With Harry Potter finding great success paralleling the trials and tribulations of adolescence with learning to use magical abilities in the world of wizards, it was inevitable someone else would attempt to jump on the bandwagon with a similar idea. Sky High replaces the wizards with superheros that can’t quite leap tall buildings, let alone high enough to reach the boy wizard’s level of success.
There are many difficult things about being a teenager. Trying to fit in with your friends; trying to get along with your parents and live up to their expectations - these are challenges every normal teenager faces. Now add the element of super heroes at school and you’ve got Sky High, Disney’s new “coming of age” type story. Essentially take The Princess Diaries, remove the princess who doesn’t quite fit in, put in a super hero who doesn’t quite fit in instead, and you’ve got this film.
Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is this film’s princess, er, hero - the son of the world’s most notable super heroes - Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). The film picks up as Will prepares for his first day at Sky High, a prep school for super-powered folk to learn how to do all the things heroes need to do. Unfortunately Will is lacking one crucial element for super hero school: a super power. Will’s powers haven’t quite manifested yet despite being the progeny of such notable heroes, and so Will is relegated to the world of sidekicks while more notable characters get to be heroes.
Being a sidekick (or “hero support”) is the movie’s parallel for geekdom. The best people get to be heroes, while sidekicks learn how to give their hero stuff like crossbows and how to change into costume quickly behind screens, desks, and poles. The characters, who typically have powers like turning into goo or just glowing, don’t even get super names or costumes until they graduate and are assigned to their heroes. They are second class students in just about every possible way, including their passive teacher Mr. Boy (Dave Foley), who used to serve as hero support for Will’s dad.
Eventually of course, Will finds out he’s really a princess... er, gets his super powers and is elevated to hero status. This means he leads his fellow sidekicks into the sunset as he breaks down the walls between the two classes, right? Nope - he becomes the hero of all heroes, treating his former classmates like the second class students they are, and even abandoning his lifelong friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who secretly has a crush on Will, for the cute popular girl Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Hmmm... plant controlling hippie girl or cute technopath, which to choose, which to choose. I bet by the end Will will even have cleared up misunderstandings with his enemy, saved the day, and proven himself to his parents and the school.
As you can probably tell by now, my primary problem with the movie is the plot is not only extremely generic, but it’s something that Disney has done half a dozen times by now. The only real unique thing about it is that Disney puts super heroes in the place of former princesses. This gives them the opportunity to place a male in the leading role instead of Anne Hathaway and I have to admit, I’d much rather have Hathaway. She at least gives me something to focus on visually while I shut by brain down for an hour and a half. The visuals aren't much help for Sky High, where the super heroes, and particularly the villains, look like "Power Ranger" rejects of the week.
Despite the super-hero environment, Disney takes very few risks with the creative side of things, preferring to keep the movie more about teenage life then take a chance to turn the super-hero world upside-down. This is a big disappointment since the movie has so many opportunities to play within that genre - opportunities that really need to be taken in a post Incredibles world. But we really shouldn’t blame the scriptwriters or filmmakers for that. I mean it’s not like anybody at Disney could have known The Incredibles was coming down the pike as they developed this movie, right? Unfortunately this means what super-hero storylines are in here are so predictable they leave the audience wondering how heroes who are supposed to be so bright can’t see what’s coming when the same story has been used in comic books for decades.
The only real saving grace for the film is a bunch of stunt casting, using great actors like Dave Foley as the sidekick teacher and Kevin McDonald (also formerly from “Kids in the Hall”) as a mad scientist complete with increased brain size. Bruce Campbell, who is always fantastic in stuff like this, serves as the school’s coach, and, most impressively, Lynda Carter puts in time as the school’s principal. There are even a few passing references to other work these actors have filled (“I’m not Wonder Woman” quips Carter at one point). Even the stunt casting isn’t much use beyond a pure novelty level though.
Sadly as much as I wanted to like Sky High prior to watching it (and I really wanted to), I came away from the movie feeling tremendously disappointed. Disney safely decided to avoid doing anything creative in favor of grinding out another thinly veiled cover for teenage angst. However, if you have sons who weren’t interested in The Princess Diaries, this movie may be for them, but only if they’re the type who would wind up in hero support anyway.
If you’ve watched one live action Disney movie, then you’ve pretty much seen how all of their DVDs are laid out - it’s almost completely cut-and-paste for their DVD production studio. Add some funny out takes, a commentary track, some performance from the Disney music studio, and a few short “Backstage Disney” featurettes and your set. And that’s exactly what Sky High’s DVD release gives you... almost.
For starters, the requisite commentary track is missing. There is no commentary included with the movie, which makes for a shorter amount of time that has to be spent watching all the bonus material, but is kind of a shame. During the behind the scenes featurette director Mike Mitchell seems like he’d bring some interesting comments to explain parts of the movie. Unfortunately he doesn’t get the chance, although that might be for the best for everybody. None of us, director or viewer, have to watch the film a second time to get his take on it.
The featurettes are fun, although not terribly interesting. The larger of the two is “Welcome to Sky High”, a brief behind the scenes look at the movie. As I said, Mitchell seemed like he’s having a genuinely good time among the kids while making this movie. He also talks with excitement about some of the stunt casting and the ideas behind parts of the movie. The second featurette “Breaking Down the Walls” focuses on the stunts of the movie, and is a much more interesting thing to watch. The film utilizes the same technology as Spider-Man 2, creating a system of computer controlled winches to achieve effects without heavy use of CGI. This comes into play a lot during the fights, where super strength punches knock people through walls and up in the air. It also shows how the kids got to do a lot of their own stunts - something I’m sure they were more then happy about.
Among the few other features is an alternate opening that provides some information much earlier in the film then it comes in the final edit. I think I would have dropped the movie’s rating even further if they had gone with this alternate opening, despite the fact that it’s a rare chance to see Commander and Jetstream at work. The movie as a whole just works better the way it was pieced together, leaving some information for narrated flashbacks rather than a goofy scene that feels almost insulting to have to watch. Finally there are some “super bloopers” (which really aren’t that super) and a music video for Bowling for Soup’s “I Melt With You” cover. Considering the bulk of the soundtrack is made up of ‘80’s hits covered by Disney artists, I’m a little impressed they were able to keep themselves restrained enough to only put one music video on the DVD release.
While the bonus materials are a little sparse, the film looks and sounds very clear, which might be a mistake in the long run. The clarity of the movie’s appearance means there’s nothing to distract you from how cheesy it looks at times, and believe me, it looks pretty cheesy. The sound is really nice though, especially when you encounter Bruce Campbell’s “sonic boom” attacks.
Sky High fails to live up to expectations, both as a film and as a DVD release. It appears Disney really knew their target audience for this film - the just-pre-adolescent crowd that wasn’t captured by The Princess Diaries, and that’s a crowd I’m not part of. Hopefully movie fans that age will love the movie and the few bonus materials that are here, but Sky High just doesn't fly high enough for me.