Less than a month after Fox’s dumb, trashy Fantastic Four somehow passed itself off as a family-friendly superhero comedy comes Disney’s Sky High, a film that actually fits the bill.
The notion of an otherwise ordinary family inhabiting a world of colorful comic-book adventure is not exactly a revelation these days. Spy Kids set the bar high four years ago, and last year’s The Incredibles took the concept to the pinnacle of achievement. In the shadow of these films, Sky High comes off underachieving and derivative.
Yet in fusing its familiar super-powered trappings and squeaky-clean PG milieu to the venerable clichés of the John Hughes–style high-school coming of age films today’s parents grew up with, Sky High manages to be at once completely familiar and at the same time a little different from any film you’ve ever seen before. From the themes of true friends and false popularity to the familiar closing strains of the 1982 Modern English hit “I Melt With You” (“I’ll stop the world and melt with you”), Sky High is carefully pitched to be watchable by the Breakfast Club generation and their young kids.
It’s hardly inspired, but it’s competent, wholly inoffensive, and consistently mildly entertaining. Measured against the summer’s other family fare, it registers somewhere between the superior March of the Penguins and the lackluster Herbie: Fully Loaded, and is neither as visionary nor as maddening as Tim Burton’s schizophrenic, inspired/self-indulgent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Set in an airborne high school for the children of super heroes, Sky High tells the story of underdog freshman Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano, Seabiscuit), offspring of the dynamic duo of The Commander (Kurt Russell, Miracle) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston, The Cat in the Hat). Like Harry Potter, Will comes with the expectation of greatness, yet arrives at school with no known powers.
Will is pretty much like any other teenaged hero in a high-school comedy, I guess. His best friend is Layla (Danielle Panabaker), an attractive, idealistic member of the opposite sex whom he has never considered romantically, though she’s secretly in love with him. He starts out socially with the uncool crowd (in this case, future sidekicks, or “hero support” as they’re more euphemistically known), but things change for him around the time that a gorgeous, popular senior named Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes an active interest in him. Soon he’s swept up into a new social set, until he realizes the importance of being true to your friends.
Hurt by his insensitivity, Layla feigns attraction to Will’s arch-rival (Steven Strait), a brooding student with an old grudge against her real love. Things come to a head around the time that Will’s new friends invite themselves to his house for an out-of-control party ended only by the unexpected return of Will’s parents. By this time, conniving Gwen has revealed her true colors — she’s been using Will all along for her own ulterior motives, and has spitefully sent Layla away in tears.
Will’s wrap-up monologue, in which he summarizes how his girlfriend became his enemy, his enemy became his best friend, and his best friend became his girlfriend sounds a lot like the ending of a lot of high school comedies. The super hero stuff is likewise off the shelf — a villain with an old grudge schemes to infiltrate the heroes’ defenses, steal a critical weapon, and have vengeance, but is thwarted when underdog heroes rise to the occasion and prove their worth. Somehow, though, the fusion of the two sets of conventions manages to hold together for an hour and a half or so, and the film knows better than to outstay its welcome.
A slight PC vibe runs through Sky High: Layla, the idealistic best friend, is not only an environmentalist-vegetarian, but also turns out to be one of the most powerful characters in the film, though she has a scruple against displaying her powers except when absolutely necessary. (Layla’s mother says that animals, with whom she has a telepathic bond, don’t like to be eaten. Since Layla is a vegetarian despite her power involving a similar bond with plants, I guess plants must not mind.)
Layla’s high-minded objection to the whole hero-sidekick hierarchy (“We’re all just people”) reminds one how brave and subversive was The Incredibles’ broadside against celebrating mediocrity and suppressing differences in order to make everyone feel equally special.
When Will’s world-class powers kick in and he’s promoted from sidekick classes to the hero track, we’re meant to feel this as some sort of betrayal of his sidekick friends — as if, like Layla, he should accept sidekick status despite his great power, in solidarity with his friends.
Yet is it unfair or demeaning for schools to have honors courses for some and general or remedial courses for others? And if you have the ability for honors work and others don’t, is it noble to stay in general study because that’s where your friends are, or because you object to making divisions between people?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.