Maybe more than anything, “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” is a feat of casting. Yes, the Disney+ revival is a continuation of a beloved film series that helped birth not just a generation of fans but an NHL franchise (and an animated spinoff with a theme song still lodged in the subconscious of every kid that watched more than one episode).
But all of that previous success would never have happened if the youth hockey team that helped get the whole thing started almost 30 years ago didn’t feel like an actual team. So even though this new “Mighty Ducks” TV show finds the Ducks as a junior hockey powerhouse made up of heartless bullies, the new ragtag squad that forms in its wake is a club that’s instantly worth rooting for.
When Evan (Brady Noon) gets cut from the overbearing Ducks as the supposed weak link, his mom Alex (Lauren Graham) takes it on herself to try to get a new team together. Even from the outset, in the fits and starts of Evan getting a group of teammates together, “Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” finds a groove in surrounding itself with distinct, lovable players. From hockey video game expert Koob (Luke Islam) to daredevil skateboarder (De’Jon Watts) to fantasy enthusiast Lauren (Bella Higginbotham), there’s something immediate to latch on to with each player that becomes more of a starting point than an ending one.
As expected, there’s some degree of precociousness in how these young teammates pass their time off the ice. But again, rather than a hindrance, it helps these players sand off some of the rigid edges of their middle school archetypes. Nick (Maxwell Simkins) is the instant heart of the series, a wide-eyed enthusiast who’s still hosting a youth hockey podcast and pining at crushes from afar even as he’s getting his skating legs under him. The show lets these kids be kids, even if some of them aren’t always as comfortable around their peers.
The adults are just as key to the show’s success. In his return, Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is decidedly more curmudgeonly than where the movies left him at the end of the ’90s. He’s subsisting almost entirely off of spite and the leftover dessert at the Ice Palace, the skating rink he now runs. Alex becomes the persistent force trying to cut through his prickly exterior, the audience surrogate who has no real reverence for the sport itself but recognizes what it can mean to a kid who gets a chance. As Graham and Estevez trade barbs back and forth, it helps set the playful tone that the kids carry on with surprising ease. All of it is the kind of good-natured needling that’s sharp in its own ways without dragging down the show’s overall positive vibes.
With all the surrounding Ice Palace denizens, “Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” can follow the spirit that newly minted head coach Alex sets out for the team: It honestly doesn’t matter whether they win or lose. There’s no pressure to have to have these kids magically become athletic superstars overnight. Instead, the show gets to capitalize on Alex’s approaching to coaching, ensuring that there’s buy-in from any viewer before the team’s schedule even gets under way.
It’s no surprise to learn that the show was created in part out of a response to the creeping professionalization of youth sports. (Unsurprisingly, the country’s broken collegiate athletics system is one of the show’s early unseen villains!) Showrunners Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, along with original film trilogy writer Steven Brill, offer up some genuinely compelling alternatives instead of solely lamenting what this series’ version of the Ducks have come to represent. The relative unimportance of the new team’s early results in the win-loss column gets dwarfed by the joy in seeing these new players get excited about learning from each other. Drills get built around incremental successes rather than any overbearing pressure for preteen greatness. Team leaders emerge as everyone starts getting on board with the team’s solidifying philosophy.
From the show’s synopsis, seeing a beloved institution from decades past become the villain in a reboot might seem like it’s drafting off the success of “Cobra Kai.” But in both plot and spirit, this is Disney+’s more effective way to tap into the highs of “Ted Lasso,” another fish-out-of-water tale of misfits who grow to love the game more with the help of an outsider. It has its own ways for flipping some of the usual sports story conventions, and it takes full advantage of using the team dynamic to put these kids in a position to reveal more and more about themselves as they respond to an unlikely challenge.
And in similar Lassovian fashion, it’s hard to sing the praises of “Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” without using a lot of the same inspirational wisdom that would sound like platitudes coming out of the mouth of nearly any other coach. As the new team (the actual name is as clunky as the reveal is fun) bonds off the ice, it really is thrilling to see this group find new ways to work together. In trying to recruit a new teammate or gather up enough equipment for all the sport’s newcomers, there’s an instant camaraderie that already has an acute sense of how these disparate pieces can thrive as one.
Each of the opening three episodes conclude with their own little grace notes, neat bows on a new development that, again, in a multitude of other contexts would come across as treacly. By fully embracing the strengths of the show and its franchise predecessors, “Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” has already earned those moments with breakaway speed.
New episodes of “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” are available to stream Fridays on Disney+.