High school sucks, especially when the bullies can toss you from wall to wall or throw fireballs. This is the harsh lesson Will (Michael Angarano) learns on his first day at the special school for super-powered kids. Not only is he worried that his lack of powers will make him stand out (the last thing you want to do as a freshman), but he also arrives burdened with a well-known pedigree. His parents are the superest of superheroes, Commander Stronghold (Kurt Russell, of the perfectly cleft chin) and Josie Jetstream (Kelly Preston), who split their time between selling suburban real estate (their cover) and defeating saving the world. Powerless Will sighs, “I’m supposed to save the world one day.”
Brightly colored and extra perky, Sky High makes good fun of the usual high school drama. On his first day, dad stops by Will’s bedroom to wish him well, whereupon the boy pretends he’s lifting heavy barbells, “trying to get in a few sets before school.” The day only gets worse. On the school bus, he and his best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker) meet up with a couple of bullies—elastic-limbed Lash (Jake Sandvig) and very fast Speed (Will Harris)—who make it their mission to pick on Will and anyone associated with him. The bus itself proceeds to crash through a Road Closed sign and fly through the air (such that all the freshmen riders scream in terror) in order to reach Sky High, which hovers above the earth, “in constant motion as a precaution against those who might have nefarious plans.”
At school, all the kids are leaping and flying and shooting laser beams from their eyes, all showing off their special powers (one girl zaps a fresh boy with her freeze ray, leaving him iced solid on the front lawn for the rest the movie, occasionally tap-tapped by passersby). Will tries to keep a low profile, but soon learns from Principal Powers (Lynda Carter) that all freshmen will be assigned to classes according to their super abilities or lack thereof: those who can fly, become a giant rock, or set themselves on fire are deemed heroes, while those, like Will, who show no skills or feeble ones are set on the “loser track,” or as their teacher Mr. Boy (Dave Foley) likes to call it, “hero support.”
The man deciding where everyone goes, Coach Boomer (big-chested Bruce Campbell), has a bit of a mean streak (“My word is law, my judgment is final! Are we clear?”). He humiliates each student in turn, making him or her demonstrate his or her powers before he roars, “hero!” or “sidekick!” Though Layla protests (“To participate in this test supports a flawed system,” she says, “The hero/sidekick dichotomy”), she and Will are sent to the sidekicks class. On top of this, Will must also contend with sullen, leather-jacketed firestarter Warren Peace (Steven Strait) holds a grudge against Will because Commander Stronghold defeated his supervillain father (“If you ever cross me again,” he growls at Will, “I’ll roast you alive.”)
One evening after school, Will invites his new classmates over for study group—Layla, who has an awesome power over nature (trees and thunderstorms), but won’t reveal them in school; Zach (Nicholas Braun), who glows; Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels), who turns into a puddle of goop (perhaps appropriately, as he is Lash’s favorite target, repeatedly getting his head dunked in the toilet); Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who shapeshifts into a guinea pig. (No surprise, all of these funky powers will come into play in the big showdown at film’s end.) When Commander Stronghold comes home, Will must explain why he’s hanging out with these losers (“Good for you, son, a kid of your stature hanging around with a bunch of sidekicks”), meaning he must then confess his own lack of powers to dad—in the kitchen. Dad reacts badly, slamming the counter and breaking his cell phone (a drawer full of replacement phones suggests that he has had similar fits before).
This cartoony coming out story soon gives way to a cartoony straightening out story, as Will gains his powers after all (fighting the bullies and, as his mother scolds him later, “nearly destroying the cafeteria”). At this point, he also gains the attention of the beautiful and observably scheming Student Body President Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Now a hero and not a little enchanted by the Gwen’s in-crowd cache, Will starts forgetting his sidekick buddies, including true blue, sweet, and principled Layla (so pure of heart that she won’t eat meat because, she says, “My mom can communicate with animals. They don’t like being eaten”).
Commander Stronghold is elated at Will’s sudden emergence into “normality” (he imagines the super-family’s future glory, “the three of us fighting crime together, side by side by side”). But the son isn’t so sure about his imminent stardom. Besides, he’s in a Disney movie, which means he still has important lessons to learn, like the obvious value of loyalty to the little guys, the real appeal of granola girl Layla, and the inevitable treachery of Gwen.
To get from here to there, this initially sprightly film grinds its gears a bit, though Warren Peace maintains a surprisingly light touch, despite being the designated surly boy, haplessly resisting the call to join the good guys. When called on to read Layla’s fortune at the Chinese restaurant where Will, nerdily distracted by the Student Body President, has forgotten to meet her, Warren brings just the right mix of dread and delight: “To let true love remain unspoken is the quickest way to a heavy heart.” Angry son of a supervillain, he oughta know.