The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers Review

Cobra Kai brought us back into the world of The Karate Kid, but it turned the formula of the original martial arts franchise on its head by turning former villain Johnny Lawrence into the protagonist while karate champion Daniel LaRusso became a bit of a douchebag. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, coming to Disney+ this week, is taking a similar approach with the hockey film franchise of the 1990s by taking a new generation of scrappy young misfits to the ice and turning The Mighty Ducks into the villains.

In present-day Minnesota, the Mighty Ducks have become an ultra-competitive, powerhouse youth hockey team that is more concerned with winning than reveling in the joy of the game itself. It’s full of kids whose lives are obsessively engineered by their haughty suburban parents. When 12-year old Evan Morrow (Brady Noon of Good Boys) is cut from the team for not being up to snuff, his mother Alex (Lauren Graham) just can’t take it anymore, and they decide to start new team. They’re not exactly on the level of the original Mighty Ducks, for multiple reasons, but there’s still potential for them to fly.

1992’s The Mighty Ducks followed a hotshot lawyer named Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) who was sentenced to community service after a DUI, forcing him to coach a ragtag youth hockey team without much skill, let alone any hope of winning a game. Of course, in classic Disney fashion, Bombay taps into his lost childhood love for hockey and turns them into underdog champions, and both the coach and the team learn a little bit from each other.

The film series continued in D2: The Mighty Ducks, with Bombay taking the championship team (and a few new players from around the country) to Los Angeles to represent the United States in the Junior Goodwill Games. But D3: The Mighty Ducks saw Bombay take a backseat, making only a cameo as the Mighty Ducks found themselves under the tutelage of a new coach at a private school.

When we meet Gordon Bombay in Game Changers, time has not been kind to the former coach, and neither has hockey, making him more irritable and rougher around the edges than ever before. Shuffling around and eating leftover birthday cake from kids’ parties, he’s prominently affixed a “No Hockey” sign prominently in the little arena handed down by his family friend Jan, last seen in D2: The Mighty Ducks. The only reason he agrees to let a makeshift young hockey team into the Ice Palace is because he desperately needs the money to keep it afloat. But Game Changers is not entirely focused on Bombay, putting him in a supporting role as a new coach and letting the team take the spotlight.

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers follows in the footsteps of the original film franchise by bringing together a team of misfit players who need a lot of practice to compete with the best of the best. After the pompous modern-day Mighty Ducks coach tells young Evan Morrow to not bother continuing to play hockey if he’s not on track to be a professional player, Evan’s mother Alex decides to round-up a gang of other discarded kids to form a new team appropriately called the Don’t Bothers, and they start out by easily living up to their name.

First, there’s Evan’s affable, talkative neighbor Nick (Maxwell Simkins), who describes himself as having a body that’s built more for podcasting than hockey. In fact, he’s one-half of the podcasting team that provides color commentary for the community hockey games. It must be said that Simkins is in a league of his own in this series. He steals every single scene he’s in with endless charm and impeccable comedic delivery and timing. This kid is a star, plain and simple, and he had me cracking up again and again.

The team also adds Logan (Kiefer O’Reilly), the dreamy new Canadian kid in town who has some of the sleekest hockey gear on the market, but he has absolutely no idea how to skate or play hockey. Then we have the nerdy, fantasy-loving, cloak-wearing Lauren (Bella Higginbotham) who finds herself needing an outlet in which to channel her potential inner-rage while also going on a quest of her own. There’s also Maya, a girl who is sick of the pressure of fitting in with her popular girl group and is looking for something new. A potential Bash Brother may lie in Sam (De’Jonn Watts), a young skateboarder who doesn’t hesitate to literally throw himself into anything and everything. And finally, there’s the Goldberg proxy Koob (Luke Islam), a beefy gamer who is coaxed out of his basement to be the team goalie. There’s also another player that may be entering the fray, echoing the plot point involving character Adam Banks in the original Mighty Ducks movie, but we’ll let you see that unfold yourself.

