By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Chris Packham
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Remember the scene in X2 where Wolverine grabs a Dr Pepper and enlists the aid of Iceman to make it cold? Take the tone of that scene and stretch it out to feature length, and you've got Sky High, a less angsty, more kid-friendly movie about teenagers attending a school for superheroes. Throw in a dose of the old Batman TV series for good measure, too: Kurt Russell, once rumored to be the next big-screen Batman, appears here as Earth's greatest hero, The Commander, who utilizes a familiar red-flashing phone (it's a cell phone nowadays) and a pole to slide down into the secret computer lair, where the machines are all huge and shiny and bedecked with unnecessary blinking lights.
But this isn't about The Commander; it's the story of his son, Will Stronghold (Lords of Dogtown's Michael Angarano). Will's mother is also known as the superheroine Jetstream (Kelly Preston), and he's too embarrassed to admit to either parent that he seems to have no powers at all. Unable to manifest any mutant abilities on his first day at the eponymous high school for heroics, he is labeled as a sidekick, or, to use the politically correct term uttered by the more insecure in the group, "hero support." The only other child born of superheroes to never manifest powers is the schoolbus driver, who goes by the moniker -- natch -- of "Ron Wilson: Bus Driver." And since he's played by Kevin Heffernan, of the excruciatingly unfunny comedy troupe Broken Lizard, you can see why Will might be troubled by the notion of meeting a similar fate. Of course, the other option for would-be heroes with no powers is to go study fear and the ninja arts with Liam Neeson in the Himalayas, but that's another movie.
Besides, this is a Disney film, and kids don't want to see the hero suffer too much, so it isn't all that long before Will actually manifests super-strength, catapulting him into the in-crowd and causing him to neglect his real friends, whose powers are somewhat less spectacular: Magenta (Kelly Vitz) can turn into a gerbil; Ethan (The Hughleys' Dee-Jay Daniels) can liquefy himself; and Zach (Nicholas Braun) glows in the dark. Layla (Danielle Panabaker), the de rigueur longtime childhood buddy of the opposite sex who has always been "just friends" with our hero, has the impressive ability to control plant life, but she's also a bit of a militantly PC type who decries the oppressive societal boundaries between hero and sidekick, voluntarily choosing sidekick as a means to identify with the downtrodden.
Director Mike Mitchell has had an oddly inconsistent career, beginning with the Slamdance-award-winning short "Herd," which he followed up by making his feature debut Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Then he was an animation storyboard artist -- the comic-book panels that open Sky High are undoubtedly a nod to that phase of his career -- and last year directed the Ben Affleck travesty Surviving Christmas. He's now attached to a big-screen version of the Krofft brothers' TV show H. R. Pufnstuf. Here his work is passable; most of the movie's best ideas seem to be ones that originate in the script, as the visuals aren't especially impressive. One might argue that that's the point, as in the old Batman show, but honestly, a little more polish on the CGI and the costumes (especially the villain costumes) would not have hurt. The exception: A school sport called "Save the Citizen," in which teams compete against designated villains to save a dummy suspended over a buzz-saw pit, is expertly staged and a lot of fun to watch.
The casting is also nicely done. Two former Kids in the Hall are present -- Dave Foley as a Burt Ward-like aging sidekick named All American Boy, and Kevin McDonald as Mad Science teacher Mr. Medulla, whose oversized brain makes him look like the Marklar aliens on South Park. Lynda Carter makes a cameo as the principal, though her sole Wonder Woman joke is uncomfortably gratuitous. Bruce Campbell, on the other hand, playing Coach Boomer ("You may know me as Sonic Boom. You may not.") gets to do more here than in the Spider-Man films, assaulting the poor freshmen with a voice that creates powerful shock waves.
Don't expect X-Men or Spider-Man-style metaphors for adolescent angst and persecution; our heroes may be somewhat vulnerable to peer pressure and gorgeous babes, but ultimately they're quite well empowered for a bunch of teens. Stan Lee might not approve, but the script, by newcomer Paul Hernandez and Kim Possible creators Mark McCorkle & Bob Schooley, gets off some good lines: A joke about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is perfect, and I particularly enjoyed the reference to defeated Hawaiian supervillain "King Kameha-Mayhem." It's not quite The Incredibles, but then, what is?
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