?Sky High? is the gangly, pimple-faced, adolescent love child of John Hughes and the Nickelodeon channel; an expanded Harry Potter-meets-The Incredibles Saturday morning cartoon for the "tween" demographic that's as predictable as an after-school special, but in a comforting, not cloying way.
Sure, there was some initial aversion at having to review a picture whose director (Mike Mitchell) was responsible for forcing the odious ?Surviving Christmas? down our collective throats, yet I found myself inexplicably enjoying the movie against my will and was even, dare I say it, entertained.
With a screenplay by Paul Hernandez and Disney's "Kim Possible" scribes Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle that's refreshingly aware of its own shlockiness--Kelly Preston and Kurt Russell spend three-quarters of their screen time with arms heroically akimbo, gazing at some faraway, undeterminable point on the horizon--?Sky High?doesn't attempt to sidestep comic superhero stereotypes. In fact, it embraces them like they're Best Friends Forever.
Soon after the movie begins, a television newscaster announces that "evil has struck our morning commute. Drivers should consider alternate routes." This city obviously has more in common with the Powerpuff Girls' Townsville than Batman's Gotham.
Will Stronghold (played by Michael Angarano, whom you may remember as Jack's son on TV's ?Will & Grace?) is the offspring of two of the world's greatest superheroes: The Commander (Russell; superpower: super strength) and Jetstream (Preston; superpower: flight, which I thought was pretty lame if that's all she did). Figuring it worked for that other guy, they don glasses when playing their civilian alter egos, Steve and Josie Stronghold, real estate agents who titter excitedly when they realize they have a real shot at winning that trip to Hawaii, even as they slide down his-and-her poles into their secret sanctum when danger calls.
To Will's embarrassment (Angarano has perfected the pained, "why me," deer-in-headlights grimace of youth), he hasn't developed powers of his own, a fact he tries desperately to hide from his old man. Making things worse, it's his first day at high school, and not just any regular high school--you know this because shiny metal wings in matching yellow roll out from the Sky High school bus like the dad from ?Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? pimped their ride--but one whose student body is powered up with super spawn just like him, on a campus floating high above the stratosphere on antigravity thrusters.
Sky High's freshmen have to go through a very public "power placement" process (kind of like the Sorting Hat ceremony at Hogwarts but with the gloriously droll, sonic boom-shouting Bruce Campbell instead of a dingy, talking hat) that polarizes them into "heroes" and "sidekicks," a dichotomy which Will's best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker; superpower: botanical manipulation) calls fascist. Powerless, Will is relegated to sidekick hell, i.e., "hero support," along with Layla, Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels; superpower: he turns into a puddle), Zach (Nicholas Braun; superpower: he glows ... sometimes), and Magenta (Kelly Vitz; superpower: she can turn into a purple-streaked guinea pig).
Then there is the improbably named Warren Peace (geddit?) a tormented loner, played by Steven Strait, whose mother is a superhero and his father a super villain whom Will's dad tossed into the gulag. "Great," Will laments. "It's my first day at school and already I have an arch-nemesis."
Rounding out our high school archetypes is Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; superpower: psychic control of technology), the beautiful, unattainable senior who radiates beatific incorruptibility and Spandau Ballet's "True" whenever Will gazes hangdoggedly at her, much to Layla's chagrin.
There's a hilarious montage of what goes on in Hero Support, including a gym sequence where the kids form a line-up and take turns dodging behind a screen, changing into costume and striking a pose, all without missing a beat; the class is led by Kids in the Hall alumnus Dave Foley, the Commander's former sidekick All-American Boy (you can now call him "Mr. Boy"). "Without hero support," he says, "there wouldn't be heroes. Alright there probably would be heroes, but they would be very lonely."
At its core, ?Sky High?is a movie about adolescence, high school cliques and the teenage anguish of "fitting in." The old social hierarchies and caste prejudices are trotted out and we more than linger upon the labyrinthine minefield that is lunchroom seating. Since this is ostensibly a Disney picture, it lacks the wise-guy irony and self-existential angst of John Hughes' teen oeuvre or the cunning subversion of Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls." There is no mention of sex or drugs, and the villains speak, act and cackle like they were plucked right out of the Power Rangers universe.
Everything comes to a head at the homecoming dance, as every teen movie eventually does. Formulaic, yes, but it's an enjoyable, feel-good formula that has a sweet innocence and good-conquers-evil resonance I think our jaded adult lives need to revisit now and then. During a cafeteria showdown, Will's latent superpower finally kicks into gear. The expression of joy on his face as he realizes this is an absolute delight to watch. Suddenly, all doubt about who he is evaporates. We know this won't last, of course, but isn't discovery, and often, re-discovery, what high school--and by extension, life--all about?
(?Sky High?opens July 29. Running time: 198 minutes, PG for action violence and some mild language.)