Archive for Friday, July 29, 2005

Sky High’ superheroes save the day

(PG) ***

July 29, 2005

How refreshing to watch a movie where superheroes revel in their powers rather than mope about them.

Don't look for characters more preoccupied with soul-searching like Spider-Man, self-loathing like the Thing of the Fantastic Four or scarred childhood a la Batman. In "Sky High," a tight, clever little adventure-comedy, the characters can't wait to test-drive their new powers.

But that becomes the problem for 14-year-old Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano).

"In a world full of superheroes, there are two that stand out the most" -- and those happen to be his parents, the Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). The pressure to take his place in the family profession has shadowed him for years.

Like most of his circle of friends who have a superhero for a parent, Will is ready to explore the inherited abilities that manifest themselves at puberty. Thus he's whisked to Sky High, a high school that floats above the clouds and functions as a training ground for fledgling do-gooders. On his first day, freshman class members are forced to audition for Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell), who then decides if they'll be a hero or a sidekick.

Trouble is, Will's powers haven't developed yet, so he's bumped down to sidekick class with the other less-mighty kids -- a situation he hides from his parents.

"Sky High" works well as a typical comic book movie, with supervillains, battles, effects and gadgets. But beyond that, it's a not-so-subtle metaphor about popularity and puberty.

The cool kids are the heroes. The geeks are the sidekicks. Teens are arbitrarily divided into these groups and must deal with the ongoing rewards or humiliation of that decision.

It's like "X-Men" as filtered through a John Hughes movie. (That point is emphasized by a soundtrack filled with 1980s tunes such as "Melt With You" and "Voices Carry," remade by modern bands.) And like most Hughes projects, it features all the teen-movie archetypes, yet with just enough of a twist to keep things fresh.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the comely student body president (and "technopath") who takes an interest in Will when she discovers his lineage. Meanwhile, Danielle Panabaker portrays his childhood friend (with a knack for controlling plant life) who harbors a secret crush on him.

Will also runs afoul of Warren (Steven Strait), the loner son of a supervillain/superhero coupling whose pyrotechnic abilities prove a menacing challenge.

"It's my first day of Sky High, and already I have an arch enemy," Will laments.

Sure, the "kids with powers" thing has been done to death lately -- not just by the "X-Men" flicks but by the superior "The Incredibles." And does every one of these movies have to include someone who can control fire and someone else who commands ice?

Fortunately, "Sky High" has so many characters that it offers more of an opportunity to show the quirkier side of an overtaxed genre. Will's sidekick friends boast faculties that seem to serve little purpose. (One pal can shape shift ... but only into a guinea pig.) It's amusing how these sidekicks are then given the opportunity to save the day by exploiting these ostensibly useless traits.

Director Mike Mitchell ("Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo") really bolsters his picture with strong supporting performances by comedy veterans. "Kids in the Hall" founders Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald find plum roles as instructors at the school. Foley plays aging sidekick All-American Boy -- now just Mr. Boy -- who instructs the lesser class in "hero support."

McDonald is a bulbous-headed mad scientist, Mr. Medulla, who shows the champions how to put together heat rays and such. His appearance leads to a priceless throwaway line where Coach Boomer is trying to convince him to go on a double date.

Boomer asks, "What if I said it wasn't just her twin, but her EVIL twin?"

Cloris Leachman also has an amusing cameo as the school nurse who comforts Will about being a "late bloomer" to superadolescence. She explains that not every crime fighter inherits his powers genetically. Some people only develop theirs through a radioactive insect bite or being dropped into a vat of toxic waste. Either that, she says, "or they die."

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