Sky High (2005)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/15/05 15:55:41

"Better than it has any right to be. Seriously."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Directed by Mike Mitchell and written by Paul Hernandez and Robert Schooley, "Sky High" is a surprisingly entertaining, family-oriented, comic book adventure complete with superheroes who can fly and have super strength, supervillains with plans for world domination (you're not a supervillain if you don't have a plan already in place and ready to go), combined with light-hearted, none-too-deep meditations on high school, teenage angst, and social caste system that often pre-judges and rejects individuality in favor of stifling conformity (not to mention the humiliation, cruelty, and pain directed at those at the bottom of the social scale). "Sky High's" no dry treatise, though, instead taking a light, comic approach to combining elements from seemingly disparate genres. There's not much that's new here, but the obscenity-free humor (some for teenagers, some for their parents, or at least parents who grew up in the 70s and 80s), cozily familiar scenarios, and likeable leads all make "Sky High" well worth recommending (at least for less cynical viewers).

Sky High is set in the familiar, comic book world of superheroes and supervillains. In this world, the children of superheroes attend a very special high school, Sky High (think of it as a Disneyfied version of Xavier's School for Gifted Children from the X-Men series). Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) can claim not one but two superhero parents, The Commander (Kurt Russell), a superhero endowed with super strength (and near invincibility), and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), a superhero who can fly (think Superman, with his abilities split between two distinct characters). His parents also happen to be successful real estate brokers by day. Will, about to start high school, is facing a daunting problem: his superhero powers have yet to appear. He also has to face the usual vicissitudes of a suburban teenager, making friends, trying not to make enemies, a rigid social hierarchy system, the pranks by the older students, and an impossible attraction to an older student, all within the first few hours of his first day in high school.

Will's day turns on a variation of gym class, Instead of potentially humiliating sporting activities, the gym coach, Boomer (Bruce Campbell), tests his new students. Those that pass his test are slotted into the "hero" caste, those who fail are relegated to the "sidekick" (or "hero support") caste. Even students with superpowers can be slotted into the sidekick, depending on what their powers actually are. Will's new and old friends include Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who can control vegetation, making it grow or die nearly instantaneously, Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels), who can melt into a puddle, Magenta (Kelly Vitz), a shapeshifter who can transform into exactly one animal (Boomer is not impressed), and Zach (Nicholas Braun), who glows in the dark, but doesn't do much else. Obviously, not all superpowers have been made equal, at least not in this comic-book world.

Will's storyline first turns on grudgingly accepting a sidekick role, which will cause his parents, who dream of forming a superhero, crime-fighting family, major disappointment (especially his ego-driven father), the harassment of the older kids, including Lash (Jake Sandvig), Speed (Will Harris), and Warren Peace (Steve Strait), whose supervillain father the Commander sent to prison to serve a lengthy sentence. After a major reversal reveals Will's superpowers, he eagerly joins the "cool" kids (a hero contingent), leaving his friends, who've all been relegated to "hero support," behind, including Layla, his childhood friend. Will, of course, is a basically decent character who's temporarily strayed off the path of the good and the true. Will is also tempted by Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a popular senior (she's the student body president), also tempts Will. Meanwhile, an old enemy has his sights on the Commander and Jetstream, even as Will prepares for the annual homecoming dance (no points for guessing that both storylines converge at some point).

As expected, Sky High concludes with a battle royale between superheroes and supervillains (ok, make that singular, as in one superhero and one supervillain), with Will testing his powers against a super powerful adversary, and his friends forced to act as a team, with each sidekick character putting his or her superpowers to good use. And given the target demographic (pre-teenagers, teenagers, and their parents), the violence is broad, cartoony, and no one suffers too much. Even the supervillain's plan for world domination (or something along those lines) leaves little doubt that the supervillain may be mean-spirited, but only slightly cruel. Of course, saving the day allows Sky High to push its fairly innocuous message about high school caste systems (and why they're bad), teamwork, and the nuclear family (the superhero family that fights crime together stays together).

"Sky High" may not have the thematic complexity found in last year's "The Incredibles," but with its goofy charm, clever jokes, likeable (if thin) characters, cover songs of familiar 80s hits (for the adults in the audience), cameos from former Kids in the Hall performers Dave Foley and Kevin MacDonald (not to mention Linda Carter, TV's "Wonder Woman"), and positive message, it's certainly far more enjoyable than this summer's other superhero flick, "Fantastic Four" (the less said about "Fantastic Four," the better). And while some viewers will point to "Sky High's" underwhelming production design (which betrays its limited budget) and occasionally dodgy special effects as negatives, only those with narrow, pre-conceived ideas about superhero films (and how serious they should treat their subjects) will hold them against "Sky High." Certainly, it takes a certain sunny disposition to enjoy "Sky High," but then again, escapist entertainment is meant to lighten our mood or appeal to the better part of our natures. In that respect, "Sky High" succeeds admirably.

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