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The Mighty Ducks was a bona fide hit for Disney when it was released in 1992. Against the backdrop of a Minneapolis winter, the movie follows a hardscrabble junior ice hockey team made up of kids with few skills, patchy equipment and paltry dreams.
Losers, at least on the rink, their fate falls into the hands of has-been hockey star Gordon Bombay, played by Emilio Estevez with impressive flair. That suit! That fringe! Bombay is a seemingly fearless attorney on a winning streak who ruthlessly scorns lesser colleagues and boasts that he remains undefeated.
But his Wall Street ethos, blazoned on the number plate of his Corvette as JUSTWIN, is reframed when he’s busted on a drink-driving charge and has to reckon with his past as a talented player who failed to launch. After he becomes the Ducks’ coach, his challenge is how to get these pesky kids to trust a rich guy who rides about town in a limousine.
First, though, he must forgive himself for flubbing a penalty shot in his youth, a shift that becomes a humane antidote to the victory-at-all-costs mantra pervasive in the league. Reilly (Lane Smith) is a worthy antagonist as the coach of rival team the Hawks, scheming and threatening his players with a villainous snarl: “If you blow this game, no one makes the team next year.” When the two coaches lock heads in the playoffs, the stakes feel high, David against Goliath.
The standard line on the movie, both at the time of its release and in the almost three decades since, has been to see it as a story about underdogs who succeed against the odds. But it’s also very much about absent fathers. Coach Bombay’s father died in the months before he lost the championship, and his bones insist the two things are connected. Without his father, he could never navigate the trials and pressures of a pro sports career. Instead, he became a barking lawyer, intent on burying his failure.
Charlie Conway, played by a mop-haired Joshua Jackson, is also without a father, and looks to his coach as a potential replacement. He longs for a romance between Bombay and his mother, Casey (Heidi Kling), who supports the family as a waitress. But she has struggled in the bowels of dating hell for so long that during a tense first date, she lets him know her doubts. “There’s a little kid back home who’s absolutely falling in love with his coach. Charlie’s going to be there when we get back, and tomorrow, and 10 years from now.”
With the coach becoming a serious suitor for Charlie’s mother, there is a convergence between the fate of the Ducks and the presence of a father figure. If a family can be reimagined, and remade, then so can the hockey team. Their fortunes will be reversed but only with the promise of a new home life for Charlie. No pressure, coach, but not only do we need you to shape a championship team – pack your bags, you’re moving in with us too.
The Mighty Ducks spurred a franchise that included two sequels and an animated series. A live-action television reboot is also in the works, with filming currently on hiatus because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The original proved to be a star vehicle for Estevez, who is set to reprise his role as coach Bombay in the new show.
One of the many charms of this cosy sports-comedy is hearing children hurl insults like “cake-eater” and “wuss-breath” at each other while trying not to trip on the ice. And despite a few heavy-handed flashbacks, replete with slow-motion gloss, it holds up well in our contemporary moment. The story of diverse working-class kids triumphing over adversity, and sticking it to their more privileged neighbours, resonates strongly with the current conversation about marginalised voices in Hollywood.
Because this is a Disney movie, there’s also a clear moral, and it suggests that the only obstacle to kicking some Hawk butt and winning the trophy is hard work and a handsome coach. It’s a neat fiction, but one that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
• The Mighty Ducks is streaming now on Disney+
Source: The Guardian
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