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Dustin Putman

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Sky High (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Mike Mitchell
Cast: Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Steven Strait, Lynda Carter, Dee Jay Daniels, Nicholas Braun, Kelly Vitz, Jake Sandvig, Kadijah, Malika, Will Harris, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Loren Berman, Kevin Heffernan, Cloris Leachman, Kevin McDonald, Lucille Soong
2005 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for action violence and some mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 26, 2005.

Colorfully directed by Mike Mitchell (2004's "Surviving Christmas"), "Sky High" is notable for taking the blueprint of a bittersweet teen comedy in the vein of John Hughes' seminal 1984 classic, "Sixteen Candles," and putting a spin on it by having the hormonal high schoolers be superheroes in training. This inspired twist aside, the film sticks close to formula, but if said formula has continued to work for decades and is treated with at least a certain amount of intelligence and style, why change it?

In a world where skilled crime fighters are the accepted norm, 14-year-old Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), son of famed married heroes Commander Stronghold (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), has one problem: he hasn't yet discovered what his special power is, or even if he has one. Without the heart to tell his proud dad the truth, Will begins his first day at Sky High—a floating school above the clouds exclusively for superheroes—with best friend and plant controller Layla (Danielle Panabaker). Once there, he is promptly placed in the sidekick classes (as opposed to the more illustrious hero classes) after he is unable to perform for tough-nosed gym teacher Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell). While Layla grows ever more jealous when beautiful senior Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes a liking to her lifelong pal, Will must fend off the brooding Warren Peace (Steven Strait), whose archenemy father was once defeated by Will's parents, and come to terms with possibly never being the man his parents hope for him to be. Meanwhile, a mysterious cloaked villain with a grudge and a cackling sidekick jester plot an uprising.

For once not based on any previously published material, comic book or otherwise, "Sky High" is one of the first of its kind (after 2004's "The Incredibles")—a completely original superhero movie concocted from the minds of screenwriters Paul Hernandez, Robert Schooley and Mark McCorkle. As such, it is a pretty good one, complete with a string of different and interesting superpowers—everything from super strength, to flying, to liquefying, to technology creator, to turning into a guinea pig—and visual effects that range from excellent to (one assumes) purposefully cheesy. With a conventional enemy not really coming into play until the rousingly creative climax set at Sky High's homecoming dance, that leaves most of the lightning-quick 95-minute running time to center on the trials and travails of coming-of-age (and coming-of-superpowers) freshman Will Stronghold.

As played with boundless charm by Michael Angarano (2005's "Lords of Dogtown"), Will is the consummate protagonist—likable, caring, naturally starry-eyed, and worth rallying behind. It is Angarano, called to appear in nearly every scene, who grounds the picture in a fantasy-laced reality and gains the most mileage out of going through the frequently seen motions of a movie teenager growing up, finding his calling, and ultimately falling for the girl who has been standing by his side all along. Indeed, all of the hallmarks of teen flicks are here, including a crazy party (complete with hero teens climbing walls and flipping around like a slinky), a "cool" vs. "uncool" sparring, an idealized object of affection who turns out not to be the embodiment of perfection expected, and a finale set at a dance. Mix in a lively soundtrack of poppy '80s songs and an innocent "first love" romance, and what one has is a teenage comedy as frothy and predictable as cotton candy, but also just as sweet.

Beside Angarano is an eclectic cast of fresh young faces and veteran actors. On the student side are Danielle Panabaker, a well-cast, accessible match for Angarano as gal pal Layla, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2005's "Ring Two"), as dream girl Gwen Grayson. On the faculty side are former "Wonder Woman" Lynda Carter (2002's "Super Troopers"), looking great at fifty-four as Principal Powers, and Bruce Campbell (2004's "Spider-Man 2" and Ash from the "Evil Dead" trilogy), as gym teacher Mr. Boomer. Kelly Preston (2003's "View from the Top") is underutilized as Will's cautious mom Jetstream, while Kurt Russell (2004's "Miracle") is very funny and warm-hearted as extra-strong father Commander Stronghold, whose reaction to finding out his son has found his super ability is priceless. As a change of pace for the genre, Will's relationship with his parents is a solid, loving one free of the usual discord typically found in such teen films.

"Sky High" is brightly entertaining and goes down with ease, its honest heart mostly making up for a plot trajectory that hinges decidedly heavily on cliches and stock figures. More development could have also been beneficial toward its idea that the world inhabited by these characters accept superheroes and daily attempted villainous takeovers as easily as morning rush hour traffic, as precious little of the normal outside world is ever glimpsed. Taken on its own terms as a teen superhero comedy, the picture is a fun, undemanding experience, certainly deserving of a sequel to further explore such potentially interesting areas if this one catches on (it is not just for little kids, who are years younger than the onscreen main characters). "Sky High" is spirited enough throughout and exciting enough in its action-laden finale to put to shame recent junky fare like "Elektra" and "Fantastic Four." There is an undeniable vision and energy in what director Mike Mitchell has put together that those half-hearted efforts so sorely lacked.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman