A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG, 98 mins.
Will Stronghold: Michael Angarano / Steve Stronghold/ The Commander: Kurt Russell / Josie Stronghold/Jetstream: Kelly Preston / Layla: Danielle Panabaker / Ron Wilson, Bus Driver: Kevin Heffernan / Principal Powers: Lynda Carter / Gwen Grayson: Mary Elizabeth Winstead / Coach Boomer: Bruce Campbell / Mr. Boy: Dave Foley
Directed by Mike Mitchell / Screenplay by Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle
It’s really quite startling how much intense pressure teenagers feel at the hands of adults these days.
What? You say I am a misguided fool…well stop and consider one example.
Last week junior hockey phenomena Sidney Crosby was picked first overall in the NHL draft lottery by the Pittsburgh Penguins. To say that every team in the National Hockey League wanted him would be a colossal understatement.
He was easily the best player in, arguably, the toughest major junior hockey league in Canada – the Quebec Major Junior League. He dominated in the statistic department and now people have responded by calling him the most impressive talent to emerge in the hockey world since the likes of Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player ever to lace up the skates. Not only that, but Crosby is going to play on a possible line with the other greatest player in the game, Mario Lemieux, live with the player/owner in his mansion for his first season, and to make the pressure even more fever pitched, he was even recently on the Tonight Show this week so that his near mythic like status can be reiterated to the rest of the world. In short, Sidney Crosby has a lot to prove and a hell of a burden on his shoulders…and he’s barely 18 years old.
Now, if you think that Crosby has much to prove to the world, then consider young Will Stronghold. If there were ever bigger shoes for an adolescent to fill then I would sure like to know what they are. You see, young Will is an average All-American teenager. He's naďve, a bit foolish and klutzy, is awkward around girls, has trouble dealing with some authority figures, and has a bedroom plastered with Tenacious D posters on it. All in all, a typical, straight arrow kid.
However, what the world does not know is that he is the son of the two greatest super heroes on the planet – Commander and Jetstream. To make matters even tougher, he is now going to be sent off to a super hero school where he will learn everything he needs to know in terms of saving the day repeatedly like his mother and father. Will seems destined, at least by those that know him and his family, to be the “next greatest super hero” on Earth. If that was not a heavy enough burden to fill, young Will soon realizes that, dang, he has no super powers to speak of and decides to go to the school anyway to impress the old man. Most kids worry about acne, hair in weird places, and getting dates, but young Will has to worry about being the next savoir of the planet. Paging Doctor Phil.
Thus is the basic premise of SKY HIGH, and more than any other film this year I can confidently say that I stared at the screen for its entire 98 minute running time in a perpetual state of stunned disbelief. Now, I do not mean that in the obvious pejorative sense, but more as an indirect compliment. SKY HIGH is one of the summer’s biggest and most joyous surprises, a wonderfully goofy, daft, cheerful, colorful, exuberant, lively, and incredibly congenial and good natured satire of the super hero genre that deserves a high place of comparison with 2004’s THE INCREDIBLES. The one thing that surprised me the most about this little gem is the fact that it truly has a strong sense of wit and intelligence behind its humor. It’s not necessarily a subversive and spiteful condemnation or shot at super hero comics; rather, it has fun and laughs with the genre and SKY HIGH may be the most consistently funny film, family or not, of 2005. It is fantastically clever and droll, and knows exactly what it is trying to be.
The film is a highly brainy merger of many different popular genres. It’s sort of a mix of the teenage romance/ high school picture with the special effects laden super hero film and, on top of all of that, it still manages to be a not-so-subtle spoof and winning satire of the whole comic book milieu. It’s a zippy and lightweight adventure that both kind of salutes and mocks the conventions of all of the genres mentioned. The film does not work well because it is something altogether new and fresh, nor is it not incredibly predictable. The film’s tremendous saving grace is its confident and assured manner in which it stirs up all of its elements and ingredients into one cohesively entertaining and fun film. SKY HIGH is in the great tradition of harmless, innocuous, and silly family films that have a lot of charm and sass and is likeable all the way through it despite its borrowed conventions. I laughed and smiled constantly though it. Even the cheesiness of the film’s rather lackluster visual effects accentuates its offbeat appeal. More realistic visuals would have been counterproductive.
SKY HIGH appropriates from many sources. In developing the screenplay writer Paul Hernadez, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle borrow liberally from the comic book universes of books like The X-Men, Teen Titans, Fantastic 4, and the Legion of the Super Heroes. Their savvy and smart homage continues by dipping in equally to the jolly and spiritedness of the HARRY POTTER universe and the drollness of Disney’s other super hero caper, THE INCREDIBLES. The writers know the material impeccably, and there are just so many indications of that with all of the crass and in-joke dialogue and sight gags. Rarely has a family film been goofy enough for young children and irreverently smart and sly enough for adults.
It’s all of the little touches that make SKY HIGH’s satire sing. I love the fact that Commander and his wife are played in two very funny performances by Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, who clearly underplay their roles effectively to convey that they are in on the joke. Commander and his wife are real estate agents at their day jobs and adopt nerdy, Clark Kent alter egos with thick-rimmed glasses to hide their identities. Commander almost goes off to work one day without his glasses on, which would have been a colossal blunder on his part, because surely without them on his secret identity would have been forfeited. Nevertheless, they have a wonderful home with the odd eccentric touches, like the head of the giant killer robot that they defeated during the day on their dinner table and a dozen cordless phones in the drawer. Commander is so strong that he presses the buttons too hard sometimes and…well…ya know.
