By Jill Rachlin
Updated October 09, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Turning a ragtag bunch of underdog kids into a top team has traditionally been a popular role for aging comic actors: Walter Matthau shaped up for The Bad News Bears, Rodney Dangerfield taught the Ladybugs to fly.

So what’s Emilio Estevez, who is neither aging nor particularly comic, doing trying to score with The Mighty Ducks, a story about the pressures of playing peewee hockey? Maybe, being a father of two himself, Estevez is newly attracted to movies for kids. Or maybe he needs the work: His last three films — Young Guns II, Men at Work, and Freejack — didn’t exactly turn a hat trick at the box office. Whatever Estevez’s reasons, The Mighty Ducks doesn’t fit the bill.

Estevez plays Gordon Bombay, a onetime peewee-hockey star who grew up to be an overly competitive lawyer — his car even sports a ”Just Win” license plate. After a tongue lashing from his boss, Bombay gets bombed — and then busted for drunk driving on a snowy Minnesota night. His sentence: a stint of full-time community service as coach to a hockey team of inner-city kids. If you were a judge, what else would you do with a drunk driver?

To Bombay, who is haunted by the memory of a failed penalty shot that cost his undefeated team first place in 1973, this is a fate worse than sudden death: He’s totally unprepared to face off with his painful past. To make matters worse, his new team is hardly a lean, mean fighting machine. In fact, it’s a sort of a ’90s-style Our Gang, a clichéd bunch of pranksters — complete with kids who do imitations of Richard the copier-room man from Saturday Night Live.

The Ducks may be ignorant of hockey shtick, but these streetwise adolescents know the score. When they first see Bombay get out of a big limo, dressed in an expensive suit and topcoat, they quickly say, ”This is a drug-free zone.” When Bombay reaches into his pocket to get the list of their names, they assume that he’s reaching for a gun and they, er, duck. And when he tries to get them to win at all costs, even if that means cheating, they refuse. The message of this contrived movie is — surprise — it’s how you play the game. Bombay sets out to teach his Ducks hockey, but they end up teaching him integrity. In this sense, The Mighty Ducks is an odd bird: It’s a kids’ movie that’s mostly about an adult.

If the producers had cast Estevez’s brother, Charlie Sheen, in the lead role, this slickster-in-search-of-himself picture might have been called Wall Street on Ice. A coach without a strategy for his own life, Bombay spends most of the film being passed back and forth between his icy mentor from peewee hockey, Coach Reilly (Lane Smith), and kindly Hans (Joss Ackland), the local skate-shop owner. Coach Reilly reminds Bombay at every turn that ”it’s not worth winning if you can’t win big.” Hans, on the other hand, reminds Bombay of the beauty of the sport and his love for hockey. Hans advises, ”It’s not about winning. Teach them to fly — that’s what they’ll remember.”

He’s right, in a way. The skating scenes are all anyone will want to remember about this film. Young hockey fans will relish the well-executed, action-packed game scenes — and the cameo appearances by real-life National Hockey League players Basil McRae and Michael Modano. Estevez, who learned to play hockey for the film, does a fairly convincing job on the ice, as do the Ducks (Joshua Jackson, Matt Doherty, Brandon Adams, Jussie Smollett, Shaun Weiss, Garette Ratliff, and Aaron Schwartz). And even kids who are not into slap shots will laugh at the Ducks’ slapstick antics. Off the ice, however, The Mighty Ducks slips up.

The gang is nothing more than a bunch of shorthand, stereotypical characters — one is short, one is fat, one is a girl — and we never get to know or like them as individuals. Instead, the film spends most of its time tracing Bombay’s predictable transformation from supercompetitive to supercompassionate coach, a metamorphosis that will most likely bore young audiences who don’t yet know what a mid-life crisis is, let alone identify with one. C-