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Sky High (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 29 July 2005
Although it seems contradictory, sometimes the central virtue of a movie is also its principal defect. So it is with “Sky High.” Virtue: it’s a comedy about a high school for super heroes. Defect: it’s a high school comedy about a school for super heroes. That is, while it’s partly an amusing, likeable take on the idea of super heroes at a high school designed for them, the storyline is altogether too familiar: the same basic plot, minus super powers, was being used in silent movies and came to flower with the Andy Hardy movies of the 30s and 40s. Entire sitcoms—lots of them—have been built on the same soshes vs. geeks/sports stars vs. nerds dichotomies. “Sky High” falls into the sports stars vs. nerds category of high school comedies.

Screenwriters Paul Hernandez and the team of Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle come up with many bright ideas, and unlike the majority of other writers doing this sort of thing actually have some fun with language itself. Dad Kurt Russell assures son Will that “You will, Will!” That’s just a tossaway line—there’s no pause for laughs—but does indicate that these guys hear their own dialogue and know its value. They continue to throw away lines throughout the movie: in the high school cafeteria, we can—barely—overhear the announcement that sidekicks shouldn’t order hero sandwiches.)

Michael Angarano plays teenaged Will Stronghold trembling on the brink of his first day at Sky High, reserved for the children of superheroes (and the rare villain). His own parents are Steve Stronghold who hides his super-identity of The Commander behind the guise of a real estate salesman. (His secret identity seems to be anything but secret.) He’s super-strong and evidently invulnerable; his wife Josie (Kelly Preston) is also Jetstream, who can fly.

Will has kept it a secret from his proud parents that so far he hasn’t developed any super powers at all. His best friend and neighbor Layla (Danelle Panabaker) can make plants do just about anything, but so far she’s kept this ability a secret from everyone other than Will. They board the flying school bus bound for Sky High, mounted on a huge platform in the clouds, kept aloft by anti-gravity devices.

On their first day, all freshmen have to gather in the gym for bombastic Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell), whose power is super-loud shouting, to divide them into “heroes” and “sidekicks.” He has each demonstrate their powers, occasionally dropping a car on the really strong candidates. Useful powers—you’re a hero. Minor or no powers—you’re merely sidekick material. Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels) can melt into a colorful puddle, but that’s about it. Sidekick track for him. Same with Zach (Nicholas Braun), who can glow, though dimly, and Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who can turn into a magenta guinea pig. Layla refuses to submit to this demeaning ritual, and Will’s demonstration is saved for the next day.
Almost immediately on arriving, Will is targeted by flexible senior Lash (Jake Sandvig) and his speedy partner Speed (Will Harris)—but to everyone’s surprise, especially his own, Will is singled out for flattering attention by Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the queen of the senior class (who has power over machines).

Will and Layla make friends with Zach, Magenta and Ethan, but he makes an implacable enemy of fire-throwing Warren Peace (Steven Strait), whose super-villain father The Commander jailed. At home, the proud Steve takes Will into his secret sanctum for the first time, a trophy room/billiard parlor beneath the house. There are all kinds of things, including a gadget he took from his worst arch-enemy, Royal Pain.

But Will finally has to admit to his parents that he really has no super powers at all. However, the next day at school, he and Warren are uncomfortably paired in a powers contest against Lash and Speed—and now Will turns out to be a super-strong as his father. Despite their enmity, he and Warren team up to defeat the other two, the first time freshmen have triumphed in this contest.

Unfortunately, after this setup, the movie is cursed to follow the usual high school romantic comedy track: Will doesn’t know Layla likes him, and is dazzled by the attentions of pretty Gwen. Occasionally, we see Royal Pain and cackling sidekick watching The Commander via the eye of a giant robot the Commander and Jetstream whomped in the first reel. There are sinister forces afoot. There are romantic complications to untangle. And, of course, all is resolved at the senior prom.

Director Mike Mitchell, whose “Surviving Christmas” of last year didn’t exactly win him laurels, keeps things moving along at a fairly good pace, though at 102 minutes, “Sky High” is just too long for this material. Your patience wears out before the movie wraps up. Still, it’s bright and colorful; the handsome sets are designed by Bruce Robert Hill and Shelly Johnson’s widescreen cinematography is colorful and clean. The shots are very well composed, with the staging lively if at times confusing. (It doesn’t help that Gwen’s pal Penny [Malika AND Khadjiah, twins] can multiply herself into an entire cheerleading squad.)

Ideas like this need cheekier treatment and a better awareness of what really works and what doesn’t. Cloris Leachman has an amusing scene or two as a school nurse with X-ray vision, but principal Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman herself, and yes, there is a reference) has little to do—and doesn’t do that very well. Bruce Campbell is a hoot as the disdainful coach, but Dave Foley is a bore as Mr. Boy, who used to be The Commander’s sidekick. (The Commander barely remembers him.) Kevin Hefferman is energetic as Ron Wilson, Bus Driver, but his role remains just a vague smear. They’re minor characters with the look of incomplete ideas; they’re just interesting enough that we wish to see more of them—but we don’t. So their mere presence is a little frustrating—especially when we realize that all these are going to have to have something like payoffs. This is one reason the movie is so long.

Michael Angarano is given a very standard role which, unfortunately, he plays in a very standard fashion. He’s the nerd who’s really cool underneath—but unlike, say, Peter Parker, he’s never shown to have any secret ambitions or a more complex character. On the other hand, as Layla, Danielle Panabaker is outstanding, giving a small gem of a performance as the pretty girl no one notices who carries a big torch for her pal Will.

The other sidekicks don’t have a lot to work with, but they’re energetic and entertaining. As Warren Peace, Steven Strait, like Panabaker, Is surprisingly good; the role was clearly written as The Bad Boy With a Soul—he can quote poetry—but Strait makes him very particular. When director Mitchell saw the dailies, he should have enlarged Strait’s role.

Kurt Russell is a smooth, proficient actor and has been for almost fifty years. His first movie for Disney, “Follow Me, Boys” was released in 1966, and he was one of the studio’s principal stars in the next ten years or so. While he’s moved all across the movie landscape in almost every kind of good-guy role possible (he’s never played a villain), he does keep returning to Disney. For the most part, he’s very good as The Commander, moving on the brink of parody but never really toppling over.

Being the kind of movie it is, “Sky High” has plentiful special effects, but they’re standard, state-of-the-art stuff; this really isn’t a superhero movie, so no new ground needed to broken to merely depict the superpowers of this flock of superpowerful people. The effects do their job; they’re not there to dazzle.

Nor, overall, is “Sky High.” It’s a relatively modest movie being given a prominent summer release spot. Disney has done virtually no promotion of the film, there aren’t plentiful product tie-ins. But because of its modesty and limited ambitions, it’s probably more entertaining for most people that much bigger-scale movies (like “The Island,” for instance). And it’s safe to visit with kids of any age.

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