After struggling through its first year with few blockbuster titles, Disney+ is finally firing on all cylinders. The streamer, which has stormed onto the scene with 100 million subscribers in 16 months, has churned out three culturally dominant hits since October: the second season of the “The Mandalorian,” “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.”
But Disney faces a new test this weekend with a show that is neither space-faring nor superhero-centric. “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers,” the first live-action TV series for the 1990s-era Disney franchise, debuts Friday. Like the films before it, this kiddie-centric sports dramedy is a charming underdog story. But it’s not clear if audiences will head back to the rink with it.
Like the films before it, this kiddie-centric sports dramedy is a charming underdog story. But it’s not clear if audiences will head back to the rink with it.
One might argue that “The Mighty Ducks” franchise is itself an underdog story. A Disneyfied reimagining of the 1970s’ “The Bad News Bears,” the original 1992 film was panned by critics. (Rotten Tomatoes’ roundup of reviews from the era are brutal.) But audiences turned out anyway, with the film bringing in a surprise $50 million at the box office and then doubling that gross once it hit home video. Two sequels followed, as did an animated series, a theme park attraction and perhaps most hilariously, a real professional hockey team — the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim — that The Walt Disney Co. founded in 1993 and funded for the next decade. (When Disney sold the team in 2005, the name was shorted to its current state, the Anaheim Ducks.)
As fans of the movie know, the once-underdogs Ducks wind up champs by the end of the film trilogy. When viewers meet them again in 2021, they are their city’s powerhouse youth team, with a gorgeous state-of-the-art stadium. Ambitious, upper-middle-class parents spend massive amounts of money trying to make sure their middle schoolers make the cut. But that’s left kids like Evan (Brady Noon) and Nick (Maxwell Simkins), kids who love hockey but will never be championship material, with nowhere to play. Frustrated by this aggressive, Type A mentality, and motivated by her son, Evan, getting unceremoniously cut from the team, Alex (Lauren Graham) finds herself attempting to build a new underdog team where misfits are welcome.
Like most reimaginings, Disney’s new take on “The Mighty Ducks” brings back the most important face from the original films: Emilio Estevez, as Coach Gordon Bombay. The original movie cast him as a younger, hotter version of the bitter Morris Buttermaker of “Bad News Bears.” Three films and 30 years on, Estevez’s Bombay feels he was abandoned by the Ducks’ single-minded cutthroat determination to stay No. 1. (When the show introduces him, still managing the old 1990s rink from the first film, he’s pointedly put up signs saying “No Hockey.”) Naturally, within the first episode, Alex has convinced him to take those signs down. And soon the kids’ infectious attitude has inspired him. It’s probably only a matter of time before he’s helping Alex coach the new team.
As a series, “The Mighty Ducks” is no better or worse than the original films, and its 30-minute episodes include plenty of hockey action. For Estevez, who has spent the bulk of the last 20 years behind the camera instead of in front of it, this is a welcome return. Graham’s turn as a single mom in “Gilmore Girls” is what made her famous, and she’s extremely comfortable doing a riff on that role here. But the kids, as always, are the real stars. Simkins is a standout as the kid who turned to sports journalism and podcasting after being told he wasn’t good enough to play, and Swayam Bhatia, who plays Evan’s semi-love interest, Sofi, has the makings of Disney’s next breakout star.
Also like the films, these characters are written in broad strokes, and the story’s formulaic cliches haven’t always aged well.
But also like the films, these characters are written in broad strokes, and the story’s formulaic cliches haven’t always aged well. For instance, there’s a scene early on where Bombay lectures Evan on how “men should be men,” which is supposed to make him seem like a father figure. This speech would have been unremarkable in 1992. But with the series doing its best to represent inclusivity elsewhere, such patriarchal claptrap moments land with an awkward thud.
But the big business question for this new “Mighty Ducks” is whether or not families will fire up the app in the way they once flocked to theaters. So far, Disney+’s successes come from companies it bought wholesale and allow to run as separate entities: Lucasfilm and Marvel. Disney original properties haven’t fared so well. Some have never made it to screen, like the “Lizzie McGuire” reboot. Some have been deemed “too adult” and shifted to Hulu, like “High Fidelity,” before being unceremoniously canceled. Those that have made the cut, like the “High School Musical” reboot or the “Frozen II” docuseries “Into The Unknown,” haven’t moved the needle. In short, with the exceptions of big-screen releases moved to Disney+ like “Hamilton” and “Soul,” if it doesn’t live in a galaxy far, far away or have superpowers, audiences haven’t cared.
Disney is banking on nostalgia and a love of sports dramas to get its new series over that hump, and the show is mostly charming enough. Maybe the Ducks really will help Disney+ become more than a destination for “Star Wars” and Marvel fans. But, despite checking all the right boxes, “The Mighty Ducks” doesn’t seem like it’s a game changer.