Hidden under the nostalgia, Disney Plus’ new Mighty Ducks series has a sharp message

Quack. Quack. Quack-quack. It’s been 15 years since The Mighty Ducks 3 skated into theaters, and I still feel as though I’m contractually obligated to do the duck chant. That’s the unbending power of nostalgia, wherein a mental time capsule can capture a memory in amber and hold the ravages of cynicism and decline at bay. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, the new 10-episode Disney Plus series (three episodes were offered for review) has that warm fuzzy feeling in spades, while crafting its own identity by outlining what’s changed since we last saw the crowd-pleasing hockey team from the title.

Far from the ragtag team from the original 1992 movie, who’d been given zero coaching and had zero talent to go with it, the modern Mighty Ducks of Game Changers now routinely dominate Minnesota’s junior division, with an outstanding 10 state championships. Reluctant hero Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) no longer coaches the team he turned from lovable losers to adorable winners. Instead, an apathetic dude-bro currently heads the now-unlikable, machine-like squad. With Steven Brill as lead writer, and Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa as showrunners, Game Changers is an enjoyable series about redemption and new friendships, composed over familiar beats aimed equally at young viewers and past fans.

Game Changers offers a blistering, hilarious critique of present-day youth sports, and the way they promise gullible, grandiose parents that if they pay for their kid’s off-season training, hire a fitness guru and a psychologist, and buy the best equipment, their 12-year-old can not only win a college scholarship, but someday go pro. This is, of course, a pipe dream, and the youth sports industrial complex might as well be a Ponzi scheme. Game Changers shows how the careerist approach to a simple kid’s game ultimately harms the children who are actually playing. In simple terms, the current Ducks are über-talented jerks who not only revel in the pyrotechnic lightshow and bombastic sound system that dominate the arena before every game, they’re glorying in the status symbol of being Mighty Ducks.

Brady Noon practices hockey in his living room in Mighty Ducks: Game Changers Photo: Disney Plus

At the beginning of the season, 12-year-old Evan (Brady Noon) is knocked off that coveted pedestal, much to the chagrin of his dorky but well-meaning single mother Alex (Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). While Alex works at a dour mortgage-law firm herself, she believes sports should be fun for children. To her, winning isn’t important if it snatches away a childhood. Because of that philosophy, Alex refuses to enroll Evan in summer training, or hire a fitness expert, a nutritional coach, or a sports psychologist to boost his skills. As a result, Evan enters hockey camp noticeably smaller, slower, and less skilled than his teammates. His coach believes that anyone Evan’s age should be showing professional promise, or he shouldn’t bother playing. (That sentiment is all too common in contemporary youth sports.) Evan is summarily cut from the team.

Anyone familiar with the first Mighty Ducks will notice the obvious nods present in this iteration. After Evan is cut, Alex follows in Coach Bombay’s shoes, going from her law-office job to coaching the team she calls the “Don’t Bothers.” Alex forms the team not only to give her son a chance to play, but to give other kids who were told they weren’t good enough a chance to participate. There is one hurdle, however: Evan needs to find players not already suiting up for his former team. He ropes in a wonky podcaster, the adorable Maxwell Simkins, as a co-conspirator. The pair find a heavyset video gamer (Luke Islam) who might work well as a goalie. Other team members include a nunchuck-wielding girl (Bella Higginbotham) who’s trying to exorcise her anger issues, a popular girl (Taegen Burns) who wants to be an individual, a Black daredevil skateboarder (De’Jon Watts) with an aversion to the rules, and a conventionally handsome kid (Kiefer O’Reilly) who’s recently resettled from Canada. They all suck at hockey, but as with Bombay’s original Ducks, the mix of disparate personalities should be approachable for tweens and younger audiences alike.

The draw for parents, on the other hand, will be Emilio Estevez’s return to the franchise. Once the Don’t Bothers have a team and a coach, they just need a place to play. They find it in the dilapidated Ice Palace, which just so happens to be owned by Coach Bombay. In a series filled with nostalgic nods, his role is the biggest. But even his role has been retooled to put him back in a familiar mindset. As in the first Mighty Ducks, Bombay has once again lost his love for the game. “No hockey” signs proliferate in the Ice Palace. He also scarfs down the cakes left behind from birthday parties, trying to deaden his bitterness. Kids’ hockey is now being played as a careerist vehicle, and Coach Bombay’s purist spirit can’t abide it.

As Bombay, Estevez possesses a grumpy charm. He’d rather this team wasn’t in his rink, but he can’t help but want to help them. Equally affecting: Estevez and Graham’s back-and-forth rapport, as Alex asks for guidance and Bombay sardonically turns her down. Also, the production design of Bombay’s office, replete with vintage wood paneling and photographs, is a gorgeous snapshot of a type of rink not seen today.

While Game Changers is witty, there are uneasy components to the story. The age bracket Evan plays in is 12-14, which allows physical contact between players. The Mighty Ducks films were all about children taking hard hits for comedy value. But knowing what we know now about athletes and CTE — the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated physical trauma — playing those same hits for laughs feels off-putting. A couple fatphobic jokes have already sprung up around Islam’s character, too. Even in a nostalgia-based series, not everything about 1990s humor needs to be brought back to the table.

Even so, these brisk half-hour episodes bring light-hearted, family-friendly laughs by offering younger viewers a band of relatable outcasts to root for, while giving parents not only heaps of nostalgia but a commendable critique of youth hockey to boot. It all makes The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers a quacking good time.

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers debuts on Disney Plus on Friday, March 26, with new episodes airing on Fridays.