The shadows of both “The Incredibles” and the “Spy Kids” movies hang heavy over this new live-action Disney flick, another example of filmmakers’ recent fascination with young superheroes, this time with an overlay of typical highschool comic angst (as well as a dollop of a space-age Hogwarts). The resultant brew isn’t terribly clever or inventive–it’s more what one would expect of a family-friendly cable movie–but it has an attractive cast, has been professionally put together and boasts uplifting messages about friendship, trust and working together for the common good. “Sky High” is innocuous and obvious, but it should prove a serviceable wish-fulfillment fantasy for pre-teens and tweens while giving older viewers a few smiles, too.
Michael Angarano (the nerdy member of the “Lords of Dogtown” skateboarders) plays Will Stronghold, the 14-year old son of realtors Steve and Josie (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston), who just also happen to be the city’s greatest costumed champions, The Commander (with super-strength) and Jet Stream (who can fly). He’s about to start classes at Sky High, a campus on a sort of floating island in the clouds, presided over by Principal Powers (Lynda Carter, who–yes–does get to say airily at one point that she’s no wonder woman), where teens with special abilities go to hone their talents and be trained as the new caped crusaders. The fame of Will’s parents leads everybody to assume that even as a freshman he’ll be a standout, but unhappily whatever powers he might possess haven’t yet appeared, and so in the division of students made by the blustery Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell) he’s assigned to the shunned Sidekick rather than popular Hero classes. That means that he joins the group taught “hero-support” techniques by goofy former sidekick Mr. All-American Boy (Dave Foley) rather than the advanced science courses with big-headed brainiac Mr. Medulla (Kevin McDonald)–and that his friends are the other sidekicks, including plant-girl Layla (Danielle Panabaker), the neighbor who’s always had a crush on him though he looks on her just as his best pal (shades of John Hughes!). His father is disappointed with this turn of events, but fortunately Will’s powers emerge just as he needs them–when he’s challenged to a fight by a resident bad-boy (and fire-starter) (Steven Strait) whose father, a super-villain, was caught and jailed by The Commander. (It’s a rather sad sign that this kid’s punning name–Warren Peace–is the smartest bit of business in the movie.) That leads not only to Will’s being transferred to the Hero class, but to his catching the eye of beautiful senior Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)–much to Layla’s displeasure. But there’s evil afoot: a master-criminal is out to destroy not only Will’s parents but Sky High as well, and it will be up to the boy and the downtrodden sidekicks to save the day. Don’t want to spoil the surprise, but they do.
The lessons to be learned from all this are clear–be true to yourself, keep your promises, don’t judge a book by its cover, know who your real friends are, etc–and so are the exemplars from which most of the script’s building-blocks have been borrowed. But the cribbed materials are cobbled together agreeably enough by the screenwriters, and though Mike Mitchell’s direction is rather lax, the result is still his best work (not saying much, seeing that his previous movies were “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and “Surviving Christmas”). The cast seem to be having a reasonably good time; the adults tend to italicize everything, with Campbell coming on especially strong but Foley, Carter and Cloris Leachman (as the school nurse) not far behind–and it can’t have been easy for Russell and Preston to resist an air of humiliation while wearing their garish rubber costumes, though they try hard to remain in the spirit of things (and Russell’s jutting chin seems especially appropriate to the part)–but the youngsters are personable, with Angarano cutting a likable figure and getting good support not only from Panabaker and Strait but from his fellow sidekicks played by Dee-Jay Daniels (as a boy who can liquify himself), Kelly Vitz (as a shape-shifter who can shift only into a guinea pig) and Nicholas Brown (as a guy who glows). The physical production is pleasantly colorful and the effects unpretentiously cheesy, but the music score is peculiar, filled with eighties pop tunes that make the movie seem like a trip to an alternate time as well as an alternate world.
By today’s whiz-bang standards “Sky High” may seem a tad tame and old-fashioned, but it’s a harmless trifle whose easy-going, undemanding tone should appeal to younger viewers without unduly antagonizing older ones.