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The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is a sweet cannibalization of Disney intellectual property

  • "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," says Caroline Framke of the new Disney+ series. "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."


    • It doesn't feel egregious that The Mighty Ducks is a blatant ripoff of Cobra Kai: "There are only so many stories to tell, especially in the picked-over underdog-sports genre," says Alan Sepinwall. "So it doesn’t feel egregious that the new Disney+ series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers blatantly rips off the premise of Cobra Kai by making the heroes from the movies — a ragtag-turned-champion youth hockey team — into the bad guys. After all, the overarching plot of Cobra Kai — unhappy middle-aged man finds renewed purpose by teaching kids about the sport he loved in his youth — is more or less the same as the one that introduced Emilio Estevez’s Gordon Bombay in the first Mighty Ducks film. Not only that, Cobra Kai is largely remixing the stories from the Karate Kid films where William Zabka first played Johnny Lawrence, and the first Karate Kid movie was heavily influenced (down to hiring the same director, John G. Avildsen) by the original Rocky. And of course, the Rocky series owes a narrative debt to a host of boxing movies going back at least to 1931’s The Champ. Everything old is new again, and imitation is the sincerest form of entertainment. All is well. With Game Changers, though, it’s less interesting to recognize similarities to Cobra Kai than the series’ differences. Cobra Kai was, at least at the start, made primarily for Gen-Xers who grew up on the original adventures of Daniel LaRusso. Game Changers seems geared for an audience of actual kids, rather than kids-at-heart who remember being in the theater to watch Joshua Jackson’s Charlie Conway pull off the triple-deke maneuver against the Hawks."
    • 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)," says Steve Greene. "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."
    • The Mighty Ducks is especially validating for parents: "The Disney+ series doubles a group therapy for all the parents out there traumatized by how intense youth sports have become," says Amy Amatangelo. "It’s a phenomenon that’s hard to believe until you see it (or live it). I thought the stories of parents yelling on the sidelines, lobbying for extra field time for their kid, and thinking the score of a Saturday morning soccer game actually mattered were perhaps urban legends that happened in other towns. Well, most unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that it’s all 10000% true. There are lots (and lots!) of parents who really believe that their eight-year-old is the next Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, or any other famous sports figure. They are parents who have long since lost sight of the fact that children’s sports really should be about learning the game, learning the value of being a team player, and how to win and lose with grace. Parents who have totally forgotten that children should be having fun. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers understands this and has built its entire premise around this distressing phenomenon."
    • The Mighty Ducks isn't sustainable as a TV series: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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."
    • Mighty Ducks is an earnest, feel-good reboot -- no more, no less: "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," says LaToya Ferguson. "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. 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."
    • 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," says Ethan Anderton. "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."
    • Inside The Mighty Ducks' choreography: “A lot of them had never skated before, so I had to break it down, teaching them the basics of what it’s like to be balanced on skates, from how to stride to how to stop,” says hockey coordinator and choreographer Dave Tomlinson, who began playing ice hockey himself at age 4. “A lot of it was just speaking in terms they could understand. The way I break down what a skating stride is, it has to make sense to them, not to me.”
    • Lauren Graham signed on for The Mighty Ducks before the pandemic, but she's glad that it'll offer comfort TV to her longtime fans: “It sounds so sappy, but the longer I get to do this, I feel more and more grateful and in conversation, in a weird way, with the audience," she says. And certainly with Gilmore Girls people “It’s now a fact of my life that they’re giving me their gratitude or their loyalty, so I definitely think about that," she says.
    • How much ice skating experience did Graham have before joining The Mighty Ducks?: "My training was eighth grade birthday parties in Arlington, Virginia," she says with a laugh. "I did a fair amount of skating as a kid, just for fun. That’s part of what was appealing to me about this show— can I learn this new skill? There was a built in break between the first and second episodes, but that’s when (COVID) happened. And that break was supposed to be my intense skating boot camp, which I was really looking forward to. And then everything closed. So I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. If we come back (for Season 2) I plan to improve."
    • Mighty Ducks creator Steven Brill never thought the property was dead: He even once envisioned it as a Broadway extravaganza. “If you can do Spider-Man as a play, you can do Mighty Ducks as a play,” he says. “A musical with skating kids and real ice. I thought that would be fun. I never got too far with that.” As the Ducks on Ice concept floundered in Brill’s mind, something unexpected happened: the rise of streaming that necessitated a seemingly endless demand for programming. The question was: How? “I don’t think we wanted to do That Championship Season, where you’d just hang out with the 40-year-old Ducks,” Brill says. “We could have. But I felt we had to reinvent and refresh it.”
    • Emilio Estevez says he unsuccessfully fought to incorporate Black Lives Matter and George Floyd's killing in The Mighty Ducks: "Here’s what’s interesting," he says. "Coming out of the independent world where I was making movies that I felt had to be socially relevant and had to be meaningful, I jumped into doing the Ducks. It’s set in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul. We started filming the year and in the same city that George Floyd was murdered. And yet here we were making five hours of television, and we don’t mention it. So I pushed back at the producers and at the studio. I said, 'You know, guys, we have to acknowledge this. We’re in the middle of a pandemic.' I got on my soapbox and I cried out that I can’t play a character who’s complaining about owning a million-dollar piece of real estate in downtown Minneapolis when the city’s on fire around us. And the pushback was, 'This is a show that people need that doesn’t remind them of what’s happening in the world right now. That is the Disney brand. We’re not going to acknowledge the virus; we’re not going to acknowledge the systemic racism; we are going to be comfort food as we shoot these episodes.'"

    TOPICS: The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, Disney+, Emilio Estevez, Lauren Graham