Sunday, August 21, 2005

The New Yorker Eats her Words: Sky High is the sleeper hit of the summer.

If you recall a few months ago, I was railing against the Sky High trailer. Going back and rereading it, I sound pretty darn harsh, complaining about everything from the cheap looking FX to the inexperienced writers and actors. I even went as far as to say it gave a bad name to the superhero genre and looked like it lacked the slightest smidge of originality.

I was dead wrong.

Not only was Sky High a lot better than I thought it would be, it was actually a well done, enjoyable, funny movie. Better than a lot of the snooze-fest of films that have been rolled out this summer season. What made Sky High feel original, in my opinion, was that it didn’t take a superhero movie and put it in the context of a high school, (like parts of X-Men and Spiderman), rather it took a high school movie, and made it about characters who happened to be superheroes. It took the much used model of a teen movie about the young adult search for identity and romance, and plugged in characters with super powers and a fantastical setting, to yield charming results.

The movie centers around Will Stronghold, son of The Commander and Jetstream the two most powerful, successful, and well known superheroes in the whole world. Will is about to begin his freshman year at Sky High, a high school for teens with superhuman powers. His parents are thrilled that Will is going to attend their Alma Mater, and cannot wait to unleash the Stronghold Three to the world, the most powerful Superhero family ever. There’s only one problem…Will doesn’t have any powers. In this world, superheroes seem to attain their superhuman powers as they hit puberty. Will has watched powers of those around him bloom, --like his best friend Layla, who has the power to manipulate any and all vegetation, but he himself, remains “ordinary”. Terrified of what his parents would think if they discovered they had a powerless son, Will has hidden the fact that he has not yet found his superhuman strength (his father’s power) or learned to fly (his mother’s power). We travel with Will up to his new school, which is cleverly placed in… the sky, on a flying school bus, and watch as he navigates through all the perils of high school. Bullys, pretty girls, outcasts, popular kids, strange teachers, and of course, homework.

Sky High is very simple and straightforward, but the issues it does touch upon, it deals with nicely. Grounded in the age old theme of the popular vs. the losers, Sky High has its own brand of social hierarchy. All kids at the school are separated into two groups: Heroes and Hero support (aka sidekicks). Those with remarkable powers, such as superhuman speed, strength, intelligence, ability to manipulate one of the forces of nature, or shape-shifting are put into the hero classification. Those who are more limited in their powers, i.e.--can only shape shift into one particular item(such as a hamster), glow in the dark, or turn into a puddle at a moment’s notice, are dubbed sidekicks. All of the school is basically segregated into these two groups. There is a great scene where Bruce Campbell, who plays the over zealous gym teacher, Coach Boomer, calls upon each student in the gym, during what appears to be their version of gym class. He commands them to display their power in front of everyone, so that they may be placed properly on the right learning track – that of hero or sidekick.

I love that the filmmakers chose something as humiliating as gym class to be the forum where these kids must show their powers, which they themselves are not even well acquainted with yet. Coach Boomer is completely unapologetic with his bellowing declarations; he dubs them winners or losers without a second thought. Will of course is petrified that his secret of being powerless is to be revealed in front of all freshman, a moment that I could relate to, as I recalled former gym class days of my own where it was revealed to other students that I could not catch a ball if my life depended on it. Will is then sent to the school nurse, who tells him that he may just be a later bloomer, but that there is also the chance he may never develop any powers at all. Will’s fear that he may never obtain any superhero powers, is of course indicative of so many things we worry about when we are that age. Letting our parents down, growing up to be failures, lacking in a way that all others around us aren’t. So because Will can relate to being a non-hero, he happily bonds with his fellow sidekicks, appreciating their unique powers and off-beat and resilient personalities. He knows what its like to feel left out, even from his own family, and so he has no delusions of grandeur, or propensity for pompousness, and embraces the sidekicks (aka Hero Support) as his people. Will of course eventually does get his power, and is tempted away from his friends by the lure of the pretty senior class president, Gwen, and the newfound acceptance he found among the school once his powers appeared. In a neat sequence, Will wows the school in a match of “Save the Citizen” which I thought was a delightfully amusing conceit, where two teams of two play against each other (one team plays the villains, the other, the heroes) to either savethe citizen (played by a wooden dummy being lowered to its doom on metal spikes). In the end of course Will realizes the error of his ways, ditches the pretty girl (who turns out to be the Super Villain) and with the help of his sidekick friends saves the school.

One of the strengths of the film was the casting. Michael Angarano, who stars as Will Stronghold, puts forth a sweetly innocent and understated performance. He sells every choice his character makes in throughout the film, and its easy to root for him. Kurt Russell as The Commander, and Kelly Preston as Jetstream, are the wonderfully goofy yet apropos All American parents to Will. Their roles are funny because they were played as traditional parents first, and superheroes second. The rest of the kids all put in very solid performances, endearing and comedic. It was also fun to watch comedians and cult actors in the teacher roles, who looked like they were having a lot of fun. Kids in the Hall veterans Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, Bruce Campbell, Lynda Carter, Broken Lizard’s Kevin Heffernan, and Cloris Leachman. These actors and actresses brought great small flourishes to their roles, and made the film that much funnier and enjoyable to watch.

Sure the film was Disnified, and had the kids drinking sodas instead of beers at the parties, with making out toned down to respectable pecks, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong being that they audience they were going for were young kids (the movie had a PG rating). The ultimate message of the movie, “we can all be heroes” and “everyone is special” is certainly not that original or different, but went down surprisingly easy without feeling too cloying or sentimental. This movie was silliness of the best kind, it had moments of complete goofiness and ridiculousness, and even stupidity. But the film knew what it was, and has no aspirations to be any deeper or heavier than it was. For example, at one point, a member of the sidekick group, whose only power is her ability to change into a guinea pig, helps to save the day. She is the only one small enough to crawl through a pipe where a bomb has been rigged, and chews away at a wire to disconnect the timer on the bomb. At one point the guinea pig says out loud “this is so stupid” and yes in a way it is, but it is also funny, and I found myself laughing instead of questioning the logic of the plot perhaps because of the filmmaker’s admission of just how ludicrous it is. But that is the beauty of Sky High, it is a fantasy, a world where Superheroes commonly exist, and giant robots routinely attack urban centers. It is a fairy tale about growing up.

I think that often there is a backlash in the film world against movies with happy endings, which may seem to be unrealistically positive. I do not think this sentiment is without merit, because certainly darkness has its place among light. What I do find highly annoying are the films on the opposite end of the Hollywood happy ending syndrome, stories that have bitterness and melancholy just for the sake of itself. To me, these movies are just as egregious as the bland unrealistic syrupy adult romantic comedies churned out every year. (i.e. Just Like Heaven – dear God if I have to see that trailer one more time…. “I’m sensing some seriously intense feelings she might have for you bro!”) But there’s a difference between saccharin and sweet, the former feels fake and the latter is real; Sky High has characters and moments that make it authentic, not contrived.

This film ranks surprisingly high for me among the summer movies released this year -- go see Sky High, if you just sit back and let yourself enjoy it you will be surprised by how much you like it.

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