'Sky' Rockets

Director Mike Mitchell and a likable cast give a coming-of-age superhero movie a fresh spin.


July 29, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sky High, a movie about an American superhero high school that floats in the clouds, turns out to be a lighter-than-air comedy. It should tickle everyone.

The target audience may be kids who are enduring the same central crisis as the main teen characters: Just what are these fantastic powers that arrive at roughly age 13? How do I control them? What am I supposed to do with them? But as it pokes fun at cliques and crushes and favoritism and smug, unthinking hierarchies, it may hit home to adults who see their workplace as high school on acid.

In this live-action spin on The Incredibles, Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston play super-strong Commander Stronghold and free-flying Josie Jetstream, the premier superheroes of their time, who don spectacles and civilian clothes to double as real-estate agents. Michael Angarano plays their son, Will, who hopes to enter the true family business but hasn't yet sprouted superpowers. His late-bloomer status relegates him from the Hero track at Sky High to the Sidekick track - or as the Sidekicks' teacher (Dave Foley) calls it, "Hero Support."

For those of us who wish that John Hughes' The Breakfast Club had kept the cheeky tone of Hughes' Sixteen Candles, what ensues is the best Hughes farce that Hughes never made about adolescent snobbery and heartbreak as well as adult obtuseness.

Will's band of misfits includes his longtime best pal Layla (Danielle Panabaker), a peace-loving, noncompetitive flower child who can make all flora (except lemons) blossom and grow - and hopes to do the same for Will's affection. The other Sidekicks include a fetching female shape-changer who can shift only into a guinea pig, a lunky geek who sometimes glows in the dark, and an unassuming fellow who can reduce himself to a puddle.

Happily, Will's superpowers arrive in amusing stages, and what starts out as a humorous but potentially saccharine call for compassion and inclusion escalates into a salute to the power of individual, quirky talents.

Whether by design or lucky ineptitude, director Mike Mitchell and the design team have given this film the blocky, bargain-basement look of one of those smeary message comic books that used to be handed out in public school civics or health classes. It adds to a matter-of-fact atmosphere that makes the film play like found parody.

The key to the affable script by Paul Hernandez and the team of Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle is that they've reversed the Marvel Comics procedure. Instead of injecting adolescent angst into a superhero movie, they've injected super-heroics into an adolescent-angst movie. They've made teen love and honor the central questions: Is Will going to see through the luscious technopath Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and get the greatness of Layla? Will he stay true to his Hero-Support pals? So even the most elaborate gags have a pleasant throwaway quality. And the running jokes about those lucky few who become superheroes because of radioactive insect bites or tumbles into toxic waste are fleet enough to detonate laughter every time.

The skillful kid ensemble puts Bad News Bears to shame (of course, these actors are several years older). And Mitchell has sprinkled his adult cast with improv comics like Foley, welcome dotty presences like Cloris Leachman as the school nurse, and walking in-jokes who let us know, gracefully, that they're in on their own jokes, like Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the school principal.

Russell, a former Disney child actor who did great work as an adult for Disney in last year's Miracle, once again displays his combination of unpretentious virtuosity and star presence. No one can give macho paternalism a fond satiric once-over as well as Russell can these days. When he prolongs a manly hug or stretches a pronouncement out for an extra syllable, he projects both endearing silliness and a genuine, larger-than-life geniality.

Of course, if the Brian De Palma of Carrie had directed Sky High, there might have been some real teen heat to the dating competitiveness that surrounds the climactic Homecoming Dance. But these filmmakers do come up with a character who cuts through the cuddliness. Steven Straight brings a neo-James Dean brood to the divided personality of flame-throwing Warren Peace, son of a super-villain father and super-hero mom, who both acts tough and (thank goodness) turns out to be really tough, in a good-bad guy sort of way. He helps the movie find its unique mix of flash and friendliness.

After all, as the old Ink Spots hit goes, Sky High doesn't want to set the world on fire - it just wants to start a flame in our hearts.

Sky High

Starring Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston and Michael Angarano

Directed by Mike Mitchell

Released by Buena Vista

Rated PG (action violence, some mild language)

Time 98 minutes

Sun Score *** (three stars)

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