Disney tried to market action, comedy, self-awareness, and its mediocre hockey team into a cartoon for kids. The result is nothing short of disastrous.
What the hell is going on with this show?
By the time Bonkers hit the airwaves, the TV animation bubble was about to burst. Saturday mornings and weekdays afternoons were filled with cartoons, and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were adding their own original animated content to the mix. There were so many cartoons out there now – wacky ones, serious ones, self-aware ones, action ones, compilations – and Disney wanted their hands in all of it. Before, the company was comfortable with creating a single fully-fledged, developed cartoon, one right after the other. Now, not only did they want a piece of the action cartoon market (Gargoyles), they wanted to exploit the easy money of the compilation set (Raw Toonage) as well as double down on their movie properties (Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa). I guess they wanted a piece of the self-aware goofiness that made Animaniacs and Freakzoid popular as well, for from that thinking sprang forth the mess that is The Mighty Ducks.
The Mighty Ducks is a hell of a reach. To say it was based on The Mighty Ducks movie franchise would be right only in pure connotation. Instead of a cartoon about plucky, smartass kids learning about life and teamwork through the rigors of playing hockey, we’re given a crazy tale about six anthropomorphic ducks who followed some evil reptiles through a portal to Earth, who end up playing professional hockey while, in their spare time, hunt for these villainous Saurians. Sure, this SOUNDS crazy, but in pure cartoon terms, this isn’t much crazier than, let’s say, Herculoids, Space Ghost, Transformers, Dinosaucers, Dino-Riders, Extreme Dinosaurs, and so on. It’s all in the execution. And the execution is excruciating.
Hey, do you like hockey? I mean, do you really, really, really love hockey? Of course you do. That’s why The Mighty Ducks was made, to satisfy your inner blood lust and sexual proclivities for hockey. The Mighty Ducks live, eat, breath, and masturbate to hockey, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When they’re not saving the world, they’re playing hockey, and they know for a goddamn fact you are going to be enamored watching them play hockey. The Mighty Ducks doesn’t even entertain the thought that, god forbid, there may be two or three people on the planet that may have a mere passing interest in hockey, or worse – not even be interested in hockey. People like that are clearly the scum of the earth, and should be beaten every day within an inch of their lives. Life is not worth living unless you embrace everything that is hockey.
That is the philosophy that the show seems to be working under. The Mighty Ducks is an uncomfortable, in-your-face, affirmation of hockey, a cult-like assault of the sport on the viewer’s senses. The very premise of the show is as if L. Ron Hubbard decided he took all he could from Scientology and wanted to take a whack at this hockey thing. In the pilot “The First Face-Off,” the characters originate from Puckworld, which looks like hell but is actually a world where all the ducks play hockey everyday. I presume their systems of laws, education, philosophies, religions, governments, and other various institutions are all based on the foundation of hockey’s rules. Certainly their warfare – their weapons include ice shields, puck blasters, and mystical goalie masks. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Lord Dragaunus and his minions EASILY conquer Puckworld in about twenty minutes (see what happens when you don’t think about hockey for once?).
Despite a massive, all-encompassing takeover, three of the ducks manage to escape and cull together a resistance, which only maxes out to seven ducks. How this is accomplished is wildly contrived, but after a lazy montage that introduces the audience to every character within the Mighty Ducks core group, they somehow manage to overtake the entire reptilian army, chase the leader and his minions through a portal, and land into our world. Upon arrival, they simply walk into a mall, check out comics books, and release what must have been an exponentially high level of sexual tension in an impromptu game of hockey. Even though these ducks found themselves in a brand new, inexplicable world while chasing a tyrannical alien, they made sure to take the time to play hockey; this is done with such an antagonistic approach that for a brief moment, I wondered if they were truly the villains. All of this is portrayed in the pilot, which is told to the audience via a nonsensical exchange between the police chief Captain Klegghorn and the Duck’s manager, Phil Palmfeather. (Phil is voiced by Jim Belushi, a clear sign we’re in dangerous territory.) By the end of all this, Wildwing is the reluctant leader (after a hilariously unnecessary sacrifice by the resistance leader Canard) of a group of professional hockey playing ducks in the human world, who also – when they can squeeze in the time – search for and attempt to defeat Lord Dragaunus and his henchmen.
I wondered the degree with which this show connected with the actual National Hockey League. Well, according to Wikipedia, an actual Mighty Ducks professional team was founded in 1992, based on the original live-action film. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (their official name) was the property of Disney up until 2005, but I guess there was some attempt to draw in a new, younger audience to the franchise, which is ultimately why this cartoon was made – hell, “Wildwing” is technically the official mascot. It’s telling, though, that the cartoon actually has no legal access to any other official team’s name within the NHL: all of the Duck’s opponents are fabricated. Not even the NHL wanted anything to do with this show, and pro-sports aren’t exactly reluctant to engage in embarrassing expenditures to appeal to the youths (NBA Jam! NFL Rush Zone!).