Though these characters have the making of a fun, young team with plenty to learn, none of these characters feel remotely skilled enough in hockey to be believable. In fact, they might be worse than the original Mighty Ducks when they were known as District 5 in the very first movie. This is where Game Changers runs into a problem. While the scrappy, spirited nature of these misfit players simply doing their best fits in perfectly with the vibe of the original movies, their lack of even the tiniest skill as hockey players feels a little too exaggerated to make sense.

There has always been a bit of sports silliness when it comes to the comedic side of The Mighty Ducks. Greg Goldberg was never all that great of a goalie throughout the entire franchise, and Luis Mendoza was fast on the ice, but didn’t know how to stop in D2. But Game Changers has a goalie who sits still in the net while quietly saying a PlayStation button combination used to block shots in a hockey video game. Meanwhile, Logan is a hockey-loving Canadian who can’t stay upright on the ice unless he’s standing still and leaning on his stick. It just feels a little too dimwitted to be authentic, even with Evan being a legitimately skilled player acting as the team’s captain.

On top of that, the camaraderie between the Don’t Bothers isn’t as strong as the original Mighty Ducks. These kids don’t feel like they have the chemistry to feel like a team. That’s something that may come with time, especially since Game Changers is drawing out the Mighty Ducks movie formula into several episodes of television, but as of now, the only genuine friendship that shines in the series is between Evan and Nick. All the other relationships, including the mother-son dynamic between Alex and Evan, feel a little too contrived in a style that’s stuck somewhere between The Disney Channel and the original Mighty Ducks movies. And that goes for the filmmaking quality too.

The Mighty Ducks franchise was full of outstandingly choreographed hockey sequences and thrilling gameplay, even if it was accompanied by some childish comedy and hokey lessons to be learned. The editing was fast and fierce, and it was fueled by incredible scores provided by David Newman and J.A.C. Redford. While Game Changers uses the familiar Mighty Ducks suite from the original movies, it lacks the power behind the original score. In fact, it sounds downright weak, perhaps even created electronically instead of by a full orchestra. The new music provided by John Debney (Iron Man 2, The Greatest Showman) leaves a lot to be desired, which is a shame since movies like Little Giants and The Replacements have shown that he knows how to breathe life into sports comedies. It all feels half-hearted and too desperate to sound “cool” for a contemporary audience, though there are soundtrack tunes that call back to ’90s alternative songs that could have easily been in the original movies. Even so, it’s not enough to give the series the kind of boost it needs.

But that’s not to say that Game Changers is entirely without potential or merit. The presence of Emilio Estevez as a disheveled and dismayed Gordon Bombay helps maintain some semblance of The Mighty Ducks movies, even if it’s familiar territory. Across the first three episodes provided for early review, Bombay’s backstory since his departure from the Mighty Ducks (and hockey in general) unfurls bit by bit. The explanation for Bombay’s renewed hatred of hockey doesn’t seem like it has a satisfying enough tie to anything from the original franchise’s legacy (at least not yet), but the former coach’s begrudging return to the sport that holds the most promise so far, even if it’s dragged out by keeping Evan’s mother Alex as the makeshift coach throughout at least the first three episodes. Because of this, something tells me Disney+ realized that they needed to give original franchise fans something more to look forward to, which is why they recently teased the forthcoming return of some of the old Mighty Ducks in an upcoming episode (though not one of the first three provided for review). Game Changers could certainly use a little more of the Mighty Ducks legacy to bring it home for longtime fans.

After seeing the first three episodes of The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, the series is, well, fine so far. As a longtime fan of the original movies, I’m intrigued enough to stick around for an entire season to see where these characters end up. Directors James Griffiths, Michael Spiller, and Jay Karas are able to pull solid performances from the kids, but they’re lacking some of the Disney magic that makes these misfits feel like a real team. Perhaps some of that responsibility lies with showrunners Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, who have may have taken The Mighty Ducks formula to a place that’s a bit too broad, even if it does manage to mostly capture the spirit and good intentions of the original movies. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers isn’t disappointing enough to say “don’t bother,” but it needs some more time on the ice to find its footing.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers begins airing on Disney+ starting on March 26, 2021.

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