Wednesday, August 03, 2005

REVIEW: Sky High

It's odd how promotion works. By all logic, Disney should have been overpromoting "Sky High" in a manner befitting a summer family offering that can easily be described with the lofty-sounding "Harry Potter' meets 'The Incredibles." If that had happened, the film may well have played as "underwhelming." But instead, the studio has barely promoted the film, and gently nudged it into a late-July release. As a result, what we have here is a quaint little gem of a family comedy that can be properly seen in the light of it's own measured self-assurance.

Set in the basic comic book universe where superheroes and their adventures are just a fact of life, (a world which, thanks to the cinema audience's growing awareness of the genre, the film happily doesn't need a mountain of exposition to explain,) the story centers on "Sky High," a secret trade school for teenage superheroes-to-be on a floating island above the clouds. The film's comic conciet is that all the "typical" issues of high school life are here magnified to absurd degrees by the presence of superpowers and the social stratas of superhero mythos: At Sky High, the "popular" and "unpopular" cliques divide between those students with cool, impressive powers who are destined to be Heroes and those with silly or unimpressive powers (or no powers at all) who can only aspire to be Sidekicks. (Dave Foley plays the head teacher of the Sidekicks, Mr. Boy, and if you're already giggling a bit at that this is the movie for you.)

As high school movies are seldom set among the popular kids, the plot proper follows the exploits of a group of Freshman already branded Sidekicks, mostly for sporting powers of such dubious practicality as glowing in the dark or morphing into a purple gineau pig. One among them, Layla, has the technically hero-worthy power to control plants but remains a Sidekick as a flower-child protest against the class system. Michael Angarano has the lead as Will Stronghold, who's the son of world-renowned superhero couple The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston) and thus has Potter-style fame preceeding him: Except that he hasn't gotten his powers (read: puberty) yet.

So that's the gag, comic book lore as allegory for growing-pain angst, and once you figure that out it's not hard to plot where this is going: Naturally, Will sprouts his powers suddenly and must make choices about whether to abandon his uncool Sidekick friends for induction into the Superhero in-crowd. Yes, there's a super-hot dreamgirl who comes between Will and Layla's long-unexpressed mutual crush on him, and yes, there's a "party while the folks are away" scene augmented by the presence of superpowers. And a big old-fashioned no-prize to all you smarties who guessed that this main teen relationships plot and the bubbling subplots of a return by an old foe of The Commander and nefarious goings-on at Sky High will all turn out to be interrelated.

But, damn, the thing really works, and the big reason why is that it's supremely sincere about it's material: The high-school dramedy is played straight and without overdone sarcasm, and the very Silver Age superheroics have clearly been conceptualized by folks with a genuine fondness (not to mention familiarity) with capes, tights and secret identities. Fans of the 80s Teen Titans or old-school Legion of Superheroes devotees take note: This movie is definately for you.

The young cast handles it's job with uniform quality, the standouts being Angarano and Steven Strait as Warren Peace, (which I found hysterical every time, for some reason,) an enigmatic loner student who throws fireballs, nurses a family grudge against Will and has a genuinely interesting character arc.

As for the grownups, just as the "Harry Potter" cycle has locked in the services of British character greats in the adult roles, the teachers and parents of "Sky High" are a glorious grab bag of geek-culture icons: Alongside Russell we have Linda Carter as Principal Powers, Kevin Heffernan as a bus driver, Foley's onetime "Kids in The Hall" cohort Kevin McDonald as a big-brained science teacher and, yes, Bruce Campbell as Coach Boomer.

This isn't the cure for cancer, but I had a lot of fun at this and I think most audiences will if they give it a chance. Reccomended.



Casey "Meat-Hooks" Malone said...

I caught the trailer for this in front of Batman Begins.
The irony was almost palpable when Bruce Campbel called the main character a sidekick because he didn't have any superpowers.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

A vision of The Incredibles did flash before me during one scene with Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston. Isn't it neat to see Kurt back with Disney after his string of films with Uncle Walt's studio in the early 1970s.