Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Sky High

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 3, 2005

Directed by Mike Mitchell/written by Paul Hernandez, Robert Schooley & Mark McCorkle/starring Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Lynda Carter/Walt Disney Pictures

The offspring of superheroes attend a special high school that trains them to use their genetically inherited powers to save the world.

Sky High is one of those “almost” movies for me; it’s a movie that I wanted to really like and just couldn’t quite get there. I can honestly say that I was mildly entertained by parts of it. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing I can say about it, and that’s just not good enough to fully recommend it.

I do understand that it’s a Disney movie for kids, and if you’re looking for something to take your kids (or in my case, nephew) to, you could certainly do a lot worse. It’s not a horribly bad movie, and it does have its inspired moments. But given the premise and the cast, I guess I just expected more than what I got from it. But you don’t go to McDonalds to get filet mignon, right?

The movie is basically set in a world where superheroes not only exist, they’re all over the place. Apparently super powers are passed down genetically (no mention of evolution or mutation here, though – this is a Disney movie) and the kids of superheroes naturally develop powers of their own, around the time they hit puberty. So they’re whisked off to Sky High, a school for would-be superheroes so they can learn how to use and control their powers. We follow our protagonist, Will Stronghold (Angarano), the son of “the world’s greatest superheroes” The Commander (Russell) and the vaguely porn-star sounding Josie Jetstream (Preston). Naturally, there are big expectations for Will, which makes it all the more difficult for him to reveal that he (gulp) doesn’t have any powers.

So far, so good. But then when they get to Sky High, the freshmen discover that it’s not too different from regular high school; there’s a pecking order in which the kids are divided up (by the faculty, no less) into groups of “heroes” (jocks) and “sidekicks” (geeks). Somewhere in Illinois, John Hughes is wondering why he never thought of this. Things get more complicated when Will falls for the popular senior Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from the short-lived Wolf Lake TV series that me and 3 other people remember) and begins ignoring his sidekick friends, including his gorgeous pal Layla (Danielle Panabaker) who just so happens to be secretly in love with him (gasp!), which everybody knows but Will. I think they call this the Some Kind of Wonderful maneuver. I call it a cliché, and a stupid one at that (what teenage boy is constantly around any girl and doesn’t think of her “that way”? What reasonably attractive girl pines for the class geek? I don’t know what Bizarro universe these movies take place in. Trust me, there’s never a Mary Stuart Masterson around to tell Lea Thompson, “you break his heart, I break your face”. It just doesn’t happen. Life is cruel that way).

This is where the movie, for me at least, goes terribly wrong. The writers trot out all the standard clichés of high-school movies that probably date back to the Andy Hardy movies, and just because the kids have super powers, that’s supposed to be a “new twist”. But when it all plays out exactly the same way, it’s really not new – it’s just the same old clichés in different clothing. There’s the obnoxious school bullies, the geeky boy who gets his head flushed in the toilet, the scary loner who instantly becomes Will’s enemy (but is later revealed to be a sensitive guy after all), the horndog kid (watered down Disney-style, of course), so on and so on. Gwen pressures Will into throwing a party while his parents are away…yawn. And of course, the big climax takes place at a school dance (not like the one in Carrie, unfortunately) with all the students, faculty and chaperoning parents attending. As if to drive home the point that we’ve seen all this before, the soundtrack is full of lackluster covers of ‘80’s songs, which only begs the question, “why would these kids be constantly listening to shitty covers of ‘80’s songs?” Maybe it’s supposed to help keep the parents awake.

I know what you’re thinking – it’s a high school movie, what else are they supposed to do? Well, given the idea that Sky High is supposed to be unlike any regular school – a “special” learning facility for preternaturally gifted kids – they could have gone any number of ways. I was especially disappointed that the writers chose to reinforce the same tired old stereotypes that we’ve seen in 4,780,000 teen movies by now. I know, it’s supposed to be about transcending those stereotypes and showing that even “sidekicks” can be “heroes”. Yes, the sidekicks save the school – but by that time, I was wondering why they even wanted to. It’s not like Sky High, in both practice and philosophy, is much more morally correct than the villains’ evil plan (in fact, when the villains reveal their motivation, you can’t help but think that they kinda have a point).

Actually, the whole concept behind Sky High isn’t particularly well developed. All of the kids seem to be from the same area – so does this mean all the superheroes live in the same region in America? Are there other Sky High schools, all over the world? Who pays for the school’s funding? Do the kids graduate and move on to a superhero college? If the kids of superheroes almost always develop super powers, wouldn’t the bad guys target them at birth and wipe them out early? If the villains knew where Sky High was the whole time, why wouldn’t they just blow it up when all the kids are inside? (I know, too many Columbine echoes. But still…) Nothing appears to have been thought out logically at all, which leaves the film with about as much depth as your average Nickelodeon show. Actually, most of those shows probably have more depth than this.

That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had here – but most of it has to do with the adult characters, who aren’t given enough screen time to really save the movie. The kids are likable enough, but they’re not particularly interesting. Whoever’s responsible for casting actors like Russell, Preston, Campbell and not one but two Kids in the Hall members (Foley and McDonald) have delivered the film both a blessing and a curse. These actors are a blessing, because they seem to be relishing their roles and they make the movie much more fun than it would have been otherwise. They’re also a curse because they’re much more watchable and interesting than the kids, but they’re used only sporadically and aren’t really allowed to live up to their potential. They’re funny when they’re on screen, but it isn’t nearly enough, and you wind up wishing the whole damn movie was about them.

Russell particularly seems to enjoy returning to his cheesy Disney-movie roots (how could anyone forget that timeless classic, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?) and gives an amusing performance as the square-jawed Commander that’s just this side of knowingly campy. Campbell could have been a riot as the literally loud-mouthed Coach Boomer, but he’s not given much of a character to play besides the prototypical “Gym Teacher Guy”, as he’s referred to in the film. I mean, kudos for casting Bruce Campbell in a mainstream movie, but give the guy something to do! Foley and McDonald fare a little better – I particularly liked Foley’s work as the vaguely pathetic ex-sidekick teacher “All-American Boy” – but again, there just aren’t enough of them to be really satisfying. Is it so wrong to want more of the funny characters in a supposed comedy? Lynda Carter, on the other hand, seems to have been cast as the principal only so the writers could make an obvious, groan-worthy Wonder Woman joke. Sorry guys, you didn’t earn that one.

So overall, I’d have to say that Sky High is definitely a mixed bag. It’s not hard to sit through, and it does have some funny moments here and there. It’s just frustrating that it could have been so much more than it is. Maybe a more accomplished director than Mitchell (the man responsible for such masterworks as Deuce Bigalow and Surviving Christmas) could have pulled it together and made something special out of it. As it stands, it’s an OK piece of work that, sadly enough, will fit right in at its eventual home on the Disney Channel.

**1/2 8/3/05

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