“Sky High” might not merit such elevated words of praise as “sublime” or “soaring,” but this sneaky-funny pick-me-up is one of the happier, stealthier surprises of the season.
A Disney production stuck with subordinate status (after “Herbie: Fully Loaded”) in the company’s summer lineup, the movie cleverly capitalizes on this disadvantage: It champions a set of teenage phenoms who are the underrated prospects in their high school, an academy for budding superheroes.
The pretext seems to have begun with screenwriter Paul Hernandez, who thought it might be enjoyable to blend his fondness for comic book heroics with his fondness for John Hughes’ 1980s cycle of high school comedies that began with “Sixteen Candles.”
The end result, genially directed by Mike Mitchell and dynamically enhanced by Scott Rogers, the stunt coordinator from “Spider-Man 2,” is a synthesis of three familiar influences: superhero family farce in the vein of “The Incredibles,” suburban high school romance and frustration a la Mr. Hughes, and superschool rivalries and pressures akin to those of Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter books and movies.
Like Hogwarts, Sky High, secluded above a lofty cloud bank over some idyllic suburb, recruits the supernaturally precocious. The protagonist, entering freshman Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), is the only son of titans Steve and Josie Stronghold (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston). Celebrated for their feats as the Commander and Jetstream, Dad and Mom now dwell in semiretirement as thriving real estate agents. Will is presumed to be a chip off the old block, but there’s a slight hitch: His superpowers have yet to manifest themselves.
It’s politely assumed that he’s a late bloomer, but he’s still subject to “power placement” rankings at exclusive Sky High. Will cannot advance immediately to the Heroes track, the top of the heap. He is relegated instead to the group called Sidekicks, whose course of study is termed Hero Support.
The plot is contrived to demonstrate how the underdogs rally to save the school from mortal danger on the occasion of a homecoming dance, targeted for sabotage by treacherous malcontents. The conspiracy is a consequence of some of the snobberies and complacencies that have crept into the Sky High culture.
The student body and faculty are generously stocked with amusing types and skillful performers. “Sky High” might prove a defining showcase for several of its young cast members, particularly Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Gwen Grayson, the campus dream girl. Gwen, who entrances Will and takes a somewhat suspicious interest in the progress of an insecure newcomer, sets a new standard for “too good to be true” figures. An adorable camera subject, Miss Winstead may owe some of her photogenic appeal to an enviable genetic heritage: She is said to be a “distant cousin” of the late Ava Gardner.
Two alums of the “Kids in the Hall” series, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, have witty roles as teachers whose names tell you a lot, Mr. Boy and Mr. Medulla, respectively. Heading into his middle 50s, Mr. Russell (who made his Disney feature debut in “The Absent-Minded Professor” in 1961) is thickening in a humorously commanding way that recalls John Wayne at about the same age.
The writers have thought out the superheroic strengths and weaknesses of their character gallery far more systematically than you anticipate; even casually depicted or mentioned attributes turn out to have sustained humorous payoffs. Best of all, “Sky High” liberates itself from the “Spider-Man” syndrome, which makes growing pains into a cosmic pain. In this movie, they regain a lighthearted sense of proportion.
TITLE: “Sky High”
RATING: PG (Occasional violent spectacle in a science-fiction style with comic overtones)
CREDITS: Directed by Mike Mitchell. Screenplay by Paul Hernandez, Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley. Cinematography by Shelly Johnson. Production design by Bruce Robert Hill. Costume design by Michael Wilkinson. Visual effects supervisors: Nathan McGuinness and Mitchell Drain. Stunt coordinator and second-unit director: Scott Rogers. Music by Michael Giacchino.
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
WEB SITE: www.disney.go.com/disneypictures/skyhigh
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS