Hollywood began buzzing last month about the battle shaping up between 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures. Sony plans a picture called Zoom, a comedy about misfit kids learning to harness their super-powers at a secret academy. Fox cried foul, insisting that Zoom was ripping off their X-Men property. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Pictures releases Sky High this week, a comedy about misfit kids learning to harness their super-powers at a secret academy. Guess Fox is afraid of Disney's lawyers.
Who is Fox kidding? It's standard Hollywood policy to recycle, and parody is the ultimate shield for rip-off premises. Sky High taps not only X-Men, but also the narrative structure of Harry Potter. Like Harry Potter and Spider-Man, Sky High mines humor from the metaphor of powers as pubescence, an awkward rite of passage about learning to control unexpected emissions of life essence.
Michael Angarano (Lords of Dogtown) plays Will Stronghold, a teen facing his first day of school at Sky High, a high school in the clouds. The usual anxiety is heightened by Will's implied birthright as the son of not one, but two superheroes: The Commander and Jetstream, a.k.a. Steve and Josie Stronghold (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston). Worse, Will has not yet gotten his powers, and hasn't the heart to tell his parents, particularly his proud papa. "If life were to suddenly get fair," says Will, ruefully, "I doubt it would happen in high school."
Super powers notwithstanding, high school is the same all over, and writers Paul Hernandez and Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle organize allegorical cliques and terrors within a superheroic context. Instead of Hogwart's sorting hat, Sky High has a gym coach (your unfriendly neighborhood Bruce Campbell) who demands a public display of powers and makes a snap decision: hero or sidekick. Sidekicks are the geeks of the school, and heroes are the jocks and cheerleaders—there's something lightly subversive about the sensible suggestion that heroes would be the big men and women on campus, more likely to be jerky and self-absorbed than generous (the truly bad eggs, of course, turn out to be villains in training).
Since Will has the heart of a true hero, the job of uniting the hostile hero and sidekick cliques falls to him, once he overcomes his own power performance anxiety. New threats develop in a romantic triangle for Will—with longtime best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker) and vampy Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the hottest girl in the school—a grudge held by surly bad boy Warren Peace (Steven Strait), and a secret villain's plot to destroy the Strongholds. As in Spy Kids, the offspring will prove their worth and save the day.
Past the basic symbolism, not much about Sky High is clever; a sturdy cast peppered with comedy stars conceals an underachieving script that follows in the paces of every other 't(w)een movie. Campbell is joined by Cloris Leachman as the school nurse, Dave Foley as a sidekick teacher, and Kevin McDonald as literally brainy teacher Mr. Medulla. Adults will be tickled by the Kids in the Hall reunion of Foley and McDonald, as well as the casting of former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as Principal Powers. The kids are good, and an eager Russell—dressed like a Firecracker popsicle—endearingly overacts (Preston's significant scenes must have shot and discarded; unlike Russell, she has nothing of her own to do).
Sky High isn't bad; it's just vaguely dissatisfying to an adult audience accustomed to more sophisticated parody in the way of The Tick, Mystery Men, or The Incredibles (the latter film's composer, Michael Giacchino, does the same honors here). Older teens will probably feel the same way, though Sky High will resonate with young viewers on their way to high school. In the end, Will is still an entitled boy from America's first family of superheroes, but he's discovered himself, shed his selfishness, and embraced friends of all stripes—all strides that make this hero a pretty good role model in the end.