It’s a sure sign that the superhero genre is on a downslide when even superhero parodies have become mainstream. Sky High is the first in a long list of upcoming comedies that’ll take potshots at Hollywood’s biggest money-making staple. The focus for almost all of these seems to be kids, in this case a high school full of children who happen to be super powered. I know, I was hoping Sky High was the title of a new Cheech & Chong movie too.
The story setup is to say the least, a little weak. Screenwriters Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley, and Mark McCorkle have basically torn the pages out of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls notebook and replaced all the hot babes in short skirts with superpowers, which incidentally the film’s effects budget isn’t quite up to creating. But the movie works almost in spite of its rather limp story, partly because that same screenwriting trio apparently knows how to write great characters and partly because the film is carried on the shoulders of an amazing cast. Forget the teen actors who are supposed to be the stars of this thing and take a look at the adult supporting players: aging leading man Kurt Russell , uber-hot scientologist Kelly Preston, cult icon Bruce Campbell, two count em two former “Kids in the Hall”, crazy old person Cloris Leachman, and yes, Wonder Woman. It’s a weird and eclectic group, but also a supremely talented one. Any time you can get the strong chins of Bruce Campbell and Kurt Russell in a movie together you should. That ought to be written down somewhere. Get a pen.
The movie opens on Will Stronghold’s (Michael Angarano) first day of high school. The catch is that it’s not a normal school; it’s Sky High, a school for the kids of superheroes (and according to Will’s dad, a few kids who have been accidentally dropped into vats of radioactive waste). Like almost all of the kids at Sky High, Will’s parents are superheroes. Not just any superheroes, but the world’s greatest superheroes, The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). Unlike all the other students, Will doesn’t have his powers yet. He’s a late bloomer. For most of us being a late bloomer means fewer pubes, for Will it means the inability to keep from being squashed by a falling car. Will’s lack of powers leaves him thrown in a class for sidekicks (they prefer hero support), taught by the delightfully pudgy Dave Foley. As in Mean Girls and a dozen other films like it, the school is severely segregated. Kids categorized as heroes are treated like kings, while sidekicks get all the leftovers. When Will finally gets his abilities, he’s left choosing between his sidekick friends and the wild, party lifestyle of heroes. You can figure out what happens from there, throw in a purposefully cliché comic book villain plot and you’re set.
It’s the teachers that make the movie interesting. Bruce Campbell is a surly ex-hero gym coach, charged with sorting out the kids’ powers. Lynda Carter plays Principle Powers, and spends a lot of time looking fabulous. Kevin McDonald is Will’s science teacher Mr. Medulla, filling the role as the school’s large headed mad scientist. While the kids play things pretty serious, the teachers and parents running around in the film are left to steal all the best lines and score with big laughs. Whenever the movie focuses in solely on Will and his friends, it deflates a little. It’s not because the kids are bad, they’re actually pretty good. It’s only in comparison to the legends kicking ass and taking names around them that they suffer. That’s alright. There’s enough Kurt Russell, Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, Bruce Campbell, and Kevin Heffernan in Sky High to keep it flying. Kevin who? He’s my new idol Ron Wilson, Bus Driver and you’d best not forget it.
Ron Wilson, Bus Driver really embodies everything that’s so great about this family film. He’s the bus driver. In another flick, he’d have been a throwaway character used simply for transporting the kids from point A to point B. In Sky High he’s a hilarious, fleshed out personality. The son of two superhero parents who never got his powers, he tries to live up to his superhero potential anyway. Sure, he’s only driving bus, but he drives that bus like a chubby, bad ass superhero. He’s a riot, he’s got geek style, he has his own business card, and the guy knows how to wear a good hat.
So perhaps the basic story they’re wrapping all of this around isn’t particularly original. Doesn’t matter, the script pulls out so much witty dialogue for the cast to play around with that the movie really soars. Kurt Russell, despite being a supporting character owns this movie. His interaction with Will is classic, and he nails most of the best lines in the film. Had they tossed out the high school and used this brilliant cast to make a comedy about aging adult superheroes, they might have had something even better. For what it is though, Sky High is a surprisingly great success. Like the Fantastic Four this is another superhero movie that despite some flaws, is just a ton of fun. If FF’s box office take is any indication, audiences are ready for a lot more of that.