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Sky High

Director: Mike Mitchell
Cast: Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bruce Campbell, Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston

(Disney; US DVD: 29 Nov 2005)

Might Have Been

In the alternate opening for Sky High, the perfect superheroic couple shows what makes them so grand. Twenty years before the film proper begins, this seven-minute sequence shows Commander Stronghold (Kurt Russell, of the perfectly cleft chin) and his sidekick All American Boy (Dave Foley) are held captive by their arch-enemies, Royal Pain and Stitches. Assuming they’ll be rescued, the Commander waits patiently. And sure enough, the mayor calls Josie Jetstream (Kelly Preston), who leaves her undercover job selling real estate in order to save her man. She crashes through a window, slams the villains to the ground, and inspires the Commander to gush: “She’s fantastic!”


Though they haven’t seen each other since they were in Sky High, they’re instantly smitten. So are you. And this means that the rest of the film—which concerns their Sky-High-attending son Will (Michael Angarano)—loses steam. While the DVD includes other extras (a dullsville bloopers reel, a Bowling for Soup music video, and a couple of featurettes), none is so affecting as this one. Here, you realize, is the movie that might have been.


The movie that is aims for a preteen audience. In superhero high school, Will discovers, bullies toss you from wall to wall and throw fireballs to intimidate you. Not only is Will worried that his own 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—Josie and the Commander—followed through from that first date to become the superest of superheroes. Now they split their time between selling suburban homes and saving the world. Will doesn’t quite believe their assurances that his powers will eventually kick in: “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 (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 them demonstrate their 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), who holds a grudge 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. 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”). Though Layla brings some sense of complexity to the proceedings, she’s generally undermined by the film’s straightforward charging.


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 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. To his credit, Warren Peace maintains a surprisingly light touch, despite being the designated surly boy, haplessly resisting the call to join the good guys. When asked 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.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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