The following article was original posted to Talkbacker on June 11, 2014. It's now being reposted here at The Supernaughts in honour of tonight's opening of the 2015–16 NHL season. Enjoy!
Each edition of Rink Reviews will present a film that features ice hockey predominantly, either as a major plot device or constant surrounding presence. Along with an overview of the main events and assorted background information, each film will be critiqued and scored on the basis of its entertainment value and overall depiction of the greatest sport on earth.
THE MIGHTY DUCKS (1992)
I started this series with quite easily the best hockey film, at least to my knowledge, but now I’m going to change direction slightly to take a look at the first hockey film I watched, The Mighty Ducks. It’s very likely that I’m not alone in that regard as The Mighty Ducks quickly became the highest grossing hockey movie of all time back in 1992, a claim it held for nearly twelve years. To this day it’s still the most popular hockey movie among the general public and it has arguably had a greater impact on the sport of hockey than any other film for any sport.
If you were a kid in the early 90’s, in Canada especially, The Mighty Ducks was huge. Every kid who liked hockey loved it and kids that weren’t hockey fans quickly changed their tune upon watching it. It was a fun, entertaining film that delivered comedy, drama, and plenty of hockey action. It even spawned two sequels and a short-lived cartoon series. But how well does The Mighty Ducks hold up today to the scrutiny of an adult fan of the game?
The Mighty Ducks opens with a flashback sequence where a young boy named Gordon Bombay is awarded a penalty shot in the dying seconds of the Peewee State Championship. He’s told by his coach, Jack Reilly, that he can win the game with this shot or miss and let everyone down. Bombay then proceeds to take the shot, under immense pressure, and rings it off the goalpost, a near miss that prompts displeasure from both Coach Reilly and himself while the opposing team celebrates.
The movie then shifts forward to Bombay the lawyer, a sarcastic jerk who’s all grown up and focused on winning above all else. After successfully defending a client only to be chastised by his boss, Mr. Ducksworth, for embarrassing the judge, Bombay is arrested for DUI. His license is suspended, he receives a leave of absence from work, and he’s sentenced to 500 hours of community service coaching Peewee hockey, a sport he now hates.
That’s the basic setup and from there we get the more or less straightforward story of a coach making winners out of a bunch of misfit losers. The kids on the team Bombay’s assigned to, initially known only as District 5, really are terrible, but he manages to eventually create a respectable opponent for the Hawks, his former team and reigning state champions, still under control of Coach Reilly. Bombay improves the team that becomes the Ducks through the usual combination of practice, teamwork, useful player additions (including transfer of the best player on the Hawks, Adam Banks, to the Ducks), and new financial resources, with plenty of miscues and soul searching along the way. That leads to a predictable conclusion in which the Ducks become champions and Bombay becomes a better person while reigniting his love for hockey.
The overall structure of the The Mighty Ducks isn’t particularly new or different, nor does it take any chances. It’s all a rather paint by numbers affair that goes through the typical sports film tropes in a family friendly manner. The screenplay by Steven Brill (Ready to Rumble, Little Nicky) was heavily influenced by The Bad News Bears and when Disney purchased the script it was softened slightly, so that explains much of the familiar look and feel. Nevertheless, it’s not really a bad script, just cliche and predictable for the most part, like many sports films. The story itself is still a strong one, especially when the focus stays on Bombay.
The story of Bombay is an interesting one because it highlights something child athletes run into quite often; overzealous coaches and their win at all costs mentality. They don’t often leave scars as deep as insane, pushy parents that try to make their kids succeed where they failed do, but it’s still not uncommon, especially when in combination with other factors. Bombay gave up on hockey as a kid mostly due to the death of his father, but having Coach Reilly pressure and scrutinize him at every turn certainly made that decision easier. The lasting effect of this treatment created Bombay the win obsessed lawyer and his personal arc of growth through confrontation is well conceived.
A big part of why Bombay’s journey works lies in his portrayal by Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, Young Guns). He’s excellent, particularly in the early going when Bombay is still a jerk and growing more and more frustrated with his predicament. Estevez may not be the greatest actor, but he has an undeniable presence on screen that I’ve always enjoyed. His attitude fits the role perfectly and I can’t imagine someone else giving it the same combination of indifference and confidence.
