It’s the classic anxiety dream — embarrassing yourself in front of the whole class on the first day of school. Now imagine that instead of being called upon to answer some question about the summer reading, you’ve been brought onstage to demonstrate your super-power. And you don’t have one. And the teacher who thinks you do have superpowers asks for a car to be dropped on you to demonstrate those powers.
That’s the fate of Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano of “Will and Grace” and The Lords of Dogtown). His parents are the greatest superheroes in the world. Their secret identities are suburban realtors, but in reality they are The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). He is superstrong, she can fly, and together they can defeat any giant robot, monster, or evil villain. They are excited about having Will attend their alma mater, Sky High, the school for the children of superheroes, and look forward to having him join them as a force for good. Will’s feelings about all of this are mixed. He’s proud of his parents, and he wants them to be proud of him. But he is also a teenager, which means he finds the whole thing more than a little embarrassing. “You see the defenders of the planet. I see my dad in red tights.”
Will’s best friend is Layla (pre-Raphael-ite beauty Danielle Panabaker). She has a pacifist/vegetarian outlook and the superpowers to go with it — she can make plants grow and do pretty much whatever else she wants them to. All the other kids seem to have grown into their powers. As the freshmen demonstrate what they can do, they are classified on the basis of their powers as either ***HERO*** or sidekick (sometimes referred to by the politically correct as “hero support”).
When Will is unable to demonstrate any powers at all, he is designated as a sidekick. He asks the school nurse (Cloris Leachman) when his powers might show up, and she tells him that while kids exposed to radiation or dunked in toxic waste get their powers the next day (“Or, they die”), kids with one or both superhero parents grow into theirs…usually. In at least one case, the child of superheroes never developed any powers whatsoever. Now he’s Sky High’s school bus driver.
Will likes his friends in the “hero support” class but he is afraid to let his parents down by telling them the truth. There are some bullies in the “hero” group who are giving him a hard time. Will is dazzled by a beautiful senior girl and doesn’t know if she even notices him. In other words, it’s just a typical high school, except the students can fly, freeze things, stretch like a rubber band, turn into a huge rock guy, melt into a puddle, become a one-girl cheerleading squad, or burst into flames.
Oh, and that flame guy? Even when he’s not literally smouldering, he seems to be. Turns out his father was a villain sent to jail by the Commander. So he’s waiting for the right moment to get some payback.
This is a great set-up and it really delivers, with a clever and perceptive script that is one of the best of the year for any-age audience. The dialogue is geniunely witty and, like Harry Potter, The Incredibles, and Spy Kids, the story makes the best possible use of its situation by putting the perils of adolescence and the pressures of family life on the same level with fights against monsters and giant robots and bad guys who want to take over the world. There really isn’t that much of a difference between a high school that classifies everyone as “hero” or “sidekick” and your average, every-day middle or high school with its intricately stratified in-crowd/out-crowd social hierarchy. And Will’s uncertainty about his superpowers is no different from any teenager’s feelings about assuming the “powers” of the grown-up world. All of this is handled with energy and good humor and a lot of panache.
Russell and Preston are perfect as loving parents who happen to be superheroes and as superheroes who happen to be parents. The young stars are all terrific, especially newcomer Steven Strait as the flame guy (named Warren Peace), Panabaker, Angarano, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the senior girl Will likes. They get great support from Leachman and from former Kids in the Hall castmates Dave Foley (A Bug’s Life, as a sidetracked sidekick and Kevin McDonald are the teachers, along with Lynda (“Wonder Woman”) Carter as the principal and cult hero Bruce Campbell as coach “Sonic” Boom.
The action sequences are fun without being too frightening (with one possible exception) and no one gets hurt. Even the bad guy is not too bad, with the worst of the dastardly deeds deliciously silly, not scary. It’s funny and fun and the best family movie of the summer.
Parents should know that the movie has some cartoon-style violence and peril. While no one gets hurt, some younger children might be frightened by some scenes, especially involving fire. It also includes some mild language, some potty humor and some teen kisses.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Will to tell his parents the truth. What can you do about groups in school who think they are better than other people?