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Sky High (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/02/05 15:41:06

"Goes against all expectations and knocks us out."
5 stars (Awesome)

I am so overcome by the good feelings to be found in Disney’s teenage superhero comedy “Sky High” that I hardly know where to begin a review. So I suppose the good vibes are as good a place as any: I left the movie grinning, chuckling, glowing, and anxious to go again. This is the kind of film that sneaks up on you, surprises you with its wit and warmth - did anyone expect this to be anything more than just some so-so kiddie adventure? - and gets you all giddy. This, my friends, is how one should feel while leaving a multiplex.

“Sky High” doesn’t sound too original on paper. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is the son of the world’s two greatest superheroes, the Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). He’s set to enter his freshman year at Sky High, a high school for superpowered teens. His lack of powers lands him the unwanted label of “sidekick.” He hangs out with the geeks, but catches the eye of megapopular senior Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and soon his friends - and responsibilities - are left behind.

I’m still surprised that the movie didn’t turn out the way it sounds. In lesser hands, this blend of comic book adventure and teen dramedy would’ve been a massive failure, nothing more than a half-cocked high concept flop. Heck, lesser hands were all we were expecting, considering how director Mike Mitchell’s last two features were “Surviving Christmas” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.” Fortunately for us, Mitchell abandoned his crappy past, dug in deep with the refreshingly whip-smart script (by Paul Hernandez and Disney regulars Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, for those keeping score), and came out with one heck of a delight.

At the core of “Sky High” is a screenplay that crackles with wit; the script not only understands the two genres the movie tackles back and forth, but it relishes them. It comes loaded with a “Freaks and Geeks” knowledge of the darker side of teen living (“If life were suddenly to get fair, I doubt it’d happen in high school”), those grueling memories of swirlies and locker stuffings and other assorted embarrassments that come with being a freshman. And it handles these issues in a delicate, lovable way. Consider, for example, the scene in which Will tells his dad that he’s a sidekick, not a hero. I’m reminded of the “coming out” scene in “X2;” that film paralleled the revelation of one’s superpowers with the announcement of one’s homosexuality, while this film, slightly similar, tones it down, taking us instead to examine that dreadful time when a kid tells his parents that he’s not the perfect son they thought he was, that he’s proud to be his own person and not just a shadow of his parents. Who would have guessed we’d find such solid, tender family drama in a Disney superhero parody?

But oh, how that parody shines. It’s the little things, of course - the euphemism “hero support” replacing “sidekick;” the throwaway lines from Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald (“you’ve confused rays with beams!” remains a favorite); the sneaky way in which the costume design keeps Will in family colors of red, white, and blue. “Sky High” is richly detailed with knowing observations on the comic book genre, observations that always laugh with, not at, the source. What’s not to love about a movie that offers up a character named Warren Peace?

And just watch how the writers manipulate one genre to work with the other. Geeks become sidekicks; bullies become villains; obnoxious former superheroes become obnoxious gym teachers. It’s one step further in Stan Lee’s plan to make comic books metaphors for our own lives.

Just as the film would have fallen apart with a lesser script, it also wouldn’t have held up with a lesser cast. The grown-ups all get a chance to shine, of course - Russell and Campbell are as cool as expected, Foley and McDonald bring their old “Kids In the Hall” sensibilities to steal many a scene, and “Broken Lizard” troupe member Kevin Heffernan earns both comic and sweet points as the lovable, schlumpy bus driver - but it’s the kids here who sell the thing. There’s not an unlikable child star to be found here. The youngsters, led by the highly charismatic Angarano, bring just the right tone to the film. Their screen presence is sparkling, as we want to like these kids. It’s no stretch when the movie asks us to root for them; we already were.

If the film has a down side, it’s in its basic story. Although the screenplay is peppered with brilliant, quotable lines, the plot itself is too reliant on predictability. There’s not a scene here that doesn’t wind up the way we expect, not a plot point that’s not set up in the most obvious of manners. (Hint: when dad says not to bring anybody into his secret superhero hideout, that’s your clue as an audience member to start counting down the minutes until the son-lets-girl-into-hideout scene.) It’s an annoying little itch in an otherwise clever movie - forgivable, considering the Disney brand and the target audience, but still, an itch.

That said, “Sky High” has quickly become a favorite, a flick that’s been begging me for a repeat viewing. And another, and another. It’s the sort of kid’s fare that parents love to get: genuinely smart, genuinely funny, genuinely fun all around. It’s arguably the most lovable movie to come along this summer movie season.

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