Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is an earnest, feel-good reboot—no more, no less

Brady Noon in The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers
Brady Noon in The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers
Photo: Liane Hentscher/ABC
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When Disney+ first announced it would be the home of a new, live-action Mighty Ducks TV series, it elicited the usual round of “Who asked for this?”—which clearly ignored the millennial nostalgia base that the Mighty Ducks trilogy built. Commercially and critically, the current standard-bearers of these types of shows—reboots or reimaginings based on a beloved, often nostalgia-tinged franchise—are Netflix’s Cobra Kai and Peacock’s Saved By The Bell. The former’s proven there’s clearly so much more one can do with established IP than just be a complete redux of the source material. Saved By The Bell followed up on that idea by homing in on the inherent weirdness that the original series always revealed but never acknowledged.

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Disney+’s The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers doesn’t actually change the game like Cobra Kai or Saved By The Bell, but it doesn’t need to. In terms of execution and tone, capturing the spirit of the source material above all else, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is much closer to Cobra Kai, though it’s far more saccharine and cutesy in its approach. Created by Steven Brill (frequent Adam Sandler collaborator and screenwriter of the original trilogy Mighty Ducks trilogy) and husband-wife writer-producer duo Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa (13 Going On 30, The King Of Queens, ’Til Death), the greatest parallel between The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers and Cobra Kai comes via watching the heroes of the original piece become the villains.

In Game Changers (as it feels wrong to shorten the series to The Mighty Ducks, for reasons that will be clear in just a moment), the youth hockey team known as the Ducks are a far cry away from the underdogs they once were. In fact, they’re now in the same position that the Hawks were in the original film, as the reigning 10-time State Champions, with their own state-of-the-art ice skating rink, a win-at-all-costs coach, and your typical kids’ movie mean kid streak. Despite the series title, the Ducks are more your standard Mighty Ducks movie villains than characters in their own right.

When the series begins, the Ducks are moving up from the 9-11 age bracket to the 12-14 age bracket… except for Evan Morrow (Brady Noon), who, while a decent player, is undersized compared to the rest of the Ducks and their impending competition at this point. After Evan’s mother Alex (Lauren Graham, also a co-executive producer) hears the bemulleted Ducks leader Coach T (Dylan Playfair) tell her son that when it comes to a future in hockey, “don’t bother,” she decides to stand up to him and the entire Ducks industrial complex, calling out how absurd it is that these people take youth sports this seriously. So Alex forms and coaches a new youth hockey team, one for her son and other kids who have always been told “don’t bother” to play for, remembering that sports should actually be fun for kids.

This splinter team—appropriately named the “Don’t Bothers,” though it begs the question as to why that’s not the subtitle of the series instead of “Game Changers”—comprises Evan, the obvious captain of the team; Nick (Maxwell Simkins), youth hockey podcaster and Evan’s next-door neighbor; Sam (De’Jon Watts), perhaps the most realistic character of the bunch, as the high-energy kid who will always do something if you dare him to do it; Maya (Taegen Burns), the popular mean girl who wants something more; Lauren (Bella Higginbotham), the nerd girl with an inner rage and nunchucks; Logan (Kiefer O’Reilly), Canadian heartthrob who can’t skate; and Koob (Luke Islam), the literal basement-dwelling gamer who is somehow even less of a talented goalie than The Mighty Ducks’ Goldberg.

In true Mighty Ducks fashion, this team isn’t much to look at, but to the series’ credit, as it critiques the way-too-serious nature of a team like the Ducks, it also critiques the idea of “participation trophy” culture as it follows the Don’t Bothers’ journey to becoming a better team. So as the team—and show—acknowledges that playing hockey should be fun, it also highlights that not caring about winning at all isn’t necessarily fun either, which is a lesson Alex particularly has to learn. Which also explains why Evan and the team constantly try to recruit Sofi (Swayam Bhatia), the Ducks’ best player and Evan’s best friend/possible love interest, to join them—which is far easier said than done.

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With this assortment of wacky teammates, Game Changers aligns nicely with the original Mighty Ducks movie, right down to “precocious” being the watchword. And like the original movie in the trilogy, that precociousness is balanced out by far more naturalistic performances, from the adults steering the ship to making sure the talented Evan (the closest the series has to a Charlie Conway proxy) and Sofi aren’t relegated to underdog archetypes. But when this balance is off, Game Changers suffers. The worst offender for the show comes in the sidekick/comic relief character of Nick. Simkins has a young Sean Astin quality about him that can honestly be kind of distracting, but the specific issue is that the character’s dialogue (which tends to stem from the wise-beyond-his-years trope) rarely sounds natural coming out of the actor’s mouth. In Mighty Ducks trilogy terms, it’s like giving Averman a much larger role than he ever had. It’s no surprise then that in the first three episodes, Nick’s best scene actually comes from his interaction with an adult who tries to explain to him why he shouldn’t try to grow up so fast: Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez, who also co-executive produces).

One of the major draws of this reboot is the return of Emilio Estevez, who came out of acting retirement to reprise the role he played in the original trilogy. As in the first two movies, Bombay is initially disillusioned with hockey. He now owns a rundown ice skating rink known as the Ice Palace—handed down to him by the late Jan (the late Jan Rubes)—where he has one definitive rule: “NO HOCKEY.” It’s through a combination of relentless charm and money that Alex and the Don’t Bothers are able to wear Bombay down and make the Ice Palace their home rink. Curmudgeon Bombay is nothing new to the franchise, but Game Changers brings a new sadness to the fact that “The Minnesota Miracle Man” didn’t end up on top in any way. Luckily, the power of a new underdog hockey team propels him.

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With TV, watching characters grow up is part of the package, and Game Changers provides that as a The Mighty Ducks-style entryway. From snot-nosed brats in The Mighty Ducks to rowdy new teens in D2: The Mighty Ducks to teens struggling with growing up in D3: The Mighty Ducks, the millennial audience that watched these movies also experienced that evolution as well. Game Changers captures the tone of the movies because it maintains the general goofiness and concept of heart above all else. Sometimes a little too goofy, but then again, this is the franchise that brought us the Knuckle Puck.

For all it could do to milk its legacy, Game Changers is actually quite restrained for a Mighty Ducks reboot. The sixth episode (“Spirit Of The Ducks”) will feature returning cast members from the trilogy, and everyone involved in the show has been rather tight-lipped about whether or not Joshua Jackson will actually reprise his role as Charlie Conway. But ultimately, Game Changers does its best to stand as its own story, not just relying on the Mighty Ducks legacy and pointing out everything that connects the new series to its source material. The Easter Eggs are just that, not something that the show makes sure to point at and acknowledge every time they pop up.

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Game Changers is a wholesome entry into the Mighty Ducks canon that maintains the ’90s-style earnestness of the original trilogy. Saccharine and oftentimes precocious, yes, but with more competency and heart than, say, Fuller House. Obviously, that doesn’t make it for everyone, but it does explain why Estevez would come back for this particular story—as well as why it will also most likely succeed for Disney+.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.