Eric D. Snider

Sky High

In a world so saturated with superheroes that you wonder why evil-doers even bother trying, the children of the heroes attend "Sky High," the secondary school where they can develop their superpowers among their own kind.

This Hogwarts-like academy, whose athletic teams surely compete against Professor X's mutant school in the playoffs every year, is unknown to the world at large and sits on a cloud high above a typical metropolis, the sort of place where the morning commute is occasionally interrupted by a giant killer robot (quickly dispatched by any of the many, many superheroes living nearby, of course).

The top team in superherodom is Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jet Stream (Kelly Preston), bespectacled real estate agents by day, heroes by night (and occasionally also by day, I guess). Their son, 14-year-old Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), like all his hero-offspring friends, awaits the arrival of his superpowers the way most kids await puberty. Given his genes, everyone has high hopes for him. Will he have super-strength? The gift of flight? Both?!

But by the time his first day at Sky High arrives, Will still has nothing. His lifelong friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker) can control plants, and his new acquaintances Zach (Nicholas Braun) and Magenta (Kelly Vitz) at least have the mildly interesting ability to glow in the dark and turn into a gerbil, respectively. But Will? Nothin'.

He is thus assigned by gym coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell, who eats this kind of campy-sly humor for breakfast) to the Sidekick curriculum, rather than the Hero track. The faculty, all mid-level heroes themselves, remember Will's parents fondly and are disappointed, while Will and his Sidekick -- er, "Hero Support" -- friends are ruthlessly taunted by the Hero kids. (Being a freshman is nothing at Sky High. It's being a Sidekick that gets you the swirlies.)

The idea of a teen comedy set in a high school for budding superheroes is such a fun one that I'm mostly just glad they didn't blow it. Written by Paul Hernandez and Disney Channel regulars Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, "Sky High" creates a jolly, clever world of superheroes that follows its own logic impeccably. Kids aren't supposed to use their powers outside the classroom, but of course the bullies do anyway; the detention room renders all powers useless; the principal is played by Lynda Carter; there's a course on Mad Science ("From the silliness of the shrink ray to the devastation of the death ray, rays are the building blocks of mad science"); and among the potential heroes on the class list there are also a few future supervillains (including one Draco Malfoy type whose mother was a superhero but whose father was a villain who was imprisoned by Will's dad back in the day). The high-school-as-battle-ground metaphor was done better on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but "Sky High's" climactic finale at the Homecoming dance definitely recalls some of the more apocalyptic moments of that great series.

Will's life is complicated not just by his shame in being a late bloomer -- what will his parents say? -- but by a pretty senior named Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who takes an interest in him, much to the dismay of Layla, who has long harbored a crush for him. The teen angst adds an amusing dimension to the story, reminding us, lest we forget, that these are kids, not superheroes. When someone remarks that a particular school program is unfair, Will says, "If life were suddenly going to get fair, I doubt it would happen in high school." John Hughes must kick himself for not writing that line 20 years ago.

Directed by Mike Mitchell (formerly of TV's "Greg the Bunny" and, I'm sorry to report, last year's awful "Surviving Christmas"), the pace is quick and the tone is light, very often funnier than you'd expect it to be. I'm impressed with the casting, too. I've already mentioned Lynda Carter and Bruce Campbell; Kurt Russell, with his square jaw, blue eyes and sonorous voice, is perfect as the Mr. Incredible-style all-American dad; and it's a delight to see not one but two Kids in the Hall -- Dave Foley as the head of the Sidekick curriculum and Kevin McDonald as the resident Mad Scientist -- roaming the halls together.

This is a PG film aimed at kids, and I suppose they'll enjoy it. But as has often been pointed out by people like me in situations like this, the adults at the screening I attended were laughing more than the kids. The humor is not necessarily subversive, but it is often subtle and cleverly conceived, which is a super feat indeed.

Grade: B+

Rated PG, mild action violence

1 hr., 42 min.

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