Sky High

Sky High is this summer’s sunniest surprise, one that marries the bright visuals and kitschy humor of Disney’s live-action work of the 1960s to identifiably 1980s teen-film angst (although the blah covers of me-decade hits could be zapped).

This tale of high school for superheroes and “hero supporters” (PC for “sidekicks”) also incorporates the frenzied pace of a modern-day effects movie, which Sky High’s limited budget can’t always keep up with. It’s the sort of film obviously edited to cover what visuals cost too much.

But Sky High’s grand action plot feels like an afterthought, albeit one spurred by a villain’s clever plan. It’s a high-school movie with a superhero twist, and its script generates consistently charming turns through that premise’s promise without ever feeling overstuffed. It’s like a lighter-hearted Harry Potter.

And though it has gone through Disney’s rigorous sanitization process (you won’t see any beer at that high-school party), Sky High is far preferable to another teen movie about a romantic wager.

Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is the only son of Steve (Kurt Russell, in great geek mode) and Josie (Kelly Preston, still personality-free and boring), a.k.a. superheroes Commander and Jetstream. Commander has super-strength and Jetstream can fly, so it only makes sense that Will’s genes should make him the king of Sky High’s incoming freshman class, if not the whole school. Plus, Steve and Josie are prepping to fight crime as “The Stronghold Three.”

But Will’s secret is that he has no powers as of yet, and he quickly is relegated to sidekick classes along with longtime friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who now romantically pines for him.

After Will picks up a bully arch-nemesis (newcomer Steven Strait) and a senior-class crush (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his strengths blossom. But the ego trip of his new hero status alienates his friends, and they’ll be necessary allies when a shadowy bad guy sets his sights on Sky High.

Yes, the bully born to a good-guy mom and bad-guy dad is named Warren Peace. One villain’s name is Royal Pain. Russell’s costume as Commander looks like an airbrushed Rocket Pop. Lynda Carter, formerly Wonder Woman, portrays Sky High’s principal.

But the movie relies more on sharp one-liners and sight gags, such as the lesson in hero-support English, and its lunatic-fringe supporting cast of Bruce Campbell and Kids in the Hall alums Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald. As the big-brained Mr. Medulla, McDonald fills this year’s quota for one poop joke that’s actually funny and not a cheap ploy for laughs. There’s also sheer weirdness, such as making a guinea pig’s ability to gnaw through wire a crucial part of the day-saving process.

Sky High is not so much about saving the world as it is about saving your social network of friends. The movie is smart enough to understand that means the world to a high-school teen. The last bit of dialogue serves both as a punchy plot summary and a shrewd mission statement of sorts. It’s not quite The Breakfast Club with superpowers, but it will do.

An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish:

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