It doesn’t take long for “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” to both acknowledge and gently reject its roots. Opening on a middle school hockey tryout with all the flashy pomp and circumstances of a primetime NHL game, the new Disney Plus series from Steve Brill, Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith makes it clear that the Ducks of 2021 are nothing like the scrappy underdogs of 1992. Almost 30 years later, the Minnesota youth team has become exactly the kind of hyper-competitive behemoth that it once stood defiantly against. The kids are ruthless, the coach even worse, and the stands are full of parents dreaming of a direct line to fancy colleges. Adding insult to injury, everyone seems to remember the Ducks of old as something of an adorable misstep. “Can you believe they used to quack?” asks one scoffing kid to another, oblivious to the anguished offscreen screams of all the former Disney kids tuning in as adults to watch their beloved Ducks take the ice.
Watching the Mighty Ducks dominate as cruel bullies is as immediately jarring as it is, ultimately and somewhat frustratingly, a clever way to upend the franchise. Becoming the best of the best, as the team did in 1994’s “D2” sequel, has its price. When playing for the fun of it suddenly isn’t good enough, what happens to the kids who aren’t good enough to play?
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At this point, in a pop culture landscape dominated by reboots, revivals, sequels and prequels, it’s fair to be skeptical of something like “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers.” The new series expands the “Mighty Ducks” cinematic universe into a television show starring and for an entirely new generation of potential Disney fans, whose parents grew up with the Ducks and sweet and sour hockey coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez). Still in the early stages of releasing original shows, Disney Plus is overflowing with similar nostalgia grabs, from “The Muppet Show” update “Muppets Now,” to an entirely new “The Right Stuff,” to “Finding Nemo” ancillary series “Dory’s Reef Cam.” Then there’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” in which the characters put on their own version of the Disney Channel’s popular musical. Even the unscripted shows follow suit, with something like Marvel’s “Legends” offering a more in depth look at a franchise that’s gotten a million in depth looks, and another like “Encore!” examining the impact of Disney musicals (and high school theater) on the adults who loved them as kids.
But there’s a very simple reason for Disney leaning so hard on revisiting its already successful IP: They’re extremely good at it. Even the live-action remakes — arguably the worst version of Disney’s “let’s try this again!” instinct — have inarguably been smash hits. The people love Disney, and Disney, in turn, loves the people loving Disney. So while it would have been all too easy to revisit “The Mighty Ducks” by bringing back Estevez’s cranky Bombay to coach the Ducks once more, it’s immediately more interesting for the show to blow up what the Ducks mean by making them the enemy.
There is, of course, still a scrappy group of under-appreciated kids coming together to make something of themselves in “Game Changers” — though in this case, as in something like “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” or even Peacock’s very clever “Saved by the Bell” revival, they’re also self-aware enough to cast themselves as such. “We’re the good guys,” insists Evan (Brady Noon), a determined 12 year-old who forms a new team after the Ducks unceremoniously cut him loose. “The good guys always win in the end, or else we learn a lesson about ourselves. Either way, it’s a W.”
What makes for a “W” is the main question at the heart of “Game Changers.” For the new and more intimidating version of the Ducks that have been state champs for years, the only way to win is to dominate completely. When that results in kicking Evan out for the crime of being too small, his indignant mother Alex (a game Lauren Graham) pleads with her fellow parents to remember that their kids are kids who should be more interested in playing than having college counselors on retainer. When she gets a less than sympathetic response, she decides to help her son and fellow hockey enthusiast Nick (scene stealer Maxwell Simkins) assemble his new team in the hopes that they might actually have fun with it. The only problem is, losing — and losing badly — isn’t actually much fun at all.
The obvious solution is to bring in Bombay, who’s left the competitive world of hockey behind to run his old friend’s barely functional Ice Palace and steal abandoned sheet cakes from kids’ birthday parties. But at least in its first three episodes, “Game Changers” resists this pull for longer than one would expect, keeping him largely on the fringes of the action looking on with reluctant interest. On the one hand, this is just delaying the inevitable; on the other, it gives the show a chance to become its own creature without getting too hung up on the past. While “Game Changers” might interest parents with residual Bombay feelings, it’s really for their kids. Graham’s gung ho Alex is a charming adult anchor, but it’s Evan, Nick, and classmates like introverted gamer Koob (Luke Islam) and star Duck Sofi (Swayam Bhatia) who drive the action. The kids are a little too clever in the way that most onscreen kids are, but thanks to some very good acting from the child actors portraying them, still recognizably kids.
And that’s as it should be, really. Every so often, a beloved childhood property rebooting itself to check in with its stars as jaded adults works (see: “Saved By The Bell,” “Cobra Kai”). Other times, it’s just a depressing retread (see: “BH90210”). By subverting its source material’s premise and keeping Bombay in the mix but not at its center, “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” makes sharp, timely updates to the timeless story of “good guy” underdogs who just want to have some fun, but aren’t about to complain if they can stick it to the “bad guys” with a win or two. That spirit, more than the team’s logo or legacy, is the real Ducks way.
“The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” premieres Friday, March 26 on Disney Plus.
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