'Sky High' Gives Teen Angst the Superhero Treatment

?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 someinitial aversion at having to review a picture whose director (Mike Mitchell)was responsible for forcing the odious ?Surviving Christmas? down ourcollective throats, yet I found myself inexplicably enjoying the movie againstmy will and was even, dare I say it, entertained.

With a screenplay by PaulHernandez and Disney's "Kim Possible" scribes Bob Schooley and MarkMcCorkle that's refreshingly aware of its own shlockiness--Kelly Preston andKurt Russell spend three-quarters of their screen time with arms heroicallyakimbo, gazing at some faraway, undeterminable point on the horizon--?Sky High?doesn'tattempt to sidestep comic superhero stereotypes. In fact, it embraces them likethey're Best Friends Forever.

Soon after the moviebegins, a television newscaster announces that "evil has struck ourmorning commute. Drivers should consider alternate routes." This cityobviously has more in common with the Powerpuff Girls' Townsville than Batman'sGotham.

Will Stronghold (played byMichael 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 itworked for that other guy, they don glasses when playing their civilian alteregos, Steve and Josie Stronghold, real estate agents who titter excitedly whenthey realize they have a real shot at winning that trip to Hawaii, even as theyslide 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-headlightsgrimace of youth), he hasn't developed powers of his own, a fact he triesdesperately to hide from his old man. Making things worse, it's his first dayat high school, and not just any regular high school--you know this becauseshiny metal wings in matching yellow roll out from the Sky High school bus likethe dad from ?Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? pimped their ride--but one whose studentbody is powered up with super spawn just like him, on a campus floating high abovethe stratosphere on antigravity thrusters.

Sky High's freshmen have togo through a very public "power placement" process (kind of like theSorting Hat ceremony at Hogwarts but with the gloriously droll, sonicboom-shouting Bruce Campbell instead of a dingy, talking hat) that polarizesthem into "heroes" and "sidekicks," a dichotomy whichWill's best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker; superpower: botanicalmanipulation) 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 apurple-streaked guinea pig).

Then there is theimprobably named Warren Peace (geddit?) a tormented loner, played by StevenStrait, whose mother is a superhero and his father a super villain whom Will'sdad tossed into the gulag. "Great," Will laments. "It's my firstday at school and already I have an arch-nemesis."

Rounding out our highschool archetypes is Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; superpower: psychiccontrol of technology), the beautiful, unattainable senior who radiatesbeatific incorruptibility and Spandau Ballet's "True" whenever Willgazes hangdoggedly at her, much to Layla's chagrin.

There's a hilarious montageof what goes on in Hero Support, including a gym sequence where the kids form aline-up and take turns dodging behind a screen, changing into costume andstriking a pose, all without missing a beat; the class is led by Kids in theHall alumnus Dave Foley, the Commander's former sidekick All-American Boy (youcan now call him "Mr. Boy"). "Without hero support," hesays, "there wouldn't be heroes. Alright there probably would be heroes,but they would be very lonely."

At its core, ?Sky High?is amovie about adolescence, high school cliques and the teenage anguish of"fitting in." The old social hierarchies and caste prejudices aretrotted out and we more than linger upon the labyrinthine minefield that islunchroom seating. Since this is ostensibly a Disney picture, it lacks thewise-guy irony and self-existential angst of John Hughes' teen oeuvre or thecunning subversion of Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls." Thereis no mention of sex or drugs, and the villains speak, act and cackle like theywere plucked right out of the Power Rangers universe.

Everything comes to a headat the homecoming dance, as every teen movie eventually does. Formulaic, yes,but it's an enjoyable, feel-good formula that has a sweet innocence andgood-conquers-evil resonance I think our jaded adult lives need to revisit nowand then. During a cafeteria showdown, Will's latent superpower finally kicksinto gear. The expression of joy on his face as he realizes this is an absolutedelight to watch. Suddenly, all doubt about who he is evaporates. We know thiswon't last, of course, but isn't discovery, and often, re-discovery, what highschool--and by extension, life--all about?

(?Sky High?opens July 29.Running time: 198 minutes, PG for action violence and some mild language.)






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Jasmin Malik Chua
Contributing Writer

Jasmin Malik Chua is a fashion journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Vox, Nylon, The Daily Beast, The Business of Fashion, Vogue Business and Refinary29, among others. She has a bachelor's degree in animal biology from the National University of Singapore and a master of science in biomedical journalism from New York University.