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D3: The Mighty Ducks (1996) - Does it hold up?

I know I said I wasn’t gonna do it, but the peer pressure got to me!

The poster for D3: The Mighty Ducks

Where to start with this movie? Let’s go with: this film was not as bad as I remember it.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s good, either.

If I had to describe it in one sentence, I’d say it was a weak concept, pushed forward despite missing and unmotivated stars, and was not well-executed. But that is far from telling the whole story, so let’s dig into it a bit deeper.

Weak concept

The first Mighty Ducks movie was an underdog tale about a team of misfits with no money and bad attitudes against a team of bigger kids who were willing to play dirty. The second Mighty Ducks movie was a tale of bad attitudes, over-confidence, and an inability to get along with each other that could have prevented them from beating their enemies, a powerhouse Iceland hockey team of bigger kids who were willing to play dirty. The third movie is about a bunch of teenagers with bad attitudes, whining because they don’t want things to change, and their opponent is... the varsity team of bigger kids who were willing to play dirty.

Are you sensing a pattern?

Now the first movie works because it’s the first movie. The second movie works because it upped the stakes - they went from their peewee league to a worldwide competition and became concerned about their futures. The third movie inexplicably lowers the stakes. And the worst part is that they had an element in the movie that could have easily kept those stakes high (more on that later.) With the lowered stakes, the increased teenage angst felt entirely out of place.

Missing stars

As I noted in last week’s review, one of the improvements going from the first to the second film was the ditching of the unremarkable characters combined with the addition of several new ones who were far more interesting. This movie removed several characters without adding any new allies to the team. Emilio Estevez may get top billing in this film, but he’s only around for about 20 minutes of the runtime to do expositional things and serve as a deus ex machina. Jesse Hall, one of the original Ducks who made it through the second film, was not included in this movie. And Dean Portman (Aaron Lohr) is only present at the beginning of the film to accept the scholarship with everyone else and at the end of the film to check a couple of guys before getting put in the penalty box.

I don’t know how much the movie suffered without them, but the movie seemed to suffer from a lack of energy among the cast members who remained. Joshua Jackson, who played Charlie Conway, admitted in interviews that he didn’t want to do this movie and used his frustration at playing another “kid role” to fuel his character’s anger in the film. It’s not hard to imagine that some of the other actors were ready to move on to other things as well. Even the writer of the first two films was ready to move on. They had to add two more writers to complete the script which surely didn’t help keep the writing tight or coherent. Combine a weak concept with a bunch of creators who don’t seem like they want to be there and you’re going to get a film that lacks the ability to get a lot of audience members invested.

Executed poorly

Now is where we come back to how they could have made even the film they had significantly better with only small changes. Eden Hall, the private high school the Ducks all earn a scholarship to, is both a hockey and academic powerhouse. This is a massive opportunity for those kids. Especially because most of them, as we saw in the first film, wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend it on their own. That means those scholarships should be a huge deal. In the end, only one of the Ducks - Russ Tyler (Kenan Thompson) - expresses any dismay at the thought of losing his scholarship right up until the dean announces that they’re going to have their scholarships revoked for their poor play. At that point, everyone is upset. But it seems like none of them are concerned with losing their educational and athletic opportunities. They don’t even seem afraid they might get separated from each other. They seem to be upset because the script says they are upset now.

This is further compounded by the fact that the school foolishly handed out scholarship awards with terms that would not allow them to withdraw the scholarships without “cause” so their attempt to remove the kids’ scholarships was entirely pointless and doomed to failure. Any halfway-decent lawyer would have been able to fight that in court. The movie tries to get us excited by having Bombay be that halfway-decent lawyer, but the whole thing was so brain dead that all I could think about was that it was hard to imagine he’s still got a valid license to practice law in Minnesota.

The movie could have killed several birds with one stone by having the scholarships tied to the team performance (so that they could legally revoke them) and indicating that if they lost the Junior Varsity-Varsity matchup at the end of the semester, they would get kicked out. Then, instead of having Bombay whisk in and solve everything the day after realizing there’s a problem, they would have had some impetus to improve, the stakes would have been much higher when they played the Varsity team, and there would have been more than a few days to get their act together. Instead, we got a pointless B-story solved by a character who is barely in the movie minutes after it appears in a way that makes you wonder why they didn’t just cut the whole thing.

They did try to mix things up a bit by having Charlie and his coach, Coach Orion (Jeffrey Nordling,) butt heads from the start instead of waiting until the movie’s final act. The conflict, unfortunately, requires that Charlie act selfishly and childishly (two things that had never been flaws of his before) and that Coach Orion pull what, some time after this movie was made, would be called a Severus Snape: “I acted like a monster because I was trying to help you! Even though no real person acts that way and it made it impossible for you to trust me!”

