“The kids who get bitten by a radioactive spider or fall into a vat of toxic waste, their powers usually show up the next day,” remarks school Nurse Spex (Cloris Leachman) to Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), attempting to console the anguished, as-yet-superpower-less 14-year-old. “Or,” she adds with a shrug, “they die.”
Such is life at Sky High.
An amalgam of ’80s John Hughes teen coming-of-age comedies and the obsession with superheroes that in recent years has overcome Hollywood like a plague, Walt Disney’s Sky High turns out to be a refreshing treat. Witty, wacky and played with conviction by both a young, apple-cheeked cast and a troupe of seasoned screen vets, the movie soars with a vigor missing from 95% of movies released so far this year. It serves mainly to entertain. And, as a bonus, it entertains with a dash of brains.
As Will, son of superhero legends The Commander and Jetstream (a.k.a. Steve and Josie Stronghold), enters his first year at Sky High, a school for kids with super special abilities, he’s yet to realize his powers: Is he strong, like dad? Can he fly, like mom? Or is he a mere mortal?
Will’s powerless status relegates him to the subclass of sidekick — along with friends Ethan, who can liquefy himself; Magenta, who can morph into a hamster; Zach, who glows florescent green; and Layla, who can control plants. Layla harbors a deep crush on the oblivious Will, who’s moony-eyed for upperclassman Gwen, a drop-dead gorgeous technopath who seduces the boy with an ulterior motive in mind.
Will soon realizes his gifts during a lunchroom brawl with school rebel Warren Peace (Steven Strait), the progeny of a super-villain and superhero who can shoot flames from his fingertips. Later, with much of the school in jeopardy, his sidekick chums realize their own heroic status.
The movie is carved from a giant Styrofoam block of clichÃ©s, but at least director Mike Mitchell and a trio of writers are artful about it, keeping the film from feeling stale and old hat. You’d have to be blind not to see where Sky High is headed. But the pleasure lies in the details — and the details are bountiful. The adult actors especially seem to be game for anything, notably Dave Foley as Mr. Boy (short for All American Boy), an over-the-hill sidekick who now teaches the Hero Support class (subjects include Motorcycle Sidecar Basics and the proper terms to use, such as “Holy [Blank], [Blank]man!”) and Kevin McDonald as Medulla, who instructs the kids in mad science (apparently there are crucial difference between rays and beams).
Kurt Russell, a staple of ’60s Disney fare like Follow Me, Boys! and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, has a grand homecoming here; his square-jawed take on the Commander is a mark of perfection. Kelly Preston’s Jetstream is less memorable, but then again, can you remember anything that Preston’s done? Leachman has only one scene, but she steals it. And Lynda Carter, as Sky High’s principal, playfully alludes to the role that made her a legend: Wonder Woman.
Angarano, recently seen in the the invigorating Lords of Dogtown, is a snaggle-toothed charmer, and Danielle Panabaker is a newly discovered screen gem as Layla. The pair have authentic (teenage) chemistry. Also worth noting: Jake Sandvig’s stretchable school rascal Lash and Strait’s smolderingly handsome firestarter Peace.
Imbued with a wholesome, apple pie goodness, Sky High might not be seen by some teens as an especially hip film, but they’d be fools to stay away. Because amid all the crass, loud, narratively empty movies being churned out these days, it’s a joy to find one that not only lives up to its promise, but is absolutely, positively super.