STUDIO: Disney
MSRP: $29.97
RUNNING TIME: 100 min.
Alternate opening

All the major studios have snatched up stacks of comic books seeking their own lucrative superhero movie franchise(s) based on popular (and some not quite as well recognized) heroes, but outside of the webbed wonder, most of them haven’t quite hit the target. With Sky High, Disney decided to bypass the comic shop entirely and just create their own “universe” of costumed crusaders. How’d that work out for them?

The Flick

The city of Maxville is protected by famous heroes, specifically super-strong Commander (Kurt Russell) and high-flying Jetstream (Kelly Preston), who in their secret alter egos are otherwise known as mild-mannered real estate agents Steve and Josie Stronghold. Their teenage son Will (Michael Anganaro) doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, so he’s sitting on a secret of his own: his superpowers have yet to manifest, and he’s off to his first day of hero training as a freshman at Sky High.

"Okay, I admit that is a pretty good Duchovny impersonation, but I refuse to wave a flashlight around and yell ‘Mulder’!"

Being the son of prominent heroes has its advantages, and Will discovers he’s a minor celebrity when he and lifelong friend Layla (beautiful Danielle Panabaker, a redhead fusion of Winona Ryder and Kristin Kreuk) board the rocket-bus to the floating academy, where students are swiftly sorted into Hero or Sidekick classes based on their abilities and then taught “hero support” instruction or mad science lessons. Will quickly encounters his first adolescent adversity in the form of flamethrower Warren Peace (Steven Strait), alternately referred to as Hothead (even though only his arms are ablaze, but I suppose Hotarms doesn’t have the same ring), the brooding son of a superheroine and a villain dad incarcerated by The Commander. During their destructive cafeteria scuffle, Will’s superhuman strength finally activates and he’s then upgraded from powerless Sidekick courses to full Hero curriculum. But he soon discovers the same social challenges as every high school human: cool and cruel classmates, gravitating geeks, girl problems and various growing pains. And a supervillain confrontation during the prom, naturally.

And as his torso disintegrated, Chuck wished his otherwise kindly neighbor Mrs. Ruffenhuff wasn’t such a huge fan of Mars Attacks. Ack-ak!

The DVD cover compares Sky High to Harry Potter, but there’s nothing resembling Hogwart’s oppressive atmosphere here. This is really a variant of X-Men infused with vivid hypercolors, and the resulting mutated mixture of tongue-in-cheek comedy and smash-action is an outright blast (almost enough to forgive director Mike Mitchell for Deuce Bigalow and Surviving Christmas). I would even dare proclaim that of all the recent superhero movies, Sky High most faithfully captures the fanciful tone of a classic comic book (Sam Raimi’s Darkman remains the finest film depiction of comic aesthetics – sorry, Spidey and Marv) thanks to its deliberately cheesy FX, impressive practical stunts and vibrant production design.

Sure, the film’s analogies are as subtle as an adamantium-clawed handshake, and the messages aren’t anything we didn’t already learn from high school clique flicks like Better Off Dead and Can’t Buy Me Love (the soundtrack is loaded with covers of 80s pop tunes as if to underscore this association) — peer pressure, meeting parental expectations, alienation, humiliation, etc. And it’s entirely predictable: teen foes Will and Warren end up joining forces against a greater enemy, and no matter how useless the dweeby sidekicks’ powers seem (e.g., one kid melts, another shapeshifts into a guinea pig) they all eventually prove their worth and collectively save the day.

Verizon Wireless representative to board of directors: "And best of all, the new line of high-powered long-distance digital phones are completely safe!"

The crackling script is laced with clever gags and pop-culture nods (Revenge of the Nerds parallels, a climax reminiscent of Carrie), as well as innumerable comic book references, usually with a slight distortion: The Commander (a role perfect for Russell’s physical construction) is sort of like Captain America but with Superman’s strength and spit-curl, spiritual eco-conscious Layla’s plant-control powers mimic villainess Poison Ivy, and bullies Lash and Speed have talents more commonly associated with legendary defenders of justice Mr. Fantastic and the Flash.

But what really makes the superpowered spectacle succeed is the savvy casting, particularly among the secondary characters. Anganaro is an charismatic lead with fair comic delivery, and his demeanor and hair-helmet evoke the classic Disney flicks where his “dad” started his film career. Panabaker makes a demure object of overlooked affection, Strait gets a great opportunity to illustrate Warren’s warmth instead of raging heat, and the Sidekicks are stereotypical but never grating or overpowering (ahem). And then there’s Cloris Leachman as the school nurse, Bruce Campbell as a thunder-voiced gym teacher, former (and forever) Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the principal, Kids in the Hall alumni Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald among the faculty, and Broken Lizard member Kevin Heffernan as bus driver Ron Wilson, the only known offspring of super parents to never develop powers. And what kid wouldn’t want Russell and Preston for parents?

"Best Toulon’s Revenge impression I’ve seen all day!"

Liberally poaching from decades of comics and movies (and movies based on comics), Sky High’s premise certainly couldn’t be considered original — its influences are worn proudly on its multihued sleeve and its real-life metaphors make Stan Lee seem like a ninja. Family-friendly and clichéd but never cloying, its spoofy nature and visual zip strike the right balance with sincerity and infectious verve.

8.0 out of 10

The Look

There’s a slew of sizzle on the screen and the wardrobe and sets incorporate more color than the Skittles warehouse, and the heroic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is up for the challenge.

9.5 out of 10

The Noise

From Campbell’s bellowing coach to the whoosh and pow of calamitous clashes, the Dolby 5.1 is effectively spectacular (one particularly neat audio exploit: when students are placed in the power-nullifying “detention” room, voices and noises sound flat and hollow), and the score is appropriately robust, which makes sense as it’s provided by The Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino. But a DTS track would’ve been marvelous.

8.5 out of 10

"Yeah, those are some knockout calves, but what do you mean by ‘Are you a Neil Jordan fan’?"

The Goodies

The alternate opening (which actually contains spoilers) shows The Commander’s first meeting with Jetstream as they battle nemesis Royal Pain, and much of the footage was edited back into the story for a “flashback sequence”, where it’s better served – the finished film’s narrated introduction to the hero-populated world of Sky High uses comic book panels to superior effect.

A cute but obligatory 15-minute featurette goes behind the scenes of the production and follows various cast members through their daily tasks. More interesting (but only half the length) is “Breaking the Walls”, which focuses on accomplishing the film’s practical stunts. There’s also four minutes of moderately amusing bloopers, a music video for Bowling for Soup’s cover of Modern English’s “I Melt with You”, and a couple of brief “Easter egg” clips.

Considering the director’s manic energy and the cast’s obvious enjoyment and camaraderie, it would’ve been grand to have a gang-style commentary, but (assuming this DVDs sales merit it), that’ll be on the Ultimate 2-disc release along with the missing deleted scenes and more substantial bonus features.

5.0 out of 10

"So you really prefer The Man with the Screaming Brain over the Evil Dead trilogy? Damn right I’ll sign the adoption papers!"

The Artwork

It’s a slightly different version of the theatrical poster with the lineup of multicolored heroes (minus a couple of young hotties). It has a mild cheese flavor, but it’s appropriate, although I like the original logo better.

7.0 out of 10

Overall: 8.0 out of 10