The head writer for The Mighty Ducks was David Wise. Now, I normally would never express a direct opinion on a creator – for whatever issues I may have with the animation, writing, or direction, I try to express them in an even-handed, level-headed state of mind. For this show, I have to make an exception: David Wise is a terrible, terrible writer. Lazy, hacky, and indifferent to his work, David Wise either is under the deluded idea that he is a quality writer, or knows he’s a terrible writer and simply is coasting on his terribleness to cash a paycheck. The first choice implies that Disney was conned into hiring him due to Wise (or his agents) hyping him up as some voice of a generation. The latter implies that Disney KNEW about his awfulness and hired him anyway, assuming that hockey, malls, comics, “attitude,” and blowing stuff up would bring kids running, at the expense of character or plot development. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.
For a show that stars alien ducks obsessed with playing hockey, The Mighty Ducks has absolutely no idea how hockey is actually played. There’s a lot talk about hockey being played fair and right – you know, the sport filled with violent glass checks, egregious tripping fouls, and legally-allowed fights. The show doesn’t bother to explain any hockey rules or regulations, never bothering to draw its audience into the interesting world of hockey, which splits a line between sportsmanship and ruthlessness. Either David Wise never bothered to research hockey or they assumed that the audience would know everything there is to know about hockey, or both, which makes things even worse.
Buzzfeed rated The Mighty Ducks number eight on their list of the best Disney Afternoon shows, above Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa, Bonkers, and Quack Pack. They claim that The Mighty Ducks managed to amass a following because its so strange. I know for a fact this is bullshit. Aladdin and Bonkers have their issues but at least have promise; Timon & Pumbaa draws from classic cartoon inanity through its own unique worldview, and Quack Pack smartly undercuts its Poochie-fication to reveal in its own absurdity (essay coming soon). It’s clear that Buzzfeed didn’t even pay lip service to watching these shows. For a cartoon, The Mighty Ducks isn’t strange, not more so than the absurd animation that came out of the 70s or 80s. The Mighty Ducks is just actively stupid, terribly scripting with average animation and awful, awful comedy.
Bonkers was disappointing because of its aggressively failed potential. The Mighty Ducks is disappointing because it sucks. Terrible premise, terrible execution, terrible stories, terrible characters – there’s not a single redeeming element to this show. There’s no direction here. No one seems to know, or care, how to approach the show or put its absurd concepts into any context. Lord Dragaunus and his minions can teleport in and out of every single place in Anaheim. The limits of teleportation are never defined, so why they don’t appear when one of the ducks is in public and shoot him in the head? Dragaunus makes deals left and right with various businessmen and scientists, but the details of such deals are rarely made clear. The Ducks’ interplay between fighting various threats and playing pro hockey is never portrayed within the utter self-aware, ridiculous frame that it should be – like how the PowerPuff Girls are both pre-school children and world-saving heroines (more on this later).
I could excuse all of these failures if the characters themselves were interesting, fun, or exciting, but they are not. Despite the show’s half-assed introduction scene, the core group of crime-fighting ducks seems sound. They’re cliche, sure, but of the good kind – they aren’t all muscle-bound dudes mixed with one female piece of eye candy. Besides Wildwing, you have Grin, the Zen-following strong man; Duke, the former thief turned suave hero; Mallory, the by-the-book military tactician; Tanya, the geeky but proficient mechanic/explosive expert; and Nosedive, the wise-cracking, youth-demo-oriented representative. Nosedive gets all the “cool” lines, read in some bastardization of a surfer-dude vernacular, and approaches every dangerous situation geared to find the AWESOME in it. He is plucked right out of the worst of what 80s cartoons have to offer. Buzzfeed claimed Bonkers was too annoying, but Nosedive makes the bobcat feel like a monk in comparison.
Still, the grouping has potential. Two female characters, who can be awesome as well as vulnerable! They aren’t defined by being women, either, but by being essential. Mallory is both a great soldier as well as capable of showing off her femininity, and Tanya enjoys her more geekier pursuits without anyone giving her gruff. Duke seemed geared to be the writers’ favorite, what with the whole shady past and slick lines out of his beak. But David Wise can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum. There is a dumbness, a superficiality to the whole affair that ruins these characters. Attempts at development somehow make the characters worse. In “Power Play,” we’re offered a glimpse into Grin’s past as a reckless, angry youth who ended up studying, uh, “Zen-hockey” under Tai Quack Do, an Asian stereotype who doubles as a Jewish stereotype. “To Catch a Duck” has Mallory questioning Duke’s loyalty after a thief from Puckworld turns up and offers Duke a partnership. I understand that in syndication, episodes would be aired randomly, but why would Mallory think Duke was thinking about betraying the team after everything they’ve been through? What would he have to gain joining some dumb-shit thief on a crime-spree in a world they don’t even know? Why would this suddenly come up now?
