Sky High gets off to a slow start with half-baked jokes and a cheesy visual style. Then the jokes pick up and the characters come into sharper focus. The visual style remains pedestrian, but director Mike Mitchell (Surviving Christmas) receives spirited performances from his young actors and knowing turns from the veterans. This comedy about a special high school for teens with superpowers earns a B+, with much of the credit belong to a savvy screenplay by Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle, which explores the angst and travails of high school through the comic lens of a world in which superheroes are commonly known and accepted.
This Disney film is a likable mix of laughs and wacky action sequences so the studio can anticipate above-average business from family audiences and teens on dates.
Will (Michael Angarano) is the son of two superheroes, Commander Stronghold (Kurt Russell) and Josie Jetstream (Kelly Preston), who must save the world on a regular basis. His first day at his Dad's alma mater, Sky High -- a campus whose antigravity device keeps it suspended above the clouds -- Will must confront his worst fear: He has no apparent powers of his own.
The school is divided into a demeaning class system among heroes, kids with extraordinary power, and sidekicks -- youngsters who act as support for the heroes of the future. So for Will, his first day becomes a bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that he, along with his best friend and girl next door, Layla (Danielle Panabaker), whose beauty Will fails to notice, get lumped with the sidekicks. The good news is that the hottest girl on campus, senior class president Gwen Grayson Mary Elizabeth Winstead), seems to have a thing for him. Which is bad news for Layla, who has a major crush on Will.
Will also discovers he has an arch enemy in Warren Peace (Steven Strait) -- as in War and Peace because the guy's a bit schizophrenic -- whose dad was put in jail by Will's dad. Eventually, Will must confess to Dad and Mom about his lack of powers, a conversation he no sooner has then he discovers he does have superpowers. (Something to do with late-blooming puberty, no doubt.) When Will transfers from sidekick to hero studies, the whole class issue becomes ensnared in the romantic triangle among Will, Layla and Gwen. Of course, Gwen has ulterior motives in her relationship with Will.
Adult figures on campus include Principal Powers, played by Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter; Bruce Campbell's Coach Boomer, his voice a sonic boom; Kevin Heffernan's bus driver, whose gung-ho spirit belies his lack of powers; and Cloris Leachman's amusing cameo as a school nurse with X-ray vision.
Sky High wins few marks for originality. A school for superheroes sounds suspiciously like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. And a family of superheroes does remind you of The Incredibles. But the way in which the script mixes campus melodramas -- from cafeteria fights and detention to school dances and problematic romances -- with a world of superheroism becomes more amusing with each passing minute.
Angarano delivers just the right blend of earnestness, insecurity and moral indignation. Panabaker has a beguiling, intelligent presence on screen, while Winstead nicely suggests a cool femme fatale. Russell and Preston play their roles with nonchalant preening. Strait is allowed to develop the movie's most complex character, a sullen antihero with the makings of an actual hero.
The effects, sets and action is clumsy at times, but then you wouldn't want the movie to be slicker; the filmmakers could have overproduced this little comedy. By keeping things modest and relying on the ingenuity of the script, the movie stays enjoyable rather than becoming silly.
Buena Vista Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenwriters: Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle
Producer: Andrew Gunn
Executive producers: Mario Iscovich, Ann Marie Sanderlin
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: Bruce Robert Hill
Music: Michael Giacchino
Costumes: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: Peter Amundson
Josie Jetstream: Kelly Preston
Will Stronghold: Michael Angarano
Gwen Grayson: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Commander Stronghold: Kurt Russell
Warren Peace: Steven Straight
Coach Boomer: Bruce Campbell
Principal Powers: Lynda Carter
MPAA rating PG
Running time -- 99 minutes
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