All the ingredients were there for a big-time flop: a low budget (reportedly just $35 million), a director whose previous triumphs included bombs like "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" and "Surviving Christmas," and a first-time screenwriter paired with a veteran of Disney sequels and television. And Disney live-action has always been a tricky business, too, with everything dependent upon getting the tone exactly right.
The surprise is, somehow this group and a talented cast managed to pull it off, and "Sky High," though overshadowed by the runaway TV-movie megahit, "High School Musical," marked a triumphant return to live-action excellence for the studio that once made its bread and butter on those semi-silly "G" and "PG" family films.
The premise is a fun one which allows the filmmakers to combine two genres--the superhero film and the high school teen comedy. Michael Angarano is perfect as Will Stronghold, who's anxious about starting high school. There's a lot of pressure on teens, you know. Pressure to fit in with peers, pressure to do things you know are wrong, and pressure from parents to succeed (which often translates into following in their footsteps). The footsteps Will has to trace are his parents, Steve and Josie Stronghold, who are successful real estate agents. Now he's old enough to enter the same high school where his parents excelled. Oh, and if that's not pressure enough, his parents are also the greatest team of superheroes the world has ever known. Bursting with pride and anticipation, the Commander and Jetstream can't wait for their son to join the family business. Both of them.
There's one gigantic problem. While Dad (Kurt Russell) has super strength and Mom (Kelly Preston) can fly, this kid isn't sure he even has any powers. "All I ever wanted for him was to save the world," Dad says, not knowing that Will has been faking his bench presses. It gets worse. High school is difficult enough to negotiate, but Sky High is a secret school located high in the clouds that's only for superheroes . . . and sidekicks. Every mean girl and bully has some sort of power that ups the ante for high school rivalries.
The superhero/sidekick schism is a great metaphor for the cliques that teens have to navigate in high school, and so are the other elements of this clever film. The nerd teachers are here, except they're now underappreciated sidekicks. The bullying PE teacher is here, only he's a former superhero who puts new students to a Harry Potter sorting test, asking them to audition their "special power" for him and pronouncing them heroes or sidekicks . . . make that "hero support," as the sidekicks euphemistically prefer. Late bloomers, cool kids, nerds, mean girls, girl-and-guy problems, passing notes, illicit parties when the parents are gone, and a big dance--they're all here, but given a fun new spin because of the high school for superheroes concept.
Every nerd has his bully, and for Will it's a brooding and fiery guy named Warren Peace (played with piercing passion by Steven Strait), whose father was a hero-turned villain. This guy, when provoked, starts to flame up and can throw fireballs at people who annoy him. The message of this film, though, is that "Living up to your father's reputation or trying to live it down is a sad waste of talent."
More than a few critics have called "Sky High" a combination of "Harry Potter" and "The Incredibles," but there are also elements of the old Flash Gordon serials (including the high school held aloft in the sky), the prom revenge scene from "Carrie," and even "Singin' in the Rain," after a lovestruck Will decides to express himself in a Gene Kelly sort of way. There's also a nifty balance between the gags, comic-style superhero routines, high school silliness, and plain old-fashioned action stunts that add plenty of excitement, both emotional and visual. Real stunts accounted for a full 90 percent of the special effects, but even the CGI stuff looks pretty good. You'd never suspect that this was a low-budget film.
Maybe it's the small touches that make it work, like the supporting cast. Wonder Woman (yep, Lynda Carter herself) puts in an appearance as the principal of Sky High, and who better than Cloris Leachman to play the school nurse? In a short amount of air time she's hilarious. Kevin Heffernan is also wonderfully tongue-in-cheek as Ron Wilson, Bus Driver, a man who's determined to be the best at what he does, even if what he does is considered lowly by others. But Disney teen comedies live or die because of the young actors, and the cast here is plenty engaging. One of the funniest lines in the film comes when Will's friend, Magenta, turns into a guinea pig for her special talent and is derisively pronounced SIDEKICK by the PE teacher. "Bite me," she says in her little high-pitched helium voice as she scuttles off-stage in guinea pig form. Bits like that occur throughout the movie.
It wouldn't be high school without girl-guy problems, and Will has to choose between his lifelong friend, Layla (Danielle Panabaker) and a brunette bombshell who's the most beautiful and popular girl in school (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Grace). But superhero flicks depend on villains, and just as Will has his nemesis (and a few other bullies to contend with) while he's trying to find himself, the villain in "Sky High" has a revenge scheme so kinky that it could have played out on the old Adam West "Batman" TV show. Without giving too much away, I'll simply say that it puts the Riddler, King Tut, and Mr. Freeze to shame, and ties in with Will's love problems as well. It's a clever concept and script that director Mike Mitchell and his talented cast and crew manage to pull off.
The 1080p Hi-Def picture (2.40:1 aspect ratio) looks pretty good-better than the standard release, which I also own. Though the color saturation is about the same, the black levels and level of detail are slightly improved. It's not a showpiece disc for Blu-ray, but a solid one for video quality nonetheless.
As is frequently the case with Blu-ray, the sound is pretty awesome. The timbre is robust, the bass/treble balance is great, and there's plenty of natural-sounding movement across the speakers. The featured audio option is English 5.1 Uncompressed Audio (48kHz, 16-bit), but there are also English, French, and Spanish options in standard Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
For a change, Blu-ray lovers don't have to be envious of the extras they're missing. The bonus features on the standard release were no great shakes. The best were an extensive alternate opening and a short feature on stunt work. Once again, though, you have to wonder who decides which of the extras go on Blu-ray and which are omitted. If it were me, those are the two I would have picked. The features on this disc are the excellent stunt-work extra that shows a lot of behind-the-scenes action, and a fluffy "making of" feature that's little more than a flimsy promo and doesn't show or tell you much about the film or its making. Those are the two extras on this disc. No deleted scenes or gag reel.
Included is a "movie showcase" function which plays the scenes which allegedly "showcase the ultimate in High Definition picture and sound." Excuse me for wondering, but doesn't that amount to an admission of unevenness? Here, that's not the case, but I frankly think this is a throwaway "feature."
Admittedly, "Sky High" is no "Spy Kids." The effects aren't as grand and high school drama takes center stage most of the time, not high adventure. But it's high school drama with a really fun twist. What angst-filled teen or 'tween wouldn't find comfort in watching budding superheroes go through the same growing pains as "normal" kids? It might be aimed at teens, but "Sky High" is fun for parents, too. The stars are engaging, the script is solid, and the effects look anything but low-budget.