One woman and one man can make a baby, but, as we all know, life is complicated: Those two people sometimes don’t, or won’t, or simply lack the experience and wisdom, to become every kind of role model a child needs to grow into healthy and happy adulthood. Not to be cliché, but it really does take a village. Kids need, in addition to or in place of their own parents, ministers, rabbis, scout leaders, teachers, aunts, uncles, and coaches. There’s nothing quite so noble as becoming the selfless grown-up who shows up in a child’s life just when he or she needs one.
“The Mighty Ducks” is a heartwarming, fun movie full of laughs, guffaws, and physical comedy “D’oh!”s, but what gives this movie its signature Disney family quality is the “it takes a village” theme that runs throughout: Kids sometimes find father figures in unexpected places; any man with enough heart and generosity can step up to that plate. In this case, a reluctant hockey coach fits that bill for a motley bunch of kids with no self-confidence.
The setup for “The Mighty Ducks” is this: Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez), a high-powered lawyer with a chip on his shoulder, is sentenced to coach a peewee hockey team from the wrong side of the tracks as a community service assignment related to a drunken driving arrest. With his driver’s license revoked, Bombay arrives at his first practice in a limousine. This isn’t the most prudent choice, and the feisty kids who make up Bombay’s team waste no time letting him know just how unimpressed they are with his business suit, overcoat, chauffeur, and self-indulgent attitude: They think he’s a total weenie and take to calling him “cake-eater.” From day one, Bombay is put in his place.
We learn what makes this all hit particularly close to home for Bombay, however: As a child, he himself was a star hockey player for the Hawks, the area’s best team — which happens to be the chief rival of the crummy team he now finds himself coaching. Well, guess what? The same coach from Bombay’s own youth is still coaching that top-ranked team. We discover that a number of things happened to Bombay as a child that make this community service stint transformational for him as an adult: All around the same time, Bombay’s father passed away, he missed a goal that would’ve won the title for his team, and he let his coach down. The disappointment his coach hung over Bombay’s head as a child has loomed over him like a raincloud ever since.
As much as Bombay grits his teeth and hates having to perform his community service to begin with, he winds up rediscovering the spark he had as a kid, just before that awful smudge marred his childhood spirits. He connects back to the vibrant boy he was when his father was alive and encouraging, and discovers that same spirit in the kids who now surround him, who need him, and who grow and are nourished because of him. By finding that missing spark from boyhood, Bombay is able to become a whole man and find meaning in his life. The kids embrace their coach’s winning spirit and go from District 5 zeroes to proud and confident “Ducks.” As much as the kids get from their coach, those gains are tiny in proportion to what Bombay, the formerly arrogant cake-eater, gets from them: The smudge on his soul is wiped clean and he gets a new lease on life.
“The Mighty Ducks” is enjoyable on many levels: If you liked “The Bad News Bears,” the 1976 film about a team of misfit kid baseball players, you’ll be similarly entertained by these “loser” hockey players on their journey to becoming winners. “The Mighty Ducks” also inspires on a deeper level: You may come away from this movie wanting to coach, or at least to get involved in the lives of kids in some positive way. You don’t have to be a dad to be the father figure some child lacks in his or her life.