Sky High (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Initially, Sky High looked like it was going to be one of the summer's throw-away movies - a family comedy with suspicious similarities to last year's The Incredibles. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only is Sky High too good to be considered a mere "throw away," but, from a pure entertainment perspective, it is arguably the most enjoyable motion picture of the season. Sky High is funny, smart, energetic, subversive, and has a few substantive things to say. There's nothing on director Mike Mitchell's dismal resume to indicate he was capable of crafting such a welcome diversion.

There is a little of The Incredibles to be found in Sky High, but that's not where the cinematic connections end. Other allusions include X-Men, Harry Potter, Spy Kids, and Can't Buy Me Love. The script, credited to a trio of writers (Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle) succeeds at the tricky task of lampooning a genre while also becoming an entry. The writing is sly and knowledgeable, and chock full of "in" jokes and witticisms in categories ranging from character names ("Warren Peace" - say that aloud) to set design (Bat-poles) to throw-away lines (Lynda Carter saying, "Who do you think I am? Wonder Woman?") No, this isn't Tolstoy, and despite the "Warren Peace," it's not intended to be. But it is perfect for the mood of the film, which is one third comedy, one third action, and one third drama. And, with no sex or profanity, and only a little in the way of cartoon violence, it's appropriate for the whole family.

The central character is Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), the 14-year old son of the world's two most revered superheroes, Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). In costume, they repeatedly save the day, while hiding behind their secret identities as mild-mannered real estate agents. For Will, it's time to start high school at his parents' alma mater, Sky High - the learning center for people with superpowers. Joining Will is his best friend, Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who has an affinity for plant life. But there's problem - Will hasn't shown any signs of superpowers, and this gets him placed in the "sidekick" class. While there, he has little chance of attracting the girl of his dreams, Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a senior with an affinity for technology. And it doesn't help that one of his teachers, Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell), doesn't like him. How can Will survive without powers living in his parents' shadow, and how can he find a way to tell his mother and father the truth about his non-existent abilities? And what happens when Commander and Jetstream's arch-enemy hatches a diabolical plan?

For a film as effervescent as Sky High frequently is, the characters are surprisingly well developed. And there are lessons to be learned. Will's experiences with different high school cliques ("heroes" and "sidekicks") are allegorical, and illustrate themes that many pre-teens and teenagers can relate to (alienation, rebellion, etc.). A subplot that has Will turning his back on his friends when the lure of fame and status beckon recalls the storyline of the '80s teen comedy, Can't Buy Me Love. The lesson is the same: popularity is fickle, but true love and friendship last forever.

There are plenty of opportunities for laughter in Sky High, and I won't ruin the surprise of discovery by cataloguing them here. The soundtrack is strong (although there are quite a few covers), with many of the songs used in inventive ways. (Spandau Ballet's "True" being the most striking example.) The real-life difficulties of being a superhero while raising a family are acknowledged, but not overplayed. This does not feel like a rip-off of either Spy Kids or The Incredibles. The special effects are solid - believable when desired and intentionally cheesy when that's called for (such as the robot at the beginning). And the powers of many classic superheroes are represented: Spider-Man, the Flash, Plastic Man, the Human Torch, the Thing, Iceman, and Superman.

The actors are well-cast. Most of the young thespians are fresh faces with limited experience (primarily in TV projects). Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead top a list of strong performers who capture the essences of characters that are more compelling than one might anticipate. Steven Strait is suitably James Dean-ish as Warren Peace, Will's nemesis. Better-known actors like Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, and the always welcome Bruce Campbell miss few, if any, notes. And Kevin Heffernan has a small part (as bus driver Ron Wilson) in which he channels John Candy.

There have been so many disappointments during the summer of 2005 that, upon finding something that exceeds expectations, I want to trumpet its existence. One could successfully argue that Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Batman Begins are more complete motion pictures, but it's hard to deny that Sky High has more charm. With likeable characters, an involving and amusing storyline, and solid direction, the film's appeal is hard to deny. Ignore the lame trailers and give Sky High a shot.

Sky High (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1