'The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers': TV Review

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers
Courtesy of Disney+/ABC/Liane Hentscher
Some familiar 'Ducks' appeal, but without the movies' efficiency.
3/26/2021

Emilio Estevez returns for a Disney+ TV series extension of the popular film franchise that yielded multiple movies, an animated show and a successful NHL team.

Let's get the controversial opinion out of the way upfront: I think the original Mighty Ducks movie is OK.

Sorry.

It's a broadly played, hockey-focused Xerox of The Bad News Bears with most of the edginess sanded away, but it's very proudly that. Nothing is particularly grown-up or nuanced about any of its complications, but the sincere and emotional moments play satisfyingly regardless of your age.

What I admire most about The Mighty Ducks, in its original form, is its efficiency. Win-at-any-cost defense attorney Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is reluctantly coaching a sad-sack youth hockey team within 15 minutes and his reluctance lasts maybe two scenes. He begins the movie a boozing jackass, but from maybe a third of the way through, his character flaws are limited to one moment of poorly timed sarcasm and a love for cheesy gadget plays. After that, most of the suspense relates to uniform design, coordinated quacking and Joshua Jackson's haircut. Gordon's alcoholism, horndogging and law degree are magically cured.

In order for The Mighty Ducks to become a franchise, increasingly outlandish complications had to be ginned up. And along with the product's diminished efficiency, my enjoyment diminished as well.

Continuing that franchise for Disney+, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers does a lot of the same things as the movies, and does them respectfully. The young cast is fairly solid, the inclusive messaging is fairly positive and the awareness of underdog sports movie cliches and how to utilize them is fairly well-tuned. However, in taking a brand tailored for contained bites and expanding it to 10 half-hour episodes, the series pretty much drains this engine of any efficiency. After only three episodes sent to critics, I was finding the show low-key likable, but sorely lacking in momentum.

The necessary premise inversion in Game Changers is that over the years, the Ducks have become like the Hawks from the original movie — an unbeatable and thoroughly detestable group of bullies coached by Reilly from Letterkenny (Dylan Playfair, an unlikely choice as his generation's Lane Smith). The new Ducks are so cutthroat that, despite his best efforts, 12-year-old Evan (Brady Noon) is unable to make the team, forcing his paralegal mom Alex (Lauren Graham) to gamely attempt to assemble a new rag-tag squad of kids who want to play just for fun. It's a group that includes a Jewish kid who prefers to podcast (Maxwell Simkins' Nick), a fantasy enthusiast with anger issues (Bella Higginbotham's Lauren), a video game expert who prefers not to leave his basement (Luke Islam's Koob) and a new kid in town from Toronto (Kiefer O'Reilly). They're uniformly inept, so Evan really hopes to recruit his best friend/crush Sofi (Swayam Bhatia), but she's a Duck, plus her parents are really into padding her college resumé.

Now you might think it would be obvious to have Estevez's Gordon return as the coach of the Ducks, having become all that he grew to despise and having to work his way back to decency. Instead, circumstances have turned Gordon into a curmudgeon who hides away in the sluggishly utilized ice rink. Gordon has returned to his feigned hatred of hockey and kids from the start of the first movie and I don't know if this counts as a spoiler, but he's got some important lessons to learn again. So if this new incarnation of Gordon isn't the most obvious choice, it's the second most obvious choice, which could almost be the mantra for the entire series.

Adapted by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa with original creator Steve Brill, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is actually much more sharply written on a dialogue level than the first movie — or at least it seems like it is because if you're going to have a heroine whose only appreciable characteristic is that when she gets nervous she talks fast, there's basically nobody you'd rather have than Graham. Alex has no visible arc and her only visible personality is "She wants her son to be happy"; while this may not be the most fully realized use of Lauren Graham, at least it benefits the show. Graham's peppy snark and Estevez's laconic snark pair well together, and there doesn't seem to be an iota of romantic possibility between them — that's perhaps my favorite part of the show so far and the one most guaranteed to be pointlessly abandoned.

On a narrative level, Game Changers is more flaccid. Befitting the show's probable target audience, Game Changers is focused on the kids and initially they're all completely competently played and completely uninteresting as characters. They exist essentially as an elongation strategy, storytelling filler to distract from the fact that we're only getting one hockey game per episode. Some of the kids (Simkins and Higginbotham in particular) are funny and some of the kids (Bhatia in particular) suggest potential as actors, but if all they're there for is wheel-spinning and repetition of familiar stereotypes, that's going to lose my attention. In a three-episode binge, that's bad. For a show that has to sustain viewership week-to-week, that's worse.

Game Changers could use a little more of the visual zaniness that Stephen Herek brought to the first movie. It isn't what the movie is known for, exactly, but sequences like the wacky Our Gang-style introduction to the hockey kids are part of how the film keeps your attention. There's a lot of physical comedy in the movie that enhances and feeds into the hockey action. In contrast, for half of these new kids, their inability to play is defined through their inability to skate, so they just stand there, which isn't funny.

I'd add that the Ducks, logo and overall team approach proved so winning that an NHL expansion franchise took their name and then had to change their name and brand because they were too associated with the movie. The new misfit team's name and uniforms will not, I can safely guarantee, have similar power.

But will I watch a few more episodes of Graham and Estevez bantering and the kids standing around on the ice? Yeah, probably. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is only OK, but that matches the pedestal upon which I place the movie. If you have more reverence, your disappointment might be greater.

Cast: Lauren Graham, Emilio Estevez, Brady Noon, Maxwell Simkins, Swayam Bhatia, Luke Islam, Kiefer O'Reilly, Taegen Burns, Bella Higginbotham, DJ Watts

Showrunners: Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa

New episodes premiere Fridays on Disney+ starting March 26.