Title: Sky High
Play time: 1h 40min
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenwriters: Paul Hernandez
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano
Well, here is one that’s completely out of left field. From the director of the single worst movie of 2004, with a conceit lifted wholesale from Harry Potter and The Incredibles, preceded by an incoherent, unappealing trailer, Sky High had all the hallmarks of a layer in the usual late summer trash heap, a cynical attempt to capitalize on the latest entertainment fads without effort, thought, or budget. When you follow the industry as closely as I do, you can usually hear the clarion call of a flop. It’s not infallible, but it’s pretty reliable.
Mike Mitchell Movie – Sky High – Written with Heart & Genuine Wit
But no. Nothing doing. Mike Mitchell’s film is confident and strong, directed with enough of an edge to be interesting, written with heart and a genuine wit. The conceit is derivative as hell, yes, but rather than settle for warmed-over, slapdash kiddie pablum, Sky High asserts itself as its own movie, with a pulse and a personality independent of its predecessors. “Family” films are particularly vulnerable to herd mentality and the mindless churning of the movie mill, what with kids being generally more tolerant of same old, same old. This could have been the consummate example of that sort of complacent surrender. Instead, it consistently flirts with greatness.
The most impressive of Mitchell and his three screenwriters’ accomplishments is the way they sustain a silly, irreverent tone while also maintaining a level of emotional truth. Any description of Sky High would convince you that there is no way you could ever bring yourself to take any of it seriously — it sure sounds like a cheerfully derivative pastiche, a jokey little flight of fancy that’s amusing at best and obnoxious at worst. But this estimation is off, and that’s the remarkable thing: the universe of Sky High is silly, and jokey, and impulsive in its inclusion of non sequitur jokes and gags, but it’s a coherent universe all the same.
Cast, Summary & Critique on Sky High
And in the context of that universe, the story of Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), the son of two of the world’s most renowned superheroes (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston), is sweet and significant. Expectations for him as he enters Sky High, the world’s preeminent superhero academy, are, well, sky high, as everyone is waiting for him to unleash superpowers that befit his pedigree. But as he heads toward his first day of school, he is concealing a terrible secret: he hasn’t gotten his powers yet, and isn’t sure if he ever will. Silliness, yes, but it taps into something very real: feeling false and unqualified upon entering a new role or environment, wondering how the hell you ever snuck in there, and how long it will be until you’re exposed for the fraud that you are.
Upon arrival, all of the kids are sorted, Harry Potter-style, into “heroes” and “sidekicks,” with the latter being trained in “hero support” by All-American Boy, or Mr. Boy for short (Dave Foley). Those with mighty powers, like superstrength, superspeed, or the ability to turn into a giant, indestructable stone being become heroes; those with wussier skills, like the ability to melt, transform into a guinea pig or, hilariously, become a giant rubber bouncy ball, get booted into the sidekick camp. This is a ready-made template for all sorts of subtext, but Sky High merely suggests it and leaves it open to interpretation, preferring instead to imbue its story with emotional heft at face value. We don’t feel bad for the sidekicks because they represent something in our world; we sympathize with them because they’re dejected, trod-upon and left out. As a metaphor for high school in general, it’s nifty and effective, but the movie doesn’t dwell on it, or make it out to be more than it is.
Michael Angarano, who turned in a nice supporting performance in the underrated Lords of Dogtown earlier in the summer, proves himself an outright star here with exactly the sort of loose and funny turn that the screenplay demanded. He is facilitated in his task by the screenplay, which flat-out refuses to get sappy on him, but he pulls off the “heavy moments” — ones where Will is forced to make difficult choices between his friends and his newfound popularity, etc. — with impressive aplomb, giving them the kind of heft that I doubt anyone expected. Among his young co-stars, look out for Steven Strait and Danielle Panabaker, both of whom nicely take their characters beyond mere types.
Random Humor, Jokey & Eloquent
Most of this should be a treat for the adult audience, and it helps that the movie is also very funny, full of both the kind of brilliantly random humor I would expect from Ben Stiller or Christopher Guest (apparently, giant robots regularly menace the morning commute) and elaborate in-jokes (various superhero references, including but not limited to Principal Powers being played by Lynda Carter). Bruce Campbell shows up as a superhero gym teacher, and Kevin McDonald is a riot as the resident mad scientist (he’s given some classic lines, but blink and you’ll miss them). It’s a delight, and my surprise gradually turned to astonishment as the movie kept hitting different targets. If only every Hollywood movie could boast this sort of attention to detail.
There’s only so much use to forming expectations based on release date patterns and marketing. Sometimes it can help you duck out of the way of a dud, but you could just as easily miss something as alive, as genuine, and as eloquent as Sky High. Here is a kids’ movie with a real heart, a real moral code, and real respect for its young audience.