That gets to the biggest problem with The Mighty Ducks. No one thought this show through. At all. They literally went to series with no idea what they wanted to DO. There are so many plot holes, so many irregularities, so many inconsistencies and random occurrences that it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure if they wanted to play the action straight, comedic, goofy, or self-aware. It feels like they’re trying to be some gross mishmash of Gargoyles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Freakazoid, but there is no agreement on tone. The whole concept of “hockey-playing alien ducks coming to earth to play hockey and also fight other aliens” is played in this nonsensical space of cheese and indifference, of a laziness so apparent that it becomes physically painful to watch. The Mighty Ducks is a trainwreck, and the “can’t take my eyes away” kind. It’s a vicious, bloody, chaotic mess – quite possible the worst cartoon I ever saw.
The villains represent the show’s tonal disconnect and lack of professionalism in this show’s production. Lord Dragaunus does little else but overread his exposition without any comic flair. The guy is voiced by Tim Curry! If you can’t bring the requisite campiness to a character played by Tim Curry, you fucked up. I’m also not sure what Lord Dragaunus wants to do. Does he want to take over the planet, blow it up, or return to Puckworld (there’s no mention of what happened to Puckworld after his initial takeover). Also, Dragaunus and his henchmen is seemingly able to teleport anywhere, or create portals to other worlds with ease, so I don’t know why he doesn’t warp into a nuclear facility and blow it up, or send the ducks to a world with no air, or even pull an actual Ozymandias. Instead he seems content with making backroom deals with other humans/aliens to create pointless distractions for the ducks while he takes half-assed measures for his various, ill-conceived plans.
Speaking of his henchmen… so there’s this idea that Saurians sacrificed their magical ancestors’ history for science and technology, which is a weirdly complex idea worth developing. Wraith, a brown-noser warlock, constantly complains about this, but he also sucks at magic, so maybe the Saurians made the right call? (This seemed like something that would’ve been developed in a season two, but I seriously doubt David Wise would’ve bothered.) Then you have the Chameleon, who is just as annoying as Nosedive, who shapeshifts into classic 70s comedians/actors, regardless of the fact most kids wouldn’t get those references, nor would it explain how an alien from another planet even knows who these comedians/actors are. Also, when he shapeshifts, he’s supposed to keep the green skin, but sometimes he doesn’t, because plot. Siege is useless.
Characters like the Chameleon and Phil (who complains about the Ducks missing marketing events because they have to save the world, because it’s funny he has his priorities switched, right???) make me think that they WERE trying be more like Freakazoid, especially when they start being meta: referencing that they’re in a cartoon, mentioning sweeps week, commercial breaks, the lack of episode time, etc. The thing is, Freakazoid was committed to its meta-commentary – the show’s self-aware absurdity was built into the show’s DNA from the start. The Mighty Ducks tosses out such commentary haphazardly, making things more awkward than funny. It doesn’t help that various villains don’t seem to be in on the joke; hell, it doesn’t help that most characters aren’t in on the joke. (I’m not sure the writers, directors, or animators are either.)
There is one episode that kind of, sort of approaches something that seems to maybe represent the kind of cartoon The Mighty Ducks may have been striving to be. “Puck Fiction” is a not-great parody of Pulp Fiction, but it also has the kind of ridiculous, absurd, Freakazoid-esque jokes that a show like this really needs. From the inexplicable fear of the 1927 poem “Desiderata,” to self-aware gags involving a flashback and the show’s own title sequence, to the goofy gangsters, to the random Scooby-Doo reference involving Old Man Jenkins and a haunted amusement park, The Mighty Ducks starts to feel like a cartoon that’s just having fun. The PowerPuff Girls always had a tinge of comedy to it, a “sad trombone” aesthetic that always kept the show in a space where the creators enjoyed the silliness of the material. For a brief, shinning moment, viewers got the impression that The Mighty Ducks was in on the joke, an elaborate excuse to parody the macho-group-superhero formula and have fun with the bizarreness of the ludicrous premises that such formulas produce.
Yet that was not meant to be. The Mighty Ducks, for most of its run, resorts to the stupid, infantile action/comedy that marred action cartoons for years. The show is neither funny or entertaining, a random grab-bag of references and poorly-stages action sequence enacted by one-note, annoying characters. The animation is merely passable; nothing really stands out, but it isn’t egregiously embarrassing, except when they recycle scenes or frame action sequences with little tension. The only thing that works is the design of the Ducks’ battle costumes, and to be honest, they aren’t that great. The Mighty Ducks is an awful show, and it needs to be remembered as such.
There is one clever moment in an episode called “Dungeons and Ducks” where the ducks are warped to a parallel earth where magic exists. They watch a commercial on crystal ball of a bunch of magical creatures advertising cereal. It’s a smart, little gag, but it’s a gag that belongs in a better, more reliant cartoon. Disney tried to make hockey, ducks, action, and comedy cool without understanding any of them. I’d like to think that, in a parallel world, a goofy, entertaining version of The Mighty Ducks is airing its third season on a Jumbo-tron amidst a population of hockey-obsessed fans, but there’s no timeline that could possibly make that happen. The Mighty Ducks mightily sucks.