised on The Mighty Ducks is a weird bit of cognitive dissonance). Every line is spoken with complete earnestness and a knowing smirk, even when he's just saying the subtext out loud. When you have a flat character on the page, you're relying on the actor to impart some humanity, and Estevez just isn't up to the task. And make no mistake, Gordon Bombay is a flat, boring character as written. There's some token backstory about a dead father and how he used to love hockey until he learned how to be an asshole from his coach (played by the inimitable Lane Smith) and when he lost The Big Game™ he gave up on hockey and decided to carry assholery forward. But you never get the feeling that his character has an internal life apart from whatever's necessary to advance to the next plot beat. Why is he a reckless drinker in the first act? Because he needs to be in order to get court-ordered community service. Why does he hate kids? Because he's going to have to start liking them for his character arc to work. Why does he fall in love with Charlie's mom? ...I honestly have no idea why he falls in love with Charlie's mom. Not that it matters, since she'll be out of the picture for the sequel so he can strike up a new relationship with... [checks notes] the daughter from What About Bob?

And really, that whole not-quite-convincing-enough-for-a-Hallmark-movie romance subplot is what makes this film fall apart the most. Because it serves as a proxy for Gordon's relationship with Charlie, which is emblematic of his relationship with this entire team, which is all well and good in theory, but in practice you get Joshua Jackson telling a grown man to "go for it" with his mom and it's about as weird as you're imagining right now. Not that everything apart from the romance works. There's a subplot about Gordon poaching a player from another team that's supposed to feel triumphant but mostly just comes across as mean and ultimately results in Gordon being fired. But don't worry, his driver (M.C. Gainey of all people) sticks around. There are cameos from real-life hockey players that I'm pretty sure are only there to make Estevez's acting look better. I think my favorite "wait, wut?" moment comes after a rousing pep talk about how they can win, which is immediately followed by a perfunctory "Oh, and have fun out there" because the writers remembered the theme of the movie at the last minute.

In terms of things that have or have not aged well... I mean, it's a reasonably diverse movie. It seems District 5 has a sizeable Jewish enclave, I guess? Although there's a running joke about the two black kids and one white kid in the middle being the "Oreo line" which is not a joke that I think you'd make in a Disney film in the year of our lord 2021. Also, I'm pretty sure this film pioneered the use of the phrase "Cake-eater" to as a softer version of "Cracker" so I don't even know what to think.

Recommendation?

Pass. I hear there's a new Disney+ series based on it, so maybe give that one a pass as well.

Tune in next week to close out the year with the film that pissed off Robin Williams...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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