Never fear, the teen hockey sensations aren't skating on thin ice in "D3: The Mighty Ducks." This amazingly resilient film franchise continues to be entertaining in a shamelessly manipulative way. It's chock-full of homilies, youthful hijinx and sound moral observations.Thankfully, its underlying values don't get in the way of the sheer fun of seeing the good guys win and the baddies get their comeup-pance.

Never fear, the teen hockey sensations aren’t skating on thin ice in “D3: The Mighty Ducks.” This amazingly resilient film franchise continues to be entertaining in a shamelessly manipulative way. It’s chock-full of homilies, youthful hijinx and sound moral observations.Thankfully, its underlying values don’t get in the way of the sheer fun of seeing the good guys win and the baddies get their comeup-pance. All this should add up to solid box office on a par with the first two outings and strong play in video and cable situations.

The Ducks have graduated into young adulthood in this new chapter. Their achievement as international junior champs has landed them scholarships to a ritzy private school with East Coast trappings and Minnesota weather. But coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) won’t be aboard. He’s taken a job with the Goodwill Games and passed the baton to Ted Orion (Jeffrey Nordling), a martinet who played a couple of seasons in the pros.

There are a couple of other changes. Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) has been stripped of the position of captain, and the team has been rechristened the Warriors (ugh!) and subjected to a grueling practice regimen. It just isn’t the sort of fun and games and hot-dog-ging that took them to two prior championships.

Basically, “D3’s” about growing up. It’s about such things as responsibility , maturity and mortality. But we all know you can’t keep the momentum going in an action comedy by focusing exclusively on such weighty issues.

So Charlie gets a girlfriend and the ragtag platoon winds up squarring off against the older, meaner and very snooty school varsity team. The dynamic is the sort of townies-vs.-elite situation popularized by “Breaking Away” and “The Outsiders.” It doesn’t take a lot to guess where the film-makers’ sentiments rest.

The Steven Brill-Jim Burnstein screenplay wholeheartedly believes in the underdog. When the Warriors start losing games and the academy board plans to revoke their scholarships, lawyer Bombay takes the case pro bono and reminds the school authorities about what’s right and proper. Later, the Ducks get justice on the ice when they square off against the senior boys, and suffice it to say that the team with the most heart wins.

The title hockey players continue to be a kind of multiracial, multi-ethnic band of misfits, evolved from American war movies. Time has provided the young performers the chance to flesh out the standard roles of the nerd, the cowboy and the pudge. A couple even get to play against type in “D3.”

With Estevez appearing in a very supporting role, the film truly rests on Jackson’s shoulders. He graduates with grace from foil to front man, demonstrating a commanding, likable personality. But only Nordling is required to do anything dramatically difficult, and he makes the new coach tough but fair without slipping into caricature.

Smoothly directed by Robert Lieberman, “D3: The Mighty Ducks” achieves the rare feat of a cinematic hat trick. This is the sort of franchise that could easily descend into crude parody; the series’ creative team is to be commended for continuing to take the high road. The greatest compliment is that after this highly enjoyable third romp, audiences might very well be looking forward to “D4.”

D3: The Mighty Ducks

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of an Avnet/Kerner production. Produced by Jordan Kerner, Jon Avnet Executive producers, Steven Brill, C. Tad Devlin. Directed by Robert Lieberman. Screenplay and story, Steven Brill, Jim Burnstein, based on characters created by Brill.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), David Hennings; editors, Patrick Lussier, Colleen Halsey; music, J.A.C. Redford; production design, Stephen Storer; art direction, Harry Darrow; costume design, Kimberly A. Tillman; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Cooney; hockey choreographer/technical adviser, Jack White; assistant director. Rick Johnson; casting, Judy Taylor. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, L.A., Sept. 28, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Gordon Bombay - Emilio Estevez
Coach Ted Orion - Jeffrey Nordling
Charlie Conway - Joshua Jackson
Dean Buckley - David Selby
Casey Conway - Heidi Kling
Hans - Joss Ackland
Fulton - Elden Ryan
Ratliff Goldberg - Shaun Weiss
Banks - Vincent A. Larusso
Averman - Matt Doherty
Julie - Colombe Jacobsen
Portman - Aaron Lohr
Rick - Christopher Orr
Cole - Michael Cudlitz

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