However, it’s the flashback sequences that are the main reason why I think it’s so easy to buy into Bombay’s story. The direction from Stephen Herek (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland’s Opus) may be rudimentary here in most regards, but he really nails the flashbacks, making them the best part of the movie.
The first flashback, Bombay’s missed shot from the beginning, is exquisitely crafted, right from the opening credits being accompanied by the slowly increasing tempo of atmospheric 80’s style new wave to the shot of Bombay slumped on the ice, exhaling cold, defeated breath. The build up of this scene is further amplified by the fading in and out of the radio announcer’s play-by-play. It’s an awesome start to the movie that’s revisited on a few occasions.
The second flashback is much simpler but equally powerful and quite different, showcasing Bombay’s old love for hockey while skating on a pond with his father. The importance of this flashback is that until now the film has solely been about winning or losing, success or failure. Here we get a glimpse at pure enjoyment of the sport and the bond it can help create between father and son. This pushes the film forward in a new direction.
Another unique quality to the flashbacks is their presentation. The missed shot flashback is framed with a vignette and uses soft focus blur stylization, giving it an uneasy, almost nightmarish quality. In comparison, the father-son flashback has sepia toned filtering to present it as a warmer, comforting dream. That’s a nice touch. Also, both flashbacks foreshadow events in the present; the film’s ending plays out in direct contrast to the opening flashback, while the father-son flashback precedes Bombay becoming a father figure for one Ducks player, Charlie Conway.
Charlie is played by Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek, Fringe), who does a fine job in his first role of any real significance. He’s at his best when interacting with Estevez and it’s easy to see he has a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rest of the young cast members. OK, that’s not entirely true. Elden Henson (Idle Hands, The Butterfly Effect) is great as Fulton Reed, the big kid with a killer slap shot that can barely skate and becomes the team’s enforcer by default. Then there’s Marguerite Moreau (Wet Hot American Summer, Queen of the Damned) as Connie, initially the team’s only female player. Her role is limited, but she makes the most of it to become the girl every pre-teen boy wanted. However, everyone else varies from unmemorable to downright annoying.
On the annoying side you have Goldberg, the Ducks’ weakest link. He’s a goaltender who’s afraid of stopping the puck and the fact that this character is a fan favourite blows my mind. He’s joined by Averman, who constantly spouts lame nicknames for the other players, Peter, who looks like he stumbled off a Broadway production of Annie, and Karp, an all-around irritating little snot.
As for the adult cast members, they all provide commendable performances, with the lone highlight besides Estevez being Lane Smith (The Final Days, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) as Coach Reilly. He’s cocky as hell throughout and does a damn good job of portraying a coach that only cares about winning. I also love his sly line delivery for indirect insults.
Back to problems with The Mighty Ducks, everything tends to fall flat on its face whenever the kids are on screen by themselves, especially away from the ice. It doesn’t even feel like the same movie when the kids are pulling lame pranks, misbehaving at school, or finding boxes of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition magazines. Thankfully these scenes are few and far between, seemingly added solely as fan service for the younger audience.
The biggest non-hockey related issue with the film is the romantic sub-plot between Bombay and Charlie’s mom, Casey. It serves absolutely no purpose and the chemistry between Bombay and Casey is laughable at best. Then there’s also the fact that Charlie appears to be pimping his mom to Bombay at every turn in cringe worthy fashion. The father figure sub-plot was all that was needed here and tacking this onto it was a poor decision.
Now to discuss the actual hockey that’s on display. It’s 90’s era minor hockey that I’m very familiar with having played it actively myself during that time at that age. From a technical standpoint it’s awful for a number of reasons, the first of which is that there is no way in hell the District 5 team would have been permitted to play with the equipment they had in the beginning. Goldberg didn’t have goalie equipment, some players had on football or bicycle helmets, and practically none of the players had facial protection or shin pads. The financial disparity between teams in the same minor hockey association is questionable as well. District 5 would have at least had some form of sponsorship on par with the other teams or they wouldn’t have been in the same division.
