First, a word of explanation. It is always a trial for an adult reviewer to evaluate a film fairly if it was not intended primarily for adults. In some cases, adult reviewers report only on how they reacted to such a film themselves; in other cases, reviewers try to second-guess how the film's intended audience might react to it. Evaluating kids' films may, therefore, sometimes seem contradictory or self defeating. Yet it has always been my opinion that the best kids' films can appeal equally to adults as well as to children. Disney's animated features from "Snow White" to "Beauty and the Beast" and their live-action features from "Treasure Island" to "Spy Kids" bear this out. My policy has been to evaluate a kids' film based mainly on my own reaction to it, combined to a lesser extent on how well I think it might play for children, with my reactions in both instances clearly separated and marked.
Which brings me to Disney's latest kids' film, 2005's "Sky High," a film I enjoyed quite a lot and think might appeal to adults as well as children.
The writers of "Sky High" appear to have watched Pixar's "The Incredibles" and thought if it could be done in animation, it could be done in live action, too. That's not to say there's anything wrong with borrowing things from a first cousin, Pixar being distributed by Disney and all, and in this case the borrowing mostly works. The story concepts are much the same: In some kind of alternate universe people accept superheroes and super villains as commonplace; they depend upon the former to defeat the latter and save the world on a daily basis. In this universe lives young Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), whose parents are the greatest superheroes of all. I'll let him explain it in his own words: "In a world of superheroes there are two that stand above the rest--the Commander and Jetstream. His super strength makes him pretty much indestructable, and she has the power of supersonic flight, along with a total mastery of unarmed combat. By day they live as Steve and Josie Stronghold...but whenever duty calls, they're Commander and Jetstream."
Will has just one problem: He has no super powers of his own, and he doesn't think he can live up to the expectations of his famous parents. Worse, he's just entering a school, Sky High, for the children of superheroes, and he has yet to break it to his mom and dad or the school administrators that he doesn't think he has any super powers. It's a terrible dilemma for a young fellow who can't live up to others' hopes for him. "It's nice to know," says dad, "that whatever happens to me, you'll still be around to save the world." Will just wants to go away and hide.
The movie centers first on Will's adjustments to his new school and then settles into a conventional superhero vs. bad guys scenario. It's the first half of the movie that tends to meander the most, moving from episode to the next, but it's also the first half that is funniest and most touching.
Much of the movie's fun is watching the famous stars in key roles. Will's parents are played by Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston; the school's chief administrator, Principal Powers, is played by Lynda Carter (but Warner Bros. wouldn't let her use any part of her old Wonder Woman costume); the gym teacher, Coach Boomer, is played by Bruce Campbell, an old hand at good-humored fantasy adventures; Mr. Boy, a former superhero sidekick, is played by Dave Foley; the mad-scientist teacher, Mr. Medulla, is played by Kevin McDonald; Nurse Spex is played by Cloris Leachman; Sky High's bus driver, Ron Wilson, is played by Kevin Heffernan; and the voice the villainous Royal Pain is that of Patrick Walburton.
On Will's first day at Sky High, Mr. Boomer separates the freshmen into two groups: the up-and-coming superheroes--the ones with the strongest abilities--and the sidekicks--the flunkies and losers who merely assist the superheroes. Will, like Harry Potter, is at first looked up to by everyone at school as somebody special, until, that is, they all learn that he can't do anything special. He's relegated to sidekick status (and do we hear echoes of "Animal House" here?).
Among the kids Will associates with at school are fellow sidekicks Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who has control over plants; Zach (Nicholas Braun), who can sometimes glow; Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels), who can turn himself into a small glob of something-or-other; and Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who can transform herself into a hamster. Among the other students are Warren Peace (Steven Strait), whose father, a super villain, Will's dad put in jail; Speed (Will Harris) and Lash (Jay Sandvig), a pair of bullies; and senior Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the glamorous student body president who mesmerizes Will on the first day of school.
As I say, the first half of "Sky High" is the most fun, thanks to some clever writing and some engaging characters. Sidekicks, for instance, are not allowed to order hero sandwiches in the school cafeteria. Later, an official announces over the PA system, "There is no smoking on school grounds. Or freezing or bursting into flames."
I laughed quite a bit during this very cute film. Kurt Russell is entertaining parodying his own heroic movie roles, his character's ego here the size of a small state. For him to find out that his son may not have any super powers is a traumatic experience. But when Will does discover his abilities, no one is prouder.
Will's romantic conflicts are well handled in a predictable sort of way, and although Will's adventure battling Royal Pain is the stuff of most hackneyed action adventures, we expect such clichés as part of the movie's tongue-in-cheek tone.
"Sky High" pokes gentle fun at growing up, entering a new school, joining cliques, adjusting to friends and parents, dealing with peer pressure, and learning who you are. The movie is not perfect, but it is far more charming than I had thought it was going to be.
Disney's newfound policy of using a high bit rate in their transfers pays off with deep, dark, rich, if not particularly bright colors, with reasonably good definition and detailing. The transfer engineers render the screen size at dimensions close to the movie's original aspect ratio, here measuring a ratio about 2.17:1 across a normal television screen. There is virtually no added grain, and even moiré effects, shimmering lines, are kept to a minimum.
The audio is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics, and here, too, we find mostly good news. There are wide-ranging dynamics and a fairly decent frequency response to satisfy most audio buffs, with the bass thundering forth appropriately and all the channels on occasion lighting up. It's also nice to hear voices as crisp and clear as we find them here, along with a wide stereo spread. There is nothing particularly spectacular about any of this sound, but it serves the story well enough.
The disc comes with a variety of extras, most of them of the self-serving variety. Still, there's a little something for everybody. First, there's an alternate opening, about seven minutes long, that takes us back twenty years to Commander and Jetstream's first encounter with the evil Royal Pain. I'm not sure it would have added much to the story. Second, there are about four minutes of self-explanatory "Super Bloopers," some of them cute, most of them not. Third is a music video, "I Melt With You," by Bowling for Soup. And fifth and sixth are a pair of featurettes, "Welcome to Sky High," a fifteen-minute, behind-the-scenes promotional and "Breaking Down Walls: The Stunts of Sky High," a seven-minute special-effects segment. The extras conclude with twelve scene selections, plus a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
I have to admit, after sitting through several recent Disney live-action children's films, I was not exactly thrilled by the prospect of watching yet another one. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself enjoying "Sky High" as a delightful change of pace. It's derivative, to be sure, and runs out of steam well before its end, but it's fun nonetheless. And it has "sequel" written all over it.