In Disney+’s new take on the much-loved hockey trilogy, the Ducks are no longer the heroes, following in line with a string of rule-rewriting sports movie reboots
Ťhe played out formula of the sports movie has seen a noticeable refresh in recent years. Rather than sticking to the dog-eared playbook (good guys win, bad guys lose), reboots of the blueprint-writing originals have mixed things up, switching allegiances and perspectives.
In Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid series that started on YouTube before finding its audience on Netflix, the original antagonist is now the hero. In the Creed series, the white-led Rocky franchise now focuses on the once-sidelined black characters. And in Disney+’s new Mighty Ducks series, based on the original trilogy of films, the likable underdog ice hockey team has turned sour with success.
Originally, The Mighty Ducks and its sequels D2: The Mighty Ducks and D3: The Mighty Ducks kept to a few consistent ingredients. They always set the protagonists, an unlikely diverse team of young hockey players, against a team of homogenous, oftentimes wealthy, and well-organized players. Our heroes are usually from broken homes and are forced to form a family out of the usual nuclear setting.
Over three movies, the Ducks beat the local youth hockey franchise empire. They win a global hockey tournament (which has a striking similarity to the Olympics but is called the Junior Goodwill Games) and they integrate a stuffy prep school, beating the ultra-preppy varsity hockey team in the process. Along the way there’s growth – Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez), a cranky lawyer turned doting coach and-father figure, hands the team off to a new coach and the Ducks deal with some of the traditional coming of age tropes like loss, change, and resilience. Hijinks ensue as well. The franchise has always been ostensibly about hockey but its real theme is family, diversity and heart.
Fast forward to The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers and things have changed. Bombay is now a cranky hockey rink owner and proud hermit who refuses to acknowledge his ongoing deep love of hockey. There’s no sign of the original Ducks and their younger version is now one of those uber competitive youth teams where parents plot out their kids’ 15-year success through acceptance to an Ivy League school (“Ducks are a powerhouse organization with a record 10 state championships,” a character notes).
Evan Morrow (Brady Noon), a 12-year-old member of the Ducks, gets cut from the team because, in the words of the team’s current fair-haired coach, “You’re good, but you’re not good enough.”
“At this age, if you can’t be great at hockey it’s like … don’t bother,” the coach says to the visibly distraught Evan. That prompts Evan’s mother, Alex (Lauren Graham), to finally unload on her fellow Ducks parents for their obsession with winning over their kids having fun.
“My kid loves hockey, but I guess this doesn’t matter now,” Alex says before turning to her fellow hockey parents to rant about how nuts this has all gotten. “The 6am practices. The thousand-dollar clinics. The god-like worship of protein. Do you understand that there is about zero chance that any one of these kids is going to play professional hockey?
“So why are you living like this?!” Alex says as all the camera phones are now on her (this is 2021 after all and a potentially viral moment must be captured, even at a kids’ hokey practice). Alex asks Stephanie, her frenemy, “You brought two private trainers to your kid’s hockey practice. Does that seem normal to you?”
Alex marches out determined to set up a new team for Evan where kids can just have fun.
This is markedly different than the trigger for the original Mighty Ducks movie – Bombay gets a DUI and has to coach hockey as part of his court-ordered community service. And both the Ducks and the new anti-Ducks team (I’ll save the name they choose, which is even sillier and just as charming as the Mighty Ducks name) is made up of both boys and girls of different ethnicities.
The new anti-Ducks are still following the original movies’ ingredients. They’re not rich. Many of them come from broken homes or unconventional houses. They get picked on at school. They’re in search of friends and family. Alex and Coach Bombay also have to build a relationship – similar to Gordon and a maternal presence in the first two movies. Bombay has to remember what he really loved about coaching and hockey and get the courage to show it.
Part of the appeal of the new Mighty Ducks: Game Changers show is indeed the nostalgic bildungsroman story arc. The personalities of some of the players are faint in the first few episodes – the new goalie isn’t a burst of humor and energy like Greg Goldberg. But it’s early and this is a story about coming out of your shell. They are underdogs and they are, as one popular kid at school snipes, freaks. They desperately want to have fun and deep down they want to win, just to know what it feels like for once.
It’s surprisingly easy to watch the reboot and root against the now actually mighty Mighty Ducks. Sports movies have traditionally told us what to think and how to feel, a genre more than any other that’s stuck to an often simplistic view of the world and the games that exist within it. What this new show does, along with Cobra Kai and the Creed films, is pull us back down to earth along with the characters, following through with a more grounded answer to the question of what would actually happen next. By extending these stories into overtime, the reboots have finally figured out that winning or losing is only half the battle, it’s what you do with it that really counts.