Despite their daring-do, these hero parents expect greatness from their 14-year-old son Will, played effectively by Michael Angarano. He has yet to find his super powers and even has to fake bench pressing hundreds of pounds in his bedroom to further inflate his dad’s already high hopes for him. Maybe young Will would rather just grow up to be a real estate agent, but his mom and dad will have nothing of it and instead whisk him away, rather reluctantly, to Sky High, a lavishly appointed school on a secluded campus miles above the ground (thanks to anti-gravity devices, the entire campus remains permanently afloat in the stratosphere).
Will then proceeds to his first day of school with his best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who is sort of like X-Men’s Storm in the sense that she can control the environment, in this case, plant life. She is a very New Age super hero in the sense that she refuses to use her powers because it might exploit her as a human being. Their first day is highly dubious and awkward to say the least. First, because he is the son of the Commander, Will is both revered, shunned, and the victim of many peoples’ jealousy and envy all at the same time. Unfortunately for him, he has been designated as a “sidekick” in one of the film’s funniest scenes. All of the new cadets must face Coach Boomer (the very funny Bruce Campbell). They all are to display their super powers and and Boomer then decides whether they'll be placed in either the ”hero” or unwanted “sidekick” role.
Needless to say, since Will can’t show off powers that he does not have, he is delegated a sidekick with his friends, who are all dweebs with lame powers. There is Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels), who can melt into a puddle; Magenta (Kelly Vitz), a shape-shifter who, alas, can only shape herself into a guinea pig; and Zach (Nicholas Brown), who can glow like a nightlight. All we need is The Shoveller and Mr. Furious from MYSTERY MEN to round of this group with silly gifts.
Well, how in the world is Will going to tell his dad that he is a sidekick? After all, he has to suffer through classes that involve teaching the proper creation of “Holy fill-in-the-blank and super hero’s name” catchphrases as well as providing proper "hero support", which does not sound as fun as saving the day itself. The sidekick classes are taught by Mr. Boy and he is played humorously as a man of deeply wounded pride by The Kid’s in the Hall’s Dave Foley. Mr. Boy was once Commander’s sidekick and the sad part is that Commander does not seem to ever remember having one.
The school has an eclectic teaching faculty, such as 70’s era Wonder Woman herself – Linda Carter – as the frank and stern principle and another Kid’s in the Hall alumni, Kevin McDonald, playing Mr. Medula, a scientist with a bloody huge cranium. He occupies some of the film’s more uproariously funny lines. When in mad scientist class he asks the students what they can do and when he arrives at Will, he states that all he can do is "punch stuff". Medula responds, “And since your Commander’s son it’ll be you on cereal boxes…where’s the justice in that?” He also occupies the film’s most hilarious throwaway line, which occurs during a contest where the new cadets prove their skills in a contest to save fake, dummy civilians that will be crushed and skewered to death by giant spikes if not saved in time. Medulla turns to another colleague and fondly recalls, “Remember when we used real civilians?”
I won’t spoil too much more of the film, other than to say that Will does, in fact, get his powers. He displays them with disastrous results at school, gets in trouble, is later scolded by his mother and when in his dad’s “secret sanctum”, Commander applauds his son and gives him an X-box as a congratulatory prize. Will also manages to have clashes with the school’s bully, Warren Peace (get it?) who also happens to be the son of the Will’s parent’s biggest archenemy. He also gets involved in a bad love triangle with not only Layla, who secretly worships him, but with school’s resident hot senior Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has a history of her own. Then, when all seems hopeless for Will, his parent’s biggest adversary reveals himself to destroy Sky High and humanity in general...and all Will wanted to do was to go to the prom and kiss a girl.
Okay, so the film’s allegories and metaphors about adolescent angst and troubles have been done countless times before. Yet, SKY HIGH just uses those as a clothes line for it’s smart satire and jokes, which are all fairly spot-on and successful. The performances are key here, because if they were too over the top and forced fed on us then it would overly saturate the goofiness of the film. Young Michael Angarano plays his role simply and earnestly, as do all of the kids, who further allows the satire to shine through on its own. Standout performances by Foley, McDonald, and Campbell aside, Kurt Russell owns this film in one of the funniest roles of the year. He parades around at home in his cape making sandwiches for lunches when he’s not selling homes or fighting giant robots and plays the role dialed down, for the most part. It’s nice to see Russell not too afraid or ashamed of looking incredibly stupid, not to mention that his appearance in a live action Disney film shows his nostalgic sense of reverence for his early child career doing Disney films in the 60's, like THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES or THE HORSE IN THE GREY FLANNEL SUIT. In a cute way, Russell has come full circle with SKY HIGH.
Boy, for a film that Disney did not have enough confidence to provide a broad critic screening for, SKY HIGH has emerged as one of this summer’s most effervescent and pleasant diversions. The film is as razor sharp and intelligent as it is warm-hearted and delightful and, for my money, you may not find a more endearing and delightful family film all summer long. I saw this film directly after seeing the crapfest that was STEALTH. Watching that film was like eating a hot and spicy meal that made my stomach feel bloated and sick. Watching SKY HIGH afterwards was like drinking a big, glorious, and refreshing glass of clean water that washed down all of the crud that came before it. Trust me – don’t let the lack of a critic screening dissuade you. I know it’s usually the kiss of death for a film’s relative worth, but SKY HIGH is the biggest surprise of the summer, a film that I had no expectations for and instead came out of kind of loving it in silly and unexpected ways.