Smartly written and sprightly played, “Sky High” satisfies with a clever commingling of spoofy superheroics, school-daze hijinks, and family friendly coming-of-age dramedy. Comparisons to “The Incredibles” are inevitable, though not entirely apt, but this lively live-action Disney release stands on its own merits as a tongue-in-cheek fantasy with cross-generational appeal. Pic could prove a surprisingly powerful performer in the late-summer B.O. sweepstakes, and will subsequently fly off shelves in homevid release.
In developing their high-concept premise, scripters Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle borrow concepts and archetypes from various corners of the Marvel and DC comic-book universes. (X-Men and the Legion of Super Heroes are only the two most obvious inspirations.) Fanciful scenario can be enjoyed as both a savvy homage brimming with wink-wink inside jokes, and as a straight-ahead action-comedy about gifted teens training to join the ranks of superhumanity.
It’s never easy for the offspring of celebrities to establish their own identities. But for 14-year-old Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), it’s especially difficult to emerge from the long shadows cast by his dynamic parents, the fantastically strong Commander (Kurt Russell) and the high-flying Jet Stream (Kelly Preston). When not battling evil, they’re real estate agents Steve and Josie Stronghold.
With mom and dad fully expecting him to join the superhero biz, Will reluctantly begins his advanced education at their alma mater, Sky High, a lavishly appointed school on a secluded campus miles above the ground. (Thanks to anti-gravity devices, the entire campus remains permanently aloft, hidden by convenient cloud banks.) In many ways, it’s a high school like any other, complete with peer pressures and polarized cliques. The big difference is, the primary division isn’t between jocks and geeks. Rather, freshmen are labeled as either Heroes or Sidekicks, according to their abilities and potential.
Will almost immediately is designated as a Sidekick, with little hope for reassignment because, despite his bloodline, he evidences no sign of being superpowerful.
Helmer Mike Mitchell (“Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo”) subtly handles the script’s metaphorical allusions to adolescence as a time of uncertainty, evolution and establishing identity. Instead of belaboring the obvious, he plays for laughs, keeping the pic light even during elaborate action sequences.
As a Sidekick, Will feels at ease with other dweebs: Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who reins in her powers to control plant life in order to remain Will’s classmate; 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.
On the other hand, Will can’t avoid clashes with Warren Peace (Steven Strait), who can toss fireballs from his fingertips — and who nurses a grudge against Will because the latter’s parents arrested Warren’s super-villainous father.
Under the watchful eye of shape-shifting Principal Powers (former “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter) and the demanding tutelage of high-decibel Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell), Will eventually discovers his super strength.
Beautiful classmate Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) can’t help but notice. However, Layla isn’t pleased that her old friend is being a mite too friendly with someone else.
Narrative is fueled by the mischief caused by a vengeful villain who targets the Commander, Jet Stream and other Sky High alumni. But funniest bits of “Sky High” have relatively little to do with its serviceably comic-bookish plot. Slyly self-satirical perfs by Russell and Preston are consistently delightful, and various oddball touches trigger guffaws of assorted intensity.
In addition to spot-on contributions from Carter and Campbell, funny character turns by Dave Foley (as a former teen sidekick), Kevin McDonald (as a brainy science teacher) and, briefly, Cloris Leachman (as a nurse with x-ray vision) increase the laugh quotient.
Angarano hits the right notes of sincerity and uncertainty while making an engaging impression. Supporting roles are vividly played, with Kevin Heffernan a standout as a gung-ho but super-powerless bus driver for Sky High (portrayed, in a bold stroke of casting, by Cal State U., Northridge).
Overall tech package is sufficiently first-rate to providing some semblance of credibility while sustaining seriocomic tone. (Even f/x tricks are laced with humor.) Costume designer Michael Wilkinson has created a lineup of nifty superhero attire, and music supervisor Lisa Brown has assembled a bevy of covers of well-chosen ’80s pop hits.