"The Mighty Ducks" hews to its formula with such Zen purity it's amazing; indeed, that commitment to unoriginality is the most impressive thing about it.
They've been making this one since the mid-'70s, when they called it "The Bad News Bears." This time, they're making it about pee-wee hockey, with a listless subtext involving self-forgiveness and redemption. Yet, as machine-made as it surely is, somehow the thing isn't quite as bad as it should be.
Emilio Estevez was born for this role. He's got the natural smugness of a man who absolutely knows he'll never lose his hair. He plays an arrogant Minneapolis lawyer who was once a hockey prodigy, a passion he forfeited when, trying to pot a penalty shot, he unaccountably blew it. We are given to understand that he has secretly hated himself ever since.
Now it comes to pass that he's picked up on a driving-under-the-influence rap (guilty!) and as part of his plea bargain, must stand for 500 hours of community service, which in turn makes him the coach of the sorriest group of pee-wee hockey players this side of Haiti.
The mechanism of the comedy is simple inversion, as "Bad News Bears" so vividly pioneered. That is, when you see a cuddly clot of kids involved in athletic endeavors and their handsome young coach, a 30-year tradition of video prepares you for bromides about team play, self-effacement and commitment to discipline. Instead, you get savage hostility, attitude, hatred, envy, betrayal and deceit. The old bromides about team play, self-effacement and commitment to discipline come later.
The kids turn out to be the familiar rainbow-hued group of whiners, fatties, sensitivos and mama's boys. Estevez hates them, just as surely as they hate him. His idea of coaching is to sit in his limousine while they pig-pile on the ice. But the inevitable thaw sets in, -- and he ultimately commits to bringing them up to speed.
And the movie works a few interesting variations within the narrow range of the formula. For example, it's an intriguing touch that screenwriter Steven Brill comes up with which puts Estevez coaching against the coach whom he disappointed all those years ago, a heavy-handed, win-at-all costs macho tyrant played by Lane Smith, who specializes in such roles.
And the hockey itself is interesting; at least the kids hit it slowly enough so that you can follow the puck, something their NHL pals have never learned to do.
On the other hand, Brill loads the second half with gimmicks, gambits, treats and tricks; there's no sense of stillness, no room to take things in. One, two, three, Estevez falls in love with some kid's mother, a big kid joins the team who can shoot but can't skate, a figure skater joins the team, a ringer from the bad-news Hawks (the macho coach's team) joins the Ducks; it just doesn't stop happening.
And can the climax be in doubt? Was it in doubt when you saw the trailer on TV? Of course it wasn't. We're not talking movie, we're talking formula. But to complain because the formula is followed so religiously would be like complaining because they sell hamburgers at McDonald's.
'The Mighty Ducks'
Starring Emilio Estevez.
Directed by Stephen Hereck.
Released by Disney.