He throws a hockey puck so hard early in the movie after the team - and especially Charlie - ignores his coaching that it puts a giant hole in a bulletin board. Violence by adults toward kids - and there were several in his way when he wound up to throw that puck - is never going to sit well with me, no matter how “realistic” it might be. And, yeah, I had a coach that grabbed me by the collar, shoved me into the fence, and screamed into my face when I was a kid. So, yeah, I know real coaches get really angry and get violent with their kids. However, unless you’re going to flatly condemn that kind of behavior, I don’t think it belongs in a movie.

The conflict between the two also completely falls apart at the end of the second act.

Charlie quits the team in a fit of teenage rage. Bombay appears and shows Charlie that Orion has a daughter who was paralyzed by a car wreck as a child which causes Charlie to have sympathy for the man, And sure, that sucks for him, but it doesn’t really justify his attitude problem prior to this point.

He also tells him, “I told Coach Orion that you two had a lot to learn from each other!” Coach Orion wanted Charlie to learn defense - something he’d probably need if he was going to successfully advance his hockey career past high school JV - but it’s unclear what Charlie could or might have taught Coach Orion. The movie hints that Bombay and Hans (Joss Ackland) thought Charlie could teach Orion to have fun again, but Charlie doesn’t teach him anything.

Instead, after Charlie apologizes to the coach and asks to come back on the team, his entire demeanor changes. He becomes a fun and friendly coach all on his own. You might try to argue that he had a change of heart because of Charlie’s apology and improved behavior. But I would remind you that he came into the story with a chip on his shoulder before Charlie or anyone else had had a chance to do anything wrong.

Pranks are a staple of the series, and the pranks in this movie fall short of those in D2 but are better than those in Mighty Ducks. Unlike the first film, the pranks in this movie at least have a purpose behind impossibly screwing with a random dude no one will ever see again. But the pranks lack the good-nature that was present in the second movie. Without that, they weren’t very funny and left me wondering where the line would be drawn and how many people would be hurt or expelled for the juvenile shenanigans.

Except for when Wayne rode down the Biff Tanner-wannabe and hogtied him. That was pretty funny. “Guys! Help! They’ve got horses!!!!”

Another aspect of this movie that seemed to lack energy to the film’s detriment was the score. I know I complained about the overuse of Queen hits in the first two flicks, but the original score for both films added both tension and elation in spades at the appropriate moments. Neither of those films is half so good with a score that is even 80% of the quality that we ended up with; I suspect it’s a reason for a lot of the nostalgia.

The romances were weird and awkward. Luis Medoza (Mike Vitar) becomes obsessed with a varsity cheerleader to whom he shares only a single sentence and finds himself making out with her at the end of the film. Julie Gaffney (Colombe Jacobsen-Derstine) gets a peck on the cheek from the opposing goalie despite only sharing a fraction of a scene earlier in the movie and being mortal enemies the rest of the time. Finally, Charlie falls for a girl who has no interest in him or hockey - the only two things he does care about. There’s no reason for him to decide he likes her except that she’s attractive, but he still puts on a full-court press in an attempt to woo her and it works, for some reason.

There were two aspects of this film that absolutely would not fly today. The first one involves Luis; I missed the setup, but at some point, he finds himself crawling under a lunch table at which the entire cheer squad - in their short uniform skirts - are sitting. After crawling for a bit he seems to realize where he is, turns to the camera, and winks. That might be authentic high schooler behavior but it doesn’t deserve to be glorified in that way and I think most studios would balk at including it now even though it was regular fare in the 90s.

The other thing that absolutely would not happen now is the use of Native American iconography in the team mascot. The Eden Hall teams are called the Warriors at the beginning of the film, and their logo is reminiscent of the one the Washington Football Club had before they were finally pressured into changing their name. And, just in case you thought the push to stop appropriating Native Americans as mascots started only recently, we find out the team name because Charlie’s love interest is seeking petition signatures to change the name because it’s offensive. In the end, the team name is changed to the Ducks per Charlie’s bet with the varsity captain and the apparently all-powerful hand of Coach Bombay. But they never would have used that logo in the first place if the movie was made now. Honestly, the movie would have been better if the team had been called the Eden Hall Hawks. It’s an inoffensive mascot but would have struck an ugly chord in all of the Ducks and helped justify their reluctance to let go of their Duck name and adopt their future.

The first movie’s moral was something like work hard, play by the rules, and win. The second movie’s moral was to play for pride instead of money. This film’s moral was... refuse to let go of your childhood team name and your hardass high school coach will eventually give in. Also, we now have three movies worth of evidence that none of these kids can play worth crap unless they’re together and wearing Ducks jerseys. I hope when they became adults the Anaheim Mighty Ducks drafted them all.

Does the movie hold up? I guess. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t stand up next to the second film and it borrows too many moments and too much nostalgia from both of the earlier flicks. The sheer amount of borrowing sits right on the line between homage and plagiarism and highlights just how much of a cash grab this film was. I’ll never be one to complain about actors, directors, writers, and everyone else who works on a movie getting paid. I just prefer it when they get paid to make a movie that exists because there was a story worth telling instead of some producer deciding the name still had enough juice to squeeze something out of it if they slapped it on some half-hearted effort.