Speaking of the division, I don’t know what skill level of Peewee hockey this division was supposed to represent, but it doesn’t do a good job regardless. The Hawks are vastly superior to every other team in the league, which just isn’t realistic for a league that competes for a Minnesota State Championship. District 5 starts at the bottom of the barrel and by the end, as the Ducks, they’re still not very good. The Hawks have to be dumbed down slightly for the Ducks to even stand a chance. It doesn’t help that Goldberg is worse than any goalie I ever faced at the Peewee level, even after his supposed improvement.
The rules of hockey aren’t followed too closely either. Numerous blatant cross-checking, roughing, and interference penalties go uncalled, which is a bigger issue here than it would be with an adult hockey movie as referees wouldn’t stand for such disregard of the rules at this level. Then you have rules that are adhered to, but incorrectly, such as the minor penalty call on a Hawks player that deliberately injures Banks to take him out of the game (Banks scores on the play, so the correct call had to either be a major penalty or no penalty at all) or the referee telling Bombay he can choose any player on the ice for a penalty shot (incorrect) and then allows Charlie to take the shot while not wearing a helmet (illegal).
You also have the “gimmicks”, such as Reed’s shot being so powerful it blasts the goalie into the net and using figure skating moves to distract the opponent. Those go too far into silly territory for me. Others, such as the “Flying V”, “Triple Deke”, and fake shot play, work much better because they’re not just silly entertainment, they’re somewhat legitimate tactics.
The Mighty Ducks doesn’t get much right when it comes to the actual hockey games (there are even a few awful editing mistakes with players being simultaneously on the ice and the bench), but it is mostly entertaining. It’s action packed, rough at times, and fun. However, it does handle other aspects of hockey much better. The practice and trainings sessions are well-conceived and I really liked it when Goldberg was tied to the net and blasted with pucks. That has actually happened before, most famously when Eddie Shore coached in Springfield and tied goalies to the crossbar by their neck to keep them standing upright. Yikes.
It was also a nice touch when Bombay rewarded the Ducks with a trip to see the Minnesota North Stars in action, a real NHL team at the time (they soon moved to Dallas, but it wasn’t long until Minnesota got a new team). There was even a short scene with real NHLers Mike Modano and Basil McRae that tied McRae into Bombay’s fictional childhood. Another nice touch.
One last thing I have to mention before wrapping this up is the nickname for a Ducks line; the Oreo Line. It’s first used by one Hawks player to taunt the Ducks’ line consisting of Germaine, a white kid, centering two black kids on the wings, the Hall brothers. Yeah, it’s a tad racist, but still funny and the Ducks actually embrace the moniker going forward, which is a solid way to handle it. Just thought that was worth mentioning as I don’t think you’ll see a remark like that in any upcoming Disney family films.
Based on the sum of its parts, The Mighty Ducks isn’t a great film. However, I will contend it’s a good one. Critics have largely dismissed it due to the formulaic screenplay and mediocre acting, even though criticism such as that can be levied against almost any family film. The important thing is that it’s still fun and entertaining while providing some valuable life lessons along the way. Sure, it’s annoying at times, in more ways than one, but overall the good narrowly outweighs the bad.
The Mighty Ducks became a huge hit and created a legacy in hockey that remains to this day. It soon became a trilogy and both sequels (to be covered separately in this series at a later date) received theatrical runs, somewhat of a rarity for live action family comedies and sports films. The series has legions of fans, it helped create plenty of hockey fans, and it even factored into The Walt Disney Company purchasing the rights to an NHL franchise in Anaheim. That team was baptised as The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993 thanks to the success of the film and it has remained in the NHL ever since.
In 2005, Disney sold the franchise, but kept the rights to the Mighty Ducks name. Thus the team was renamed to simply Anaheim Ducks, which is strangely fitting considering the team in the movie was officially known only as Ducks also and the word “mighty” was uttered just once. Maybe that’s why Anaheim didn’t win its first Stanley Cup until 2007. Only the legendary Gordon Bombay knows for sure.
Depiction of hockey
Next time on Rink Reviews